This article introduces the themes of this special issue which is devoted to the reactions by external actors including the EU to the events unfolding in the Arab world beginning in December 2010. In particular, we look at the balancing act by external actors between their desire for stability, on the one hand, and their normative principles toward human rights and democracy, on the other. We compare the action (and inaction) of the European Union (EU) with other international and regional players, including the United States, Russia, Turkey and Israel. The contributions assess the response of these actors to the Arabellions events and analyse changes in their approaches to the Arab region. We ask three questions: (1) How have external actors assessed the ‘Arabellions’ and what role did they see for themselves in this context? (2) Which goals and instruments did external actors pursue toward the MENA region? In particular, how did they deal with conflicting goals, such as support for human rights and democracy, on the one hand, and concerns about security and stability, on the other? (3) How can we explain the varying responses of external actors to the Arabellions?