Comment

EU - Southern Partnership: the path ahead

Ghazi Ben Ahmed / Jan 2022

Photo: Shutterstock

 

Following the announcement made on 13 December 2021 by the President of the Republic of Tunisia, Mr Kaïs Saied, concerning the roadmap restoring institutional stability and balance, the European Union reaffirmed its willingness to support Tunisia, as a close partner, on the path of democratic consolidation.

While the EU’s policy responses to Tunisia's transition has evolved in line with the shifting challenges that the country has faced, they have produced disappointing results in supporting Tunisia to address its socioeconomic challenges and failed to strike a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. Communication has been the missing link to economic reform programs. Not enough energy was dedicated to understand stakeholder groups (their motivations, perceptions, and aspirations) and the consensus-building role, which is critical to mitigate political risk and to implement programs that will be accepted by stakeholders.

We need more ambitious EU policies in Tunisia as well as in the wider Southern Mediterranean region in order to engage in developing a positive story based on communication and ownership and deliver together the scale of action that is needed.

The New Agenda for the Mediterranean signals a new beginning in the Euro-Mediterranean relations. It is built taking into consideration common interests and common challenges. It demonstrates also that Europe wants to contribute directly to a long-term vision of prosperity and stability of the Southern partnership, especially in the socio-economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. To help achieve this goal, the EU has put in place last year a new EU Economic and Investment Plan for the Southern Neighbourhood, which aims to allocate up to €7 billion for the period 2021-2027 in the region order to mobilise up to €30 billion in private and public investment in the next decade.

While wide-ranging discussions about what North and South Mediterranean countries can achieve together took place, EU officers often assume that once audiences understand the benefits of reform, they will support it. But experience has shown that simply educating audiences and disseminating information does not result in reform acceptance or ensure its adoption.

So if benefits outweigh the costs, why do reform programs so often encounter resistance? Some reasons highlighted by the World Bank include:

+ Key stakeholders have a poor understanding of the issue and how it affects their own self-interest.

+ The soundest technical design cannot bring about change if those implementing the changes, and who will live with those changes, do not understand, accept, and take ownership in the new policies or regulations.

+ While reforms may benefit many, they can greatly disadvantage a few who enjoy privilege and can form a very vocal minority.

+ Weak transmission channels from stakeholders to decision-makers. There may be few institutionalized mechanisms for stakeholders to communicate their wishes to key decision-makers.

The EU should therefore devote more time and resources in order to building effective and strategic communications campaigns to support policy advocacy and reform implementation. They should draw from both research and case studies to highlight good practices and identifies lessons of experience from a range of EU initiatives. The EU should use strategic communications mechanisms to tackle reform challenges and highlights successes, innovation, and instances where communications should have been introduced. Achieving a sustainable business enabling environment and ensuring that stakeholders buy into reforms would help implementing the Agenda for the Mediterranean and boost sustainable economic development and build more inclusive and equal societies.

One good example to illustrate this new approach is the climate change, which is already causing major distress to Mediterranean societies, economies and infrastructure, affecting food and water security and regional stability. To fight climate change, the EU has an ambitious Green Deal agenda, which entails buying large quantities of green electricity in the future. While, it makes sense to work together on the green transition to make use of the abundant sun, wind and water resources that exist in the Mediterranean region and build an entirely new energy system, based no longer on oil and gas, but on green electricity and hydrogen, a holistic approach to stakeholder engagement and communications is needed to inform, persuade, engage, and gain support of key audiences and also identify and prioritize key reform stakeholders.

Moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is as much a necessity for our common future as it is an opportunity for economic diversification and growth on both shores of the Mediterranean but still it requires to identify what changes in behavior will enable reform; build proactive, planned engagement strategies; and design strategic and credible approaches for communicating with stakeholders.

Strategic communications is therefore a smart move for the EU trade, investment and reform projects because it provides a framework for engaging stakeholders to address risks and barriers to reform. Through this framework, practitioners can identify early on who will help or hinder reform and leverage that knowledge to influence behavior and change the stakeholder landscape in support of reform goals.

 

Ghazi Ben Ahmed

Ghazi Ben Ahmed

January 2022

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