We Europeans have since late 2010 been privileged to witness historic developments in the Arab world that may well change the region’s destiny. What is happening in North Africa and the Middle East is true revolution that may eventually constitute an extraordinary turning point for millions of people, and that is being brought about by a new and digital generation of youth.
More than this, the Arab upheavals are a by-product of the 21st century and the inexorable process of globalisation. They are being triggered by the ever-faster circulation of information through the internet, by social networks and by economic and social changes that Western governments and public opinion at large has either underestimated or ignored. The Arab world is being transformed by soaring expectations created both by education and by contact with the Western world.
It is essential to accurately diagnose the causes of the Arab uprisings, because it is only by fully understanding their demands and grievances that we will be able to give our southern neighbours appropriate support. Nor must we surrender to the temptation of turning our backs on them, because even though the Arab revolts have not been against Europe or the Western world in general – on the contrary, they have been fed by the same principles and values that we share – these revolts may yet turn against us.
Undervaluing this risk would be a terrible mistake, and there are three preconditions that Europe and also the United States must meet to be sure of avoiding such an appalling scenario. First, our support must be unambiguous. We must show no sign of uncertainty so that the Arab peoples can clearly see that the EU and the U.S. genuinely intend to sustain their rights to democratic political systems while also enjoying freedom of opinion and speech and gaining access to decent jobs. In short, establishing their right to human dignity and improving standards of living.
Support of this sort doesn’t simply involve military intervention, as is currently the case in Libya. Support means developing consistent policies and putting in place concrete measures aimed at favouring a peaceful transition to democracy. It means the unreserved isolation of dictatorships across the region, even of those governments that have been traditionally considered Western allies and reliable economic and political partners.
The European Union must keep its distance from such regimes, thus abandoning its long-standing political approach to governments in North Africa and the Middle East, because that has if anything had the consequence of bolstering authoritarianism while compromising the reputation of the EU among Arab people. Finally, we Europeans have to reassess our preconceptions about Islam and its supposed incompatibility with democracy and the rule of law.
The EU must make a clear choice between the values and principles on which the European project was founded, and its economic, political and security interests. The tendency has so far been to favour the latter in the interests of pragmatism, even though this has weakened the credibility of the EU’s commitment to promoting democracy.
The second precondition the EU must fulfil if it is to encourage peaceful political development in the Arab world, is to fill the void of its own political actions towards its southern neighbours.
Europe risks failing the Mediterranean region again by not displaying the same resolve it brought 20 years ago when the cold war had ended. Then it identified common goals for eastern European countries facing the difficult transition from Communism to democracy and a market economy. The former Soviet satellites had the alluring prospect of joining the two clubs of the European Union and NATO, and this smoothed the way for radical political and economic reforms. And while we cannot offer Arab states the same accession prospects, we have a moral duty that is also in our own political interest to present them with something comparable; some kind of association process with the European Union that might give them enough motivation to embark on some profound changes.
We’re going to need creativity to overcome our own institutional shortcomings, and in practical terms we’ll need to offer our Mediterranean partners major concessions on market access, financial aid and migration policy. We must greatly reduce the technocratic aspects of the EU’s approach to external actions and at the same time privilege the EU’s relations with southern Mediterranean countries.
In institutional terms, this means replacing the ineffectual Union for the Mediterranean, and making full respect of democratic values among the membership eligibility requirements of its successor. The Italian Council of the European Movement, for example, is calling for the establishment of a Euro-Med Community between the European Union and the non-EU Mediterranean countries, whose focus, besides economic integration, should be the promotion of peace and human rights.
The third precondition for giving credibility to Western countries’ approach to the Mediterranean region is a genuine step towards the solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. So far it has been the chief obstacle in the way of stronger partnerships between Europe and the Arab world. No real progress is possible in either EU or U.S. involvement in the region without a substantial improvement vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue. The EU and its member states need to seriously commit themselves to finding a viable strategy to resolve this more than 60-year long conflict.
The Arab spring in fact offers an extraordinary opportunity for this. Arab dictators have long had no interest in a real peace between the Tel Aviv government and the Palestinian Authority, because the Middle East conflict and the region’s very precarious stability provided a justification for their own undemocratic regimes.
For its part, the Israeli government must now be well aware that a situation considered acceptable, or even convenient, to authoritarian Arab regimes will no longer be tolerated by new democratic governments. Unlike their predecessors, they will resolutely demand the respect of human rights for Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
The weak and short-sighted attitude of the Israeli government toward the Arab spring is puzzling, not least because it has itself long been the region’s only true democracy. But in Washington, the Obama Administration seems to have understood the extent of the changes taking place in the Middle East. In May of this year, President Obama publicly stated that a return to negotiations on the basis of the pre-1967 borders is essential.
The United States, or Barack Obama at any rate, seems to be moving in the right direction, despite the round of applause that greeted Netanyahu’s speech before U.S. Congress last spring. For its part, the European Union is once again showing itself to be irresolute and riven by internal divisions on both the Peace Process and the Arab upheavals. The same incoherent approach has in the past undermined the EU’s external projection efforts, ensuring that all too often they are perceived as feeble and inadequate. If we do not want Europe to be politically marginalised in international affairs, we must quickly develop a strategic response to the Arab spring and the future of the Arab world.