1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
stacks of bank notes
Cash flowed unhindered to autocratic African leadersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Lining pockets

May 17, 2011

The EU is under fire for spending billions on projects that failed to boost democracy in North Africa. Can it make good on a promise to change its ways?


The European Union is under fire for squandering billions on autocratic regimes in North Africa and the Middle East while failing to boost democracy.

A report by Open Europe, a think tank, says the EU did not enforce its demands for reforms in return for ever greater funding and direct aid to the region.

"The EU has spent over 13 billion euros between 1995 and 2013 on funding in the region but it consistently put [its own] security ahead of democracy," says Pieter Cleppe of Open Europe. He says vast flows of cash went to regimes that "the European Commission had itself criticized for being corrupt."

"There was no system of checks and balances," he added.

Michael Emerson, of the European Policy Centre in Brussels, concurs, explaining that prior to the Arab Spring, the EU had opted for stability in the region rather than striving for change.

"The EU has not acted according to its own principles of supporting democratic reform. They bought into the arguments of Mubarak, Ben Ali and others that their leadership should be supported as the bulwarks against Islamic fundamentalism," he said.

Rhetoric vs. reality

Tunisian leader Ben Ali
Tunisia turned a blind eye to good governanceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In an example of this contradictory policy, the EU agreed in 2004 to provide some 100-150 million euros ($140-210 million) in annual aid to Egypt on condition that Cairo pursue economic and democratic reforms. Yet even when that pledge was glaringly violated during elections in 2005 and later again in 2010, the EU uttered not a squeak and the aid continued.

"There's a huge disconnect between our rhetoric and the reality," said Ana Gomes, a Socialist member of the European Parliament from Portugal. "While we have talked up our role in promoting democracy and human rights, we've been in the business of supporting dictatorships."

One of the most scathing findings is that over one third of EU funding went directly into government coffers in the form of so-called budget support.

In 2009, the report says Egypt and Tunisia received a combined total of 169 million euros in budget support, representing around 80 percent of the EU's overall funding for those countries. This, despite Commission demands that any recipient should meet "strict" criteria on good governance and administration.

"We know now that those demands were not met and that [deposed Tunisian leader] Ben Ali was able to personally enrich himself with EU money, as were others," said Cleppe.

Waste without a trace

Jan Techau, the director of Carnegie Europe, agrees there was a "lot of waste" and that much of the EU's funding vanished without a trace.

"There's no doubt this happened a lot. The problem for the EU is that it's really hard to find counterparts in these countries other than the governments," he said.

"There was really very little the EU could do, as it could not really coerce those governments, nor could it just cut the money as then everyone criticized it for not doing enough."

European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fuele
Stefan Fule: drawing lessons from the pastImage: AP

The European Commission has defended its record, by pointing out that it was "the first to acknowledge the shortcomings of our policy" earlier this year, when revolts spread from Tunis to Cairo.

But it has sharply rebuffed claims that no money was spent on funding civil society groups, calling the report a "caricature of our policy."

Stefan Fule, the EU's Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy, admits that the EU "often felt frustrated by the lack of political reforms… and violation of human rights […]. However, the serious shortcomings of a government do not justify isolating a population, punishing its youth and leaving it only in the hands of despots or dictators."

Michael Emerson of CEPS adds that it was not the Commission but EU member states that had willingly turned a blind eye. "The Commission would have liked to have been more corrective but was told by European capitals that it should keep out."

Turning the page

The Commission is now preparing a full review of its neighborhood policy, taking into account the "lessons learned" from the Arab Spring. "We're working on more conditionality and working more with civil society," said spokeswoman Natasha Butler.

Carnegie's Jan Techau says he is hopeful that the "grandiose failures" of the past may now be redressed. "The big difference is that there are more receptive governments who are really interested in change in their own countries, take Egypt and maybe Tunisia. So the idea of conditionality can work again as you are working with people who want change themselves," he said.

However, the review has been delayed time and time again amid reported squabbling between Fule and the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who reportedly disagree on the direction that the overhaul should take.

Author: Vanessa Mock, Brussels
Editor: Martin Kuebler

Skip next section Explore more