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SPRING programme 9 months on: time for much needed stock taking


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In response to the wave of change unfolding in its Southern Neighbourhood, the EU announced several initiatives reacting to the transitions in the region.  While my colleagues Faten Aggad and Alisa Herrero Cangas already gave a broad overview of EU’s initiatives in the region, I now focus on one of them, the SPRING programme (Support to Partnership, Reform and Inclusive Growth), adopted in September 2011. It earmarked € 350 Million to sustain the momentum building up in the Arab world, seizing the opportunity to support democracy and market-oriented economic reforms in the region.

The EU’s SPRING programme covered four countries (Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia) in 2011 and was then extended to the remaining Arab partners in the Southern Neighbourhood (Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Syria) in 2012. It draws on the new EU principle of ‘more for more’, i.e. that ‘more’ will be offered to countries showing greater commitment to reform. Nine months into the programme, it is time to start assessing its track record.

The good pupil of the SPRING programme is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Tunisia, the pioneer of the Arab spring. € 20 Million have been disbursed in 2011 (for support to economic recovery and reform priorities), and an additional € 80 Million will be allocated to Tunisia in 2012. In three other countries (Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco), the EU and Southern Mediterranean have agreed on allocations and are now at the stage of negotiating the details of the support initiatives.  Jordan secured a € 70 Million grant, 30 of which will be used for justice and education reforms, and the remaining 40 will be disbursed upon progress assessment based on EU-defined benchmarks. In Lebanon, € 30 Million were allocated to support reforms in institutions building, civil society support, good governance, electoral reforms and social justice. In Morocco, € 80 Million will be spend on promoting human development, employment and human rights, as the EU has just announced.

As regards Egypt, talks are set to start as soon as the new government will be operational, and the same applies to Libya. The laggard of the SPRING programme is Syria, where EU bilateral aid has been suspended altogether as a result of President Assad’s repression of popular uprisings.

Is SPRING the way forward?

The EU has been relatively fast in launching the SPRING programme. However, it will increasingly face considerable challenges should a number of questions not be properly addressed. These questions centre on to the multiple EU initiatives towards North Africa (and the Arab World more generally) since the Arab Spring.

  • To begin with, the EU has not clarified how benchmarking will happen in order to determine which countries qualify. As things stand, benchmarking seems to boil down to progress monitoring on adoption of new laws and legal frameworks. This would illustrate a short-term perspective on political and economic reforms, as the mere å of legal and governance frameworks is not the end game of democratic transitions – the real hurdle is the next step, the one to implementation and enforcement. Though the EU might turn an eye blind on it, based on political considerations.
  • More crucially, one should bear in mind that EU conditionality has only been a transformational tool in presence of concrete accession prospects for recipient countries. In these cases only, the final carrot of EU membership is big enough to trigger deep political reforms and bring about domestic change. Regardless of the amount of money on the plate, incentive-based conditionality as in SPRING cannot do more than accompanying local demand for democracy. But this poses the million-dollar question: do the Arab uprisings reflect a real demand for democracy, or a more immediate one for regime change? If, like many insiders suspect the latter is the right answer, how could the SPRING programme possibly deliver on its ambitions?
  • How the EU can strike a delicate balance between short-term and long-term initiatives is yet to be demonstrated. The SPRING programme resources, even if they are supposed to cover short-term actions just by nature of their short two year time-frame, have ambitions that can only be met in the long-term. For instance, concrete results are expected in the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms, democratic governance, freedom of association, expression and assembly and free press and media. The same applies to improvements in public administration, rule of law and fight against corruption, better regulatory framework for business, increased numbers of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs); as well as a reduction in internal social and economic disparities.

The fundamental question this raises is how do the different EU initiatives fit into a broader vision of the EU’s future relationship with the region, beyond the multiple initiatives such as the SPRING? If the SPRING programme is left in a vacuum, it is doomed to oblivion.


Nicola Tissi is Research Assistant at ECDPM’s Africa’s Change Dynamics Programme.


This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.

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Nicola Tissi


2012-07-09 16:37:58

Dear Esmé, Thank you for your reaction… The issue of transparency on the ‘more-for-more’ approach is a relevant one, and my personal thinking is that, if facts do not follow commitments, this approach will unfortunately remain an empty box. The issue –and not a new one- is that conditionality calls for appropriate monitoring mechanisms, based on indicators that track the empirical evidence on progress in a given area. But, like many insiders would argue, the EU seems to have shown little interest in this. While the choice of indicators is not obstacle-free (see for instance the controversial CPIA Index of the World Bank), a thorough benchmarking a sine qua non for success in conditionality policies. If that does not take place, funding decisions are likely to become political ones, dictated by arbitrary assessments and not by actual progress… While designing an appropriate benchmarking structure is a tricky matter, the aspect of ownership is pivotal: this should not be a donor-driven process. Brussels’ role is central but, ideally, CSOs from the Arab regions could propose some themselves, in fulfilment of their role as ‘watchdogs’ in this critical period. Speaking up in favour of dialogue fora specifically aimed at discussing benchmarking issues would be a first step. The question of EU support to civil society is certainly a complex one, and I’m glad to see that you brought it up: Brussels cannot afford to only fund organisations aligned to its values and vision of society, as this would interfere with domestic debates that lie at the core of democratic transitions (for an insight, see my post of 22 June). But let me point out that at this stage it may be too early to look for answers on this –much will be learnt on a trial-and-error basis in the coming period. I hope that this reply has properly addressed your remarks…

Esme Berkhout


2012-07-04 10:25:01

Dear Nicola, I think your blog poses very pertinent questions. Considering your statement that conditionality as in SPRING cannot do more than accompanying local demand for democracy - I am curiouw to hear your opinion on to what extent the EU should be transparent on the More for More policy, including benchmarks and indicators to monitor/assess progress - and how the EU should support citizens/CS in their role as 'watchdog'. You use the word 'accompanying', but what if you would add to this the word 'reflect' – (How) do you think the EU should ensure that the benchmarks/indicators are set in consultation with civil society in country (country-specific)? After all, the (new) governments in the region should be held to account by its citizens (and not primarily the EU) for implementation and enforcement of laws and legal frameworks in the country.

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Nicola Tissi