Brussels: The European Union will make aid and market access for neighbouring countries more closely dependent on democratic reforms under an overhaul of its funding programmes presented on Wednesday.
The reforms to the bloc’s approach to countries in the Middle East, North Africa and the former Soviet bloc -- known as the European Neighbourhood Policy -- come as the West looks for ways to spur democracy in the Arab world.
The issue will feature at a summit of G8 leaders in the French resort of Deauville on Thursday, when they are expected to approve billions of dollars in aid for Tunisia and Egypt and seal an agreement to back change in other states in the region.
Europe’s reforms amount to a tacit admission that aid efforts in the past were not always successful in promoting democracy.
They address critics who say pro-democracy unrest across Europe’s immediate neighbourhood in 2011 has raised questions about EU policies that tended to support stability over change, helping autocratic leaders to remain in power.
“The EU will work with our neighbourhood within the principle of mutual accountability, recognising the responsibility to deliver to the people of the region and to use our resources on behalf of the European tax payer effectively,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told a news briefing.
Under the new rules -- if they are approved by EU governments and the European Parliament -- the amount of cash available to the 16 countries participating in the programme will depend on how far and how fast reforms are implemented.
Conditions for aid will include the quality of electoral processes, press freedom, independence of the judiciary, efforts to combat corruption and the extent of government control over armed and security forces.
The EU hopes the reforms will lend it more influence over countries in its immediate vicinity and translate into economic development that will cap migratory pressures to Europe.
The events in North Africa, in particular a bloody uprising against Gadhafi’s four-decade rule in Libya, have driven thousands of people to flee the region and raised concerns that many will seek refuge and jobs in Europe.
The EU executive is also proposing that EU governments give a range of trade, travel and industrial incentives to participating states to bolster their economies and have more impact on decisions they make.
“We must respond by opening our markets and sharing our prosperity with those who are serious about reform,” Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague said in London.
However, many EU governments are likely to oppose too much market access for developing states with competing industries.
They could also block the Commission’s proposal for visa incentives to countries that promise to curb illegal migration, as fiscal austerity is making citizens more hostile to newcomers.
“The proposed ‘carrots´ of increased mobility ... better market access and more funds will remain empty promises if member states fail to buy-in,” said Franziska Brantner, a German member of the European Parliament, from the Greens group.
“In the context of budget cutbacks ... it is clear that this will not be easy,” she said.