Eneko Landaburu’s article is a shrewd critique of the EU’s policies toward the Mediterranean region, and he’s right that the EU must now start to build a new relationship with its Arab neighbours. When looking at how best to go about this, it is important to understand just where the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) went so wrong.
First, as Landaburu himself says, the EU must stop fooling itself that political stability is sustainable under reactionary and authoritarian regimes. For Europe to support corrupt systems under the pretext of fighting a war against fundamentalist or terrorist movements whose credibility is in any case often questionable, is utterly unacceptable. Any assistance now offered to Arab states must always have democratic conditionality, something which the signatories of the Barcelona Declaration have already explicitly agreed to. Far from being a case of interfering in internal affairs, this is about promoting the fact that democracy is a basic right in any civilised nation. The EU must stop sacrificing its core values just in the name of keeping the peace.
The EU must also stop prioritising technical and economic co-operation over the promotion of democracy. To overcome the region’s political problems, the UfM aimed to reproduce the sense of European co-operation created after World War II by the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The ECSC grouped democratic governments that were making a concerted effort to close the lid on a dark period of European history, and their institutions guaranteed this aim. But when autocrats have absolute control over the institutions in some Mediterranean states, this sort of concept simply doesn’t work. Any future technical and economic projects with these nations should therefore not simply overlook their political status but must incorporate actions to strengthen democracy.
As to general economic relations, the EU must be aware that Euro-Mediterranean prosperity relies on co-operation between the EU and its Arab partners, and between the partner countries themselves. Foreign investors are put off by the insularity of Mediterranean countries’ markets, so South-South Co-operation, along with the resolution of conflicts that currently plague the region is going to be of the utmost importance.
Yet any relationship that the EU may try to build with the Arab world cannot be based purely on the freer movement of capital and goods. Limiting the free movement of people between supposed ‘partner countries’ is at best narrow-minded. Circular migration, family reunification and the more lenient granting of visas for, say, students and business people should make the EU more accessible to the whole Mediterranean region. The EU’s member states must work towards much more consistent immigration policies, for its current hostility is indeed “humiliating” for its Mediterranean neighbours.
The dynamism and social maturity shown by Arab civil society in some countries should be accompanied by much more substantial support from the EU. One of the great innovations of the Barcelona Process was its emphasis on strengthening civil society in the EMP, but the UfM has fallen short where this is concerned. Civil society, or ‘voices from the street’, should be considered to be as integral to relationships with partner countries as state institutions. As Landaburu also argues, the “newly-voiced aspirations” of the Arab people must be heard.
Finally, Islamaphobia is nothing but a hindrance to peaceful dialogue with partner countries. The Arab spring has showcased the vitality of Arab public opinion, demonstrating unequivocally that religion has no relevance to the rejection of autocratic regimes. Islam is a religion of diversity, and is clearly compatible with democratic governance. Saint-Exupéry wisely said, "If you differ from me, far from hurting me, you enrich me."