EU-MENA Policies and Democratic Sustainability  

Daniela Huber

Source: European Union

Upgrading the substance and terms of MENA associations with the EU can facilitate democratic sustainability, to address socio-economic issues that transcend borders including youth marginalization, unemployment, and migration that transcend borders.

This commentary briefly considers how EU relations with its Southern neighbors, including countries like Tunisia, play out in issues relating to youth marginalization, unemployment, and migration.  Addressing such socio-economic needs is key for instantiating processes of democratic sustainability. Questions arise, however, regarding the extent to which association or partnership with the EU facilitates meeting the development needs of its MENA counterparts.

The MENA ‘Youth Bulge’

 Youth-policies have become part and parcel of EU policies, both in and outside the EU, since the 2000s. The EU sought to address what it framed as the “youth bulge” in MENA vis-a-vis “demographic aging” in the EU. Youth so became increasingly politicized and targeted through youth-policies, as well as youth-relevant policies such as labor, gender, family, migration, or counter-terrorism policies. As I have argued elsewhere, whilst migration and counter-terrorism policies have securitized youth  – and young men in particular – in MENA, labor, gender and family policies have been framed within the neoliberal development paradigm. This mirrors a “flexicurity approach” in which the labor market becomes more “flexible” (i.e. precarity of labor increases), coupled with policies to match the “employability” of workers with the needs of the market (which in turn is heavily structured by trade with the EU, see below). Regarding gender, EU-supported policies seek to mainly foster the entrance of young women in the so-called “productive” labor market (an approach which sidelines their unpaid care work).

None of these EU-supported policies implemented in the past decade by states such as Tunisia and Morocco – among the most closely associated with the EU – have, however, resulted in resolving unemployment and precarious employment (self-employment, unpaid care work, irregular work etc). To the contrary, the youth unemployment rate in Tunisia in the first quartile of 2022 stood at 36% for women and almost 40% for men. This unemployment is a major driver for informal employment. In 2019, informal employment was at 44.8 percent of total employment in Tunisia, affecting in particular rural areas. Notwithstanding this failure of development policies, the overall neoliberal development model has never been questioned. The EU and international financial institutions typically argue that the problem lies in the insufficient or not fully implemented regulatory reforms by  these MENA states.

Neoliberal Failures

However, research has also pointed to other explanations, particularly related to the structure of trade with the EU. Whilst Tunisia represents 0.5% of the EU’s trade, Tunisia is trade dependent on the EU which accounted for 70.9% of its exports and 48.3% of its imports in 2020. Analyzing this trade, Chahir Zaki and Nora Abou Shady have pointed out how Arab countries’ trade with the EU is chiefly concentrated in low-value-added goods and traditional sectors. ( the authors also point to promising exceptions in the exports of electrical machinery and equipment from Tunisia and Morocco). This export from Arab countries is characterized by low job creation and a persistent gender gap. In addition, such  economic dependency is often seen as problematic from a democracy perspective. As a Moroccan interviewee in the MEDRESET project pointed out, the economic

dependence of southern economies on northern economies has a direct impact on the distribution of wealth. The peoples of the southern side of the Mediterranean are not consulted; no one asks them for their opinion on economic choices; political will is censored. The solution resides in democracy; it is the only way to give people the possibility to choose their fate.

A Gateway to Populism

However, even in democracies, there is not always an effective socio-economic alternative. As Eva Wegner and Francesco Cavatorta have shown, “there are virtually no differences in economic attitudes” between Islamist and secular parties in the Arab world, when it comes to socio-economic/development approaches, concerning both globalization and democracy. The dividing line is not  economics, but gender/identity issues. As a result, crucial socio-economic demands in society are not processed through the political system, which thus fails to respond to the most pressing issues that drove the 2011 protests. This has not only led to waves of unrest and protest , but also undermined social trust in the political system in Tunisia, helping populism to thrive. Similar to the case of European populism, populism in Tunisia – despite  claims to represent the “people” – does not solve socio-economic questions, but thrives on identity issues. Like European populists,  the Tunisian President Kais Saied has turned against the most marginalized, that is African migrants living in Tunisia. He has argued that there is “a criminal arrangement prepared since beginning of this century to change Tunisia’s demographic composition”. This does not only mirror the rhetoric of European ethnocentric populism, but – as Federica Bicchi has pointed out – also “seriously challenges the EU policy in the Southern Neighborhood”, its readmission agreements, and the training and funds it has provided to states in the Southern Mediterranean to stop migrants from crossing northward into Europe. 

Multi-dimensional, Intersectional Democracy

In conclusion, key for sustainable democracy in Tunisia, in the MENA region and in the EU, might be some critical reevaluation. It would be beneficial to think about democracy and the economy together; to think about it outside the neoliberal box which has not helped solve socio-economic and political marginalization; and to think about it intersectionally, with sensitive to how marginalization’s overlapping dimensions include youth, gender, core/periphery, and migrants. EU policies are entangled with all these dimensions, particularly through trade, development and migration policies.