Focussing European cooperation with the Middle East and North Africa on social contracts

Focussing European cooperation with the Middle East and North Africa on social contracts

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Furness, Mark / Markus Loewe
Briefing Paper 18/2021

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)


Dt. Ausg. u.d.T.:
Europa sollte die Zusammenarbeit mit dem Nahen Osten und Nordafrika stärker auf die Gesellschaftsverträge fokussieren
(Analysen und Stellungnahmen 7/2021)

2021 is proving to be a key year for cooperation between Europe and its neighbours in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. As the European Union (EU) launches its new multiannual budget, the COVID-19 pandemic has demanded a rethink of the political, economic and social priorities that the EU and its member states should pursue with MENA countries. Europe’s potential for positive influence on state–society relations in MENA countries has yet to be realised.
The latest European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) South Communication, published in February 2021, promises a “new agenda” for cooperation with MENA countries. It does not, however, address conflicts between its own objectives, especially between liberal–democratic political and economic reforms, accountable government and respect for human rights on the one hand, and restrictive trade practices, migration management and security cooperation on the other. Furthermore, there is little bilateral policy coordination among EU member states.
Focussing cooperation on social contracts would help overcome such conflicts, which are inherent in cooperation targeting short- to medium-term goals, such as migration management, resilience and private investment. In authoritarian contexts, these measures tend to strengthen the state at the expense of society, and thereby increase prospects for conflict, rather than the stability they promise.
The social contract perspective is long-term. Social contracts rely on the state’s delivery of the “3 Ps”: protection (of citizens), provision (of economic and social services) and participation (in decision-making).
The social contract provides an analytical tool and a set of organising principles for joint EU and member state priorities and activities. The social contract lens shows how the 3 Ps work together as a framework for social cohesion, peaceful relations and political stability. In practical terms, its use would help improve the effectiveness, coherence and coordination of EU and member state cooperation with MENA countries. Some EU member states prefer to focus on trade and economic cooperation, some on political reform and human rights, and others on migration management. If all take a more long-term perspective, they will realise that sustainable social contracts in MENA countries are good for all of their aims.
All European actions should support reforms in MENA countries that aim to make social contracts more acceptable to the contracting parties – governments and social groups. Ideally, such reforms result from negotiations of social contracts between parties on equal terms. In practice, how¬ever, the negotiation power of social groups is often limited – one reason why Europe should ensure that its programmes strengthen societies at least as much as governments.
This paper discusses four key cooperation areas which are potential drivers of change for social contracts:
• Conflict resolution, peacebuilding and reconstruction;
• Post-COVID-19 recovery: health and social protection;
• Participation at local, regional and national levels; and
• Mutually beneficial migration and mobility.
The EU and its member states, by working together on the 3 Ps in these four areas, can influence positive change in the MENA region.

About the authors

Furness, Mark

Political Science


Loewe, Markus



Further experts

Bergmann, Julian

Political Science 

Dang, Vy

Political Science 

Erforth, Benedikt

Political Science 

Friesen, Ina

Political Science 

Grimm, Sven

Political Science 

Hackenesch, Christine

Political Science 

Keijzer, Niels

Social Science 

Koch, Svea

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Löpelt, Sarah

International relations and Sustainability policy 

Roll, Michael


Sakketa, Tekalign Gutu

Agricultural / Development Economics 

von Haaren, Paula

Development Economics 

Walle, Yabibal

Development Economics 

Zintl, Tina

Political Scientist