By Gerry Hadden
The wave of unrest that is sweeping Arab North Africa is prompting the European Union to rethink its aid policy to the region. EU leaders are debating the possibility of a new aid program for North African countries committed to democratic reforms.
The goals would be to encourage democratic change and stabilize the region. But in the past, similar EU aid efforts have fallen short.
The talk of long-term aid to the region comes as European nations are considering the short-term implications of the unrest sweeping nations along the southern Mediterranean shores. Europe fears waves of desperate migrants arriving on its shores as a result.
Italy has already received thousands of Tunisians. It's bracing for a similar Libyan exodus. The short term European plan is to boost border patrols.
But in the long run, the EU wants to offer aid to develop what EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton calls "deep democracy" in the region. Ashton said that includes a range of things, "from judicial independence, the role of political parties, the capacity to ensure elections not just once but continuing."
The EU has not yet said just how big the aid package might be, or what countries would receive it. Some have talked about a sort of Marshall Plan. But Europe has been giving North African countries several billion dollars in annual development aid for decades already. And the results are at best mixed.
Victor Pou, an economist who studies the Mediterranean at the IESE business school in Barcelona, said traditional aid to the region has only lined the pockets of those in power.
"What's essential is to get money to the base of the economy, to the entrepeneur, the small businessman," Pou said. "This way these countries can develop on their own."
The BBC reports that a senior British official is calling for strict conditions on any further aid to the region. If steps towards democracy and transparency aren't taken, the official is quoted as saying, the aid would stop.
The EU has been trying to make its aid more effective. In 2008, it created an alliance called the Union for the Mediterranean, comprised of 43 nations. Its mission: to foster economic and security ties, as well as democratic development.
The Union for the Mediterranean set up shop at a posh address in Barcelona, Spain. But it never got off the ground. Members didn't come up with the money or the political will to support it.
The main obstacle has been the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict, which has divided Union members. Two heads of state summits in Barcelona had to be cancelled. And last December, the Union's Secretary General, Jordian diplomat Achmed Masara, quit in frustration.
"I have to say that I am not that happy that I could not get the budget that we wanted," said Masara. He said that reflects the willingness and the orientation that the Union's member countries have.
Another bad sign: the Union's co-president has stepped down as well. He resigned not just from his job with the group, but as President of Egypt as well.