A White Paper for a new Mediterranean and Euro-Arab dialogue

Concept Paper

Arab civil societies and their current preoccupations

Akram Belkaïd
Luis Martinez
Angélique Mounier-Kuhn

Global Studies Institute of the University of Geneva

Geneva, 15 January 2016

A new Euro-Arab dialogue based on listening to civil societies

This is urgent in the name of peace, peaceful cohabitation between peoples and the harmonious development of Europe and the Arab world. Five years after the popular uprisings of 2011 it is high time to take the pulse of a region whose population aspires more than ever to a better way of life, regardless of the incessant political, social and security problems. At this time of doubt and heartbreaking dissent on both sides of the Mediterranean it is imperative to lay the foundations of a new Euro-Arab dialogue based on listening to the expectations of the peoples of the Middle East and North African countries / MENA.

Created in 2013 in Geneva by prominent European figures and of Arab origin, the Foundation for the Promotion of Mediterranean and Euro-Arab Dialogue (FDMEA) is convinced that this new dialogue must involve the participation of the civil societies of the region. After the stalling of the Barcelona Process and the relative failure of the Mediterranean Union (UPM), only the recognition and broadest possible consideration of the aspirations expressed by these peoples will make it possible to provide the necessary impetus to create new perspectives for Euro-Arab cooperation.

In order to outline the contours of civil society in the Arab world and to draw up an inventory of its preoccupations and expectations vis-à-vis Europe, the FMDEA has given the Global Studies Institute (GSI) of the University of Geneva the mandate of piloting the necessary exploratory and consultative work. During the last few months of 2015, workshops bringing together a variety of representatives of civil society were organized in several Arab countries (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, and at Gaziantep in Turkey).

In a selection of other countries (Lebanon, Iraq, Gulf States) the approach work was carried out by means of discussions with universities or representatives of the civil authorities. Finally, part of the academic literature on the subject was reviewed by the editors of the report containing the summary and future prospects of the work.

Audacious as it may be, the approach advocated by the FDMEA, that of involving civil society, the so-called “bottom-up approach”, is based on solid foundations. The first part of the document published by the GSI in January 2016 contains a reminder that civil societies have often been an integral part of the reform process, particularly in the political sphere, regardless of whether the reforms in question were identified in advance or not.

The experience of Tunisian civil society which was mobilized in 2010/2011 to bring about change in the political regime, and which has since become a pillar of the transition to democracy and awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for this achievement, is the most emblematic illustration of this phenomenon. However, having ignored the expectations of Arab civil societies, their hopes but also their dynamics and changes, Europe proved unable to anticipate the sudden changes which occurred in 2011 – just as the attempts made in the past to strengthen inter-regional relationships (the Process of Barcelona; UPM et.) failed to reach their goals for lack of, in particular, any sufficiently in-depth preliminary consultation with the populations concerned.

The results of the first consultations with civil society carried out in the field in the autumn and winter of 2015 are presented in the second part of the document published by the GSI. They provide a contrasting picture of the civil societies in the Arab world, all of which have been fashioned by the particular historical, political, socio-economic and cultural context from which they have each emerged.  However, all share similar existential questions and have in common a certain number of structural, communal concerns, beginning with that of their financial resources, coupled with their desire for autonomy vis-à-vis their funding bodies.

One of the consequences of the various Arab springs and the tremendous socio-political and geo-strategic upheavals that they brought about in the region is a tendency to retreat into themselves which has manifested itself in these civil societies: preoccupations of an internal nature take precedence over those concerning relations with the outside world or any ambitions for international partnerships. The authors of the report were, nevertheless, of the opinion that the issues raised during the workshops did not exclude concerns which came to light in other observation work, such as those linked to questions of security, unemployment or the place of extremist Islamic movements.

The third part affirms that the present international turmoil, inertia, retreat into oneself or the status quo do not constitute desirable options, if only because interdependence between Europe and the Arab world needs no further confirmation, whether on the economic, energy, social, even demographic and cultural level. This interdependence touches the matter of security as well: since the emergence and territorial expansion of the Organization of the Islamic State (OIS) the threat has reached unprecedented levels. It threatens Europe just as much as the Arab world. The terrorist threat is not the only one which must be considered: extremists of all types are presently having a heyday. They risk creating, progressively, a rupture between the two zones, which must imperatively be held in check.

Consequently, the increase in political tension in Europe, the security response in the face of jihadist terrorism, populist and demagogic exaggeration in the face of the influx of refugees from the Near East, and equally, the obvious disenchantment of Arab civil societies, render the opening of a new Euro-Arab dialogue both essential and urgent.

To respond to this imperative requires taking original and innovating initiatives involving the civil societies of the countries in the region. The idea is not to take the place of the political authorities but to start from the notion that any governmental measures are necessarily confined to a small framework deriving from the demands, particularly security demands, of the immediate present. The re-opening of dialogue and the opening-up of new prospects of cooperation require the drawing-up of a “White Paper” which would constitute the first step in a process of negotiation leading to a new Framework Agreement on cooperation and security between Europe and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

This scheme is based on the model of the work undertaken in the 1980s by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), known also as the Brundtland Commission, whose report entitled Our Common Future had served as a basis for the work of the Earth Summit of 1982. This White Paper of civil society on Euro-Arab cooperation is to form the cornerstone of the foundation of new relations between Europe and the Arab world. As a true process of consultation it will make it possible to achieve the following four objectives:

  1. The fullest and most transparent consultation of Arab civil societies with regard to their expectations and demands,
  2. The availability of sufficient material to feed into the reflections and structure the debates on new, inter-governmental negotiations aimed at re-opening, reinventing and conducting Euro-Arab relations through a new “Final Euro-Arab Agreement on Cooperation and Security”,
  3. A contribution towards the structuring of Arab civil societies thanks to the benefits reaped from the consultation process,
  4. The development of a reflection aimed at creating a “Forum of Arab Civil Societies” charged with stimulating relations, cooperation and exchanges between all Arab civil societies, and with supporting the implementation of the Final Euro-Arab Agreement on Cooperation and Security..


  1. The strategic partnership sets up the Secretariat and ensures its funding (with the aid of the governments concerned)
  2. The Commission supervises the activities of the  Secretariat
  3. The Secretariat ensures the management, coordination and drafting of the White Paper
  4. The Commission endorses the White Paper
  5. The  Secretariat consults with the Euro-Arab civil society on the drafting of the White Paper
  6. The Commission contacts the governments and inter-governmental organisations in order to set in motion the intergovernmental negotiations
  7. The White Paper specifically makes proposals regarding the organisational arrangements of Euro-Arab civil society to enable it to participate in the inter-governmental negotiations
  8. The intergovernmental Secretariat establishes the contacts necessary for consultation with Euro-Arab civil society
  9. The governments and inter-governmental organisations ensure the organisation and management of the intergovernmental negotiations
  10. Euro-Arab civil society is included in the intergovernmental discussions
  11. The governments negotiate and adopt a Euro-Arab Agreement on Cooperation and Security

* FES Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
* DAFG – Deutsch-Arabische Freundschaftsgesellschaft
* IRIS – Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques
* CERI – Centre de recherches internationales de Sciences Po
* USJ – L'Université de Saint Joseph à Beyrouth