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ACHRS attending roundtable discussion in Berlin on the relationship between EU and MENA regions

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This Monday, October 10, 2017, the German Development Institute held a roundtable discussion focusing onthe ‘Perspectives for a renewed partnership between Europe and the Middle East and North Africa’. Hosted in the European House in Berlin, the panelists discussed how European countries could help to improve development in the MENA region, especially how development cooperation could promote positive values such as democratic governance and human rights. As these topics are extremely important for the Amman Center for Human Rights Studies, Morten Hansen, the international relations coordinator of the Center, participated in the event.

The discussion started out with an opening remark by Marcus Löwe, leader on the project ‘Stability and development in North Africa and the Middle East’. Löwe stressed the fact that the EU is the biggest donor to the MENA region, and that this gives huge possibilities for positive influence. This, he said, needs to be remembered as the aid and development funds given to the MENA region is often framed as driven by fear of migration and terrorism. To kick off the panel-discussion, Löwe mentioned the paradox that the EU seems to spend millions of Euro in the MENA region without much visible effect, and asked how the EU and European countries should proceed.

Christina Bögemann-Hagedorn, head of Directorate, Civil Society, Economic Policy and Private Sector, Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Bonn, Germany, was the first panelist to comment. She stressed that we, as donors, cannot do everything, and that change must come from the inside, but also that transformation takes time, and we, therefore, should not give up in face of problems. 

Mark Furness, senior researcher at the German Development Institute, commented on the influence of the EU in the region, especially the impact of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which Furness saw as having close to no impact. In his view, the ENP never put enough on the table to make dictators give up some of their power, and when the Arab uprisings happened, it showed the total irrelevance of the ENP. However, after the Arab uprisings, the ENP framework seems to be much more coherent, focusing on matters of security and toning down the focus on democracy.

Intissar Kherigi, Ph.D. student in Comparative Political Sociology at Sciences Po in Paris and co-founder of the Tunisian Jasmine Foundation, tried to show the perspective from the streets of the MENA-region, stressing that political and economic development must go hand in hand to create real progress. Too much, in her opinion, is spent on trying to create political change, while the economies are often left behind.

Gilbert Achcar, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, criticized the EU for expecting democracy to come from the inside while having strong political ties to leaders such as Mubarak and even Ghaddafi. He also slammed the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which EU is a part of, for aggressively having forced countries in the MENA region into economic reforms that have contributed to catastrophic low growth and deterrence of the economic situation, leading not to a better situation, but only resulting in more crony capitalism. Achcar also commented on the seeming hypocrisy of the EU-states that only pay lip-service to human rights when donating aid. Instead of economic conditionality, Achcar said, emphasis should be put on political conditionality. Strengthening the civil society, like the Workers Union, is a key to positive transformation.

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In the end of the discussion, the different panelists came with their own visions of what the EU and the European countries should focus on when trying to create a positive development in the MENA-region.  Bögeman-Hegedorns focus was on strengthening Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). This was supported by Intissar Kherigi, but she stressed that it should be more than just supporting a lot of projects. Rather, the focus should be on supporting those CSOs that could hold their governments responsible. Furness pointed to the fact that currently security primarily shapes the EU’s visions and policies, and that if you want to create a positive change, EU should practice “living your values”. Finally, Gilbert Achcar said that a new vision should revolve around less intervention in the economic and more in the political politics of the countries and that topics like weapons sales should be linked to human rights. He, however, ended rather pessimistic by stating: ‘that is not how business in Europe works'.            

What can we learn from the discussion?

We, at the Amman Center for Human Rights Studies, welcome the debate on a new development strategy for the EU towards the MENA region. Being a human rights organization based in the Middle East, we believe that the EU could do more to pressure the leaders to make more reforms. We fully agree that the EU must ‘live their values’ in order to create a trustworthy image, both among leaders and populations in the MENA region. We also appreciate the focus given to CSOs and highly recommend that CSOs be supported, not only on a project-based method but consistently, to ensure that CSOs can pressure and hold their respective governments accountable. Lastly, we also fully agree that the initiatives by the EU must have a holistic approach, meaning that different subjects such as weapons sale and pressuring for human rights must be thought of in an integrated framework. We firmly believe that change and reform can only happen if the pressure that the civil society is putting on the governments from the inside, is bolstered and supplemented by pressure from organizations like the EU. We, at the ACHRS, strongly believe that change is possible, and we urge the EU and the European countries to take action to help make a positive change in the MENA region.