EU Policy Impact and Public Perception in the MENA Region

The Arab Transformations Working Paper Series No. 11

65 Pages Posted: 24 Jan 2017 Last revised: 10 Oct 2017

See all articles by Pamela Abbott

Pamela Abbott

School of Education, University of Aberdeen

Andrea Teti

University of Aberdeen

Date Written: January 22, 2017


This working paper considers relations between the region and the European Union, something on which the ArabTrans survey was specifically designed to offer information. We supplement the ArabTrans survey by drawing on data from Waves II (2010/11) and III (2013) of the Arab Barometer and from the Gallup World Poll for 2011 and 2014. The Report considers what impact the policies pursued by the EU and its member countries have had on the lives of people living in four countries in the region - Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia - and how they view the EU and its involvement with their countries. It considers ordinary people’s attitudes to the EU and its policies but also discusses what ordinary people want and the extent to which EU policies address these concerns.

In 2010-11 an unprecedented wave of popular protests and demands for regime change spread across the MENA region. In the media and in scholarly literature it was frequently explicitly or implicitly assumed that what people were demanding was Western-style democracy, understood as free and fair elections and the rule of law alone. In the wake of the ‘Arab Spring,’ many called for a ‘paradigm shift’ in the EU’s approach, to place greater priority on encouraging democratic transformations in the region rather than tacitly supporting authoritarian rulers seen as essential bulwarks against instability in the region.

However, analysis of EU policy documents published in the wake of the Uprisings shows that in practice it remained much as it had been before 2011. It tends to assume that what the EU has to offer is sufficient to encourage authoritarian rules to undertake democratic reforms, while failing to acknowledge that in the past it has failed to implement conditionality clauses designed to provide incentives for reform, nor had it imposed sanctions for lack of progress on democratisation and recognising human rights. Beyond this the type of economic reforms it is clearly envisaging are the very neo-liberal reforms that created the economic conditions that drove people to revolt in 2011. The EU, along with its allies and the media, continues to misread the causes of the Uprisings as popular demands for liberal democracy rather than as a revolt against the negative social and economic impact of neoliberal economic policies.

Public opinion surveys in the region, including the ArabTrans survey, show that people’s priorities were and remain decent jobs, economic security, adequate public services and the rule of law rather than solely the narrowly defined civil and political rights characteristic of ‘democracy promotion’ policies by Western governments. What the people were expressing was deep dissatisfaction with the effects of the economic policies which the EU and its Western allies had encouraged, cajoled and incentivised the MENA countries to implement from the 1980s. Given this context, it is not surprising that the EU is seen by respondents as complicit in creating the very conditions against which protesters in the Uprisings revolted.

The EU’s pursuit of policies which do not recognise or adapt to popular needs and demands have predictably produced considerable disenchantment with the EU and particularly with its claim to be a ‘normative power’ committed to democracy. Few respondents wanted the EU to promote its brand of ‘thin’, procedural democracy in which civil and political rights remain uncoupled from social and economic rights. Few respondents thought the EU had done a good job of facilitating transitions to democracy in their country, and few had much appetite for EU leadership. A majority of respondents were not aware of what support the EU is actually providing to their country, but a majority of those who had heard about EU programmes were positive about development assistance. Their preferred targets for development aid, however, were job creation, economic development and the improvement of basic services.

Keywords: Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Arab Uprisings, European Union, EU Neighbourhood Policy, Democracy, Economic Rights, Political Rights, Development Assistance

JEL Classification: D63, F51, N45, N47

Suggested Citation

Abbott, Pamela and Teti, Andrea, EU Policy Impact and Public Perception in the MENA Region (January 22, 2017). The Arab Transformations Working Paper Series No. 11, Available at SSRN: or

Pamela Abbott (Contact Author)

School of Education, University of Aberdeen ( email )

Aberdeen, Scotland
United Kingdom

Andrea Teti

University of Aberdeen ( email )

Dunbar Street
Aberdeen, Scotland AB24 3QY
United Kingdom


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