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The Arab Spring phenomenon and European security

By George Voskopoulos, Associate Professor, Department of International and European Studies University of Macedonia. Full title: The Arab Spring phenomenon and European security: change and continuity under the spectrum of securitized idealism.


European security has historically been linked to the expectations – capabilities gap of the EU, as we;; the EU’s role as a normative power as reflected by the conscious choices made by European leaderships. Treaties have been the defining parameters of the operational ability, cognitive potential and institutional capacity of Europe to play a normative role in world politics. The Arab Spring phenomenon has illustrated the actual potential of the EU to act in a uniform way. It has also shown that when inherent European idealism clashes with the realities of international politics, securitized idealism becomes the only viable choice. The concept bears a value security oxymoron and is based on the need to balance security needs and the desire to spill over democracy in the Arab world.

European Security formulation as an outcome of the EU’s unique institutional paradigm

The European security blueprint was set in the early 1990s with the Maastricht Treaty and was defined as Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). It was the evolutionary result of the European integration process and the multilevel, multilayer collective efforts, at the intergovernmental level, to achieve convergence of fra gmented national interests of the European nation-states. Operationally it meant to allow a sui generis union of states to function in an orchestrated way, which appeared to be ideologically and institutionally compatible with the joint sovereignty doctrine.

According to the aforementioned power transfer model, “participation in the Community does not entail power transfers but only a pooling of sovereignties by the member-states”(1) . This cautious and realistic step reflected the priorities of EU member-states, which appeared reluctant in transferring sovereignty over matters of high politics, resulting in the slow advancement of the Second Pillar of European integr ation. The steps taken were in essence an institutional evolution of the European Political Cooperation (EPC) notion elaborated in the early 1970s. In the beginning of 1990s, this integrative effort took the form of a written minimal consensus in Maastricht and nominally (2) set a twofold parallel aim: political and economic integration, in a way that multi-level interdependence and the pursuit of common goals would guarantee peace in Europe.

After the end of the Cold War, threats acquired different forms and intensity and emerged on a regional level under differentiated political and social circumstances as well as the Arab uprisings. Security systems and sub-systems appeared to be in transition a fact that had an impact on European, regional and global security a fact that enhanced uncertainty. As a result of the new security given, the nature, intensity and diversity of threats changed and multiplied, particularly in zones of turmoil and war. This provided new input into the security equation and eventually brought the EU closer to the idealism-pragmatism dilemma of international politics.

According to a conventional state-centric definition, foreign policy “consists of the external actions taken by decision-makers with the intention of achieving longrange goals and short-term objectives. Action is constrained by the perceived circumstances of the state on behalf of which the decision-makers are acting – its geography, its economy, its demography, its political culture, culture and tradition, its military-strategic situation”(3) . In effect the definition overtly or covertly describes the multilayer prerequisites for a policy-making efficiency framework as well as the desired institutional, cognitive and operational ground on which common approaches to foreign policy and security issues had to be formulated.

In the process, the EU has not clearly set a defined “long-range goal”, which directly refers to its teleological ambiguity. European political elites have not defined the eventual aim of the integration process a fact that per se makes foreign policy goals unclear and allows them to be formulated on a state-centric axis. After the end of the Second World War this was defined within the then geopolitical setting and the need to establish “an ever closer union of peoples”. Today this has been achieved. Yet, despite the realization of the original goal, Europe has failed to define its post Cold War objective, a reformed raison d’ être in the new changing international setting. This vagueness was evident in several regional crises such as the Balkans, Lebanon and at a later stage during the events that caused the Arb Spring turmoil.

On the operational level, it is evident that a European system of politically sovereign states cannot by default produce a genuinely common approaches to security issues due to major incompatibilities in the field of “political culture and tradition” that imply divergent views on the macrostrategic planning level. This inability describes a major cause in the capabilities-expectations field stemming from its peculiar actorness(4) . If the EU is to act as a pivotal player in international politics it needs basic elements-prerequisites(5) of implementing common policies, namely:

1. Capability (internal human and material resources, organizational potential, political will)

2. Purpose

3. Means (military, institutional, financial)(6)

The above describe a policy-making capacity framework not disposed by the EU7 , which is not a “United States of Europe”, nor a uniform political actor acting in an orchestrated way. As a result, actions decided on the EU level cannot take the form of “policies” since “for an action to constitute policy it must essentially take the form of concrete measures, other than merely verbal statements”(8) . The suggestion actually depicts the early responses of the EU to the Arab Spring phenomenon and the way they externalized inherent setbacks of a union of politically autonomous states expressing divergent national interests formulated under the impact of contending needs.

The EU’s early response to the Arab Spring was formulated on the need to co ntrol migration to Europe(9) . In effect the reaction of European leaders to migrants and asylum-seekers bore similarities to the Balkan crisis of the 1990s.

European Security organizational structure and the Arab Spring phenomenon

The term Arab Spring bears particular semantics and directly or indirectly refers to multilayer waves of politico-economic changes on a multilevel framework. These changes came forward as a means of the internal activation of social, religious and political forces struggling for power, power re-distribution or domination. The terms of engagement in this multifaceted interplay of multiple actors are defined, inter allia, by the degree of homogeneity of the Arab world (10) and the level of parcelisation of an assumingly compact in behavioural and cognitive terms milieu. Divergence in goals, aims and an incompatible conceptualization of domestic order led to an intensified internal conflict, resulting in a perplexed hetero.

A fragmented Arab World found itself in a state of multilevel internal transition resulting in the coming to power of three Islamist-led governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The final outcome of regime change was determined by a clash of wills, a clash of abilities, the power to attract and internal capacity. The will and ability of those who challenged and eventually overthrew the old regimes to structurally impose a post-autocratic domestic order as well as the ability of a diversified secular and Islamist milieu to politically capitalize victory and impose a new organizational structure. Transitional phases are by default non-permanent and may not provide all the required structural clues for sound forecasting. This very fact imposes a thorough analysis of the terms of domestic power struggle, underpinning the potential of the forces involved (i.e. Islamists and secularists) as well as the degree the pillars of domestic order (i.e. Egyptian Army) will be able to retain a privileged status within the newly established order. Transition times critically define whose interests will be most served and who is going to advance a political order closer to their own image of governance, secular or Islamist. Operationally, constitutionally and cognitively the issue refers to the traditional international relations question of who gets what, when, where. Within this fluid domestic environment he EU’s capacity to influence internal changes was not only limited but also undesired, since it would risk to intensify the conflict. As a result, inaction or limited action was imposed by restraints related to European goal ambiguity but also fluidity in the Arab world.

The Arab Spring phenomenon has been an ongoing process of internal transformation that bears multilevel consequences for international security. The space dimension of the issue makes it a challenge for European security11 and tests the ability of European partners to engage in common positions and adopt a unified strategy. As underpinned, “over the last year, the shortcomings within the EU’s security policy towards its southern neighbourhood have dramatically come to the fore”(12). The suggestion does not only imply that there are major policy divergences among EU partners but also that the motives of a civilian power using soft power need to be reevaluated under the impact lack of will to risk direct involvement.

The importance of the region for European security is great, yet a number of defining parameters have not allowed European partners to engage in a constructive and above all unified way. These parameters may be categorized in two pillars, namely intra-Mediterranean and intra-European. Both bundle of issues externalized the difficulties of the EU partners to agree on a common strategy and above all common action, although adopting a common position over general issues was easier.

Within the first inner bundle come the domestic peculiarities of the Arab political systems and societies involved in the process of internal re-organization. In terms of political culture these domestic political and religious forces are by far and by default different from the conventional European political systems. Their role as agents of political socialization is based on means and processes unfamiliar to Europeans. This makes involvement and / or engagement extremely difficult, since, a contending cognitive bias, as well as distorted at times evaluative judgments, operate as setbacks to understanding what is at stake domestically. European normative choices (i.e. support for democracy) clashed with the emerging security agenda.

Suggested Citation:

Voskopoulos, George, The Arab Spring Phenomenon and European Security: Change and Continuity under the Spectrum of Securitized Idealism (July 7, 2015). Available at SSRN: or


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