Perceptions of the EU: Activists and public opinion in the Middle East

Andrea Teti, Gennaro Gervasio , Pamela Abbott

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The EU suffers from a poor reputation amongst populations and activists across its so-called ‘Southern Neighbourhood’. This reputation is due, among other things, to a mismatch between how the EU perceives itself and how people and activists perceive its actions and their consequences. While the EU believes its policies are rooted in and promote stability, security, and democracy, its actions are often perceived to have the opposite effect. To show how and why this is so, this chapter builds on existing analyses of the EU’s self-conception by ‘triangulating’ it both with evidence from interviews with activists and with public opinion polls. This triangulation reveals the perception mismatch between EU and MENA populations and activists. In particular, the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) has at its heart a procedural and formal understanding of democracy focusing on a narrow subset of civil-political rights, and assuming – despite decades-long failures – that ‘market liberalisation’ will produce both democratization and social justice (Teti, 2012b, 2015). Activists and populations, however, have more holistic and substantive conceptions of democracy, in which civil-political and socio-economic rights are inextricable. While the EU equates democracy with liberal democracy, regional populations see democracy in terms much closer to social democracy and, ironically, to the so-called ‘European Social Model’. This mismatch also helps explain why the EU is perceived not as a values-driven ‘normative power’, but as a cynically self-interested (Cebeci, 2019; Huber et al., 2018). This chapter uses interviews with activists and survey data to return a picture of the way the EU is perceived. Qualitative sources like interviews and participant observations in Egypt –which in this respect is representative of broader regional dynamics and of the countries surveyed – are crucial to understand how activists and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) work, while survey data gauge public opinion overall. For this chapter, we use survey data for Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco from the Arab Barometer III (2013), the Arab Transformations (2014) and Arab Barometer IV (ABIV) (2016) surveys (for more information on the data sets and method see, Abbott et al., 2017).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge Handbook of EU–Middle East Relations
EditorsDimitris Bouris, Daniela Huber, Michelle Pace
ChapterPart IV
ISBN (Print)9780367330767
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2021


  • EU
  • European Union
  • Egypt
  • Tunisia
  • Morocco
  • Jordan
  • democracy
  • survey research
  • Arab Uprisings
  • Arab Spring
  • public opinion
  • activists


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