First, the Arab spring in Tunisia and Egypt, and now “Arab winters” in Libya, Syria, and to some extent Yemen, took the Western nations by surprise and left them without adequate responses. Now there is a shortage of answers to the new challenges, and, despite all efforts, there is no sign of a consistent strategy.
We need to make a start by radically re-thinking the analysis on which our relations with most Arab countries are based.
What, then, is the situation that now faces us when democratic change is happening in a number of Arab countries, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is further from a solution than ever?
It is impossible to tell whether the new governments in some Arab countries will substantially change their countries’ policy stance on Israel. Early indications from Egypt point towards a continuity of previous policies on this sensitive question, despite some serious irritation after the deadly incidents at the common border in late summer. Meanwhile, Israel itself undoubtedly faces the risk that pressure from public opinion – the “Arab street” – will increase in the absence of autocratic rulers who can simultaneously negotiate with Israel while brutally suppressing the voices of their people.
The provisional agreement by the Palestinians on the plan for a government to be backed jointly by Fatah and Hamas is a good example of this. After all, this agreement is not only the product of the new Egyptian leadership’s more flexible attitude towards Hamas, but above all of pressure from the street. The people were fed up with being taken hostage by rival groups, and so they forced an agreement. This “grassroots democracy” is a new feature of Arab society.
Europe will, I believe, still find it impossible to engage in sustainable and comprehensive co-operation with the Arab world without a solution to the underlying conflict. For this reason, Europe must display total determination in making use of what is an historic opportunity to step up its pressure on both sides to reach a negotiated solution. But that will only be possible if the pressure from the street for a peaceful solution grows both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories.
In the other Arab countries, this street pressure isn’t directed primarily against Israel. The people on the street are mainly motivated by dissatisfaction with the political system, meaning the political class, and by social factors. European policy also needs to respond to this: if people on the street are becoming a decisive factor for the region’s development, Europe needs to enter into a dialogue directly with Arab public opinion – difficult and unaccustomed as this may be. Education, demographics and migration would be the key issues for such a dialogue, but what tools are actually available for it?
The dialogue’s starting point has to be the Arab people’s immediate needs, and already the case of Tunisia shows that education isn’t everything. Society and the business climate need to foster individual initiatives and offer fair opportunity for all. Here, the European social model has a host of experience and programmes to offer that are well worth discussing and that can be directly applied. No matter how different the situations in the EU and the Arab world may be, they also have much in common.
At the risk of oversimplifying, Europe has capital but lacks skilled workers, whereas North Africa needs capital but has more skilled workers than jobs. Mirror-image problems like this are susceptible to joint solutions. But we need to be careful here; no solution to a problem can be simpler than the problem itself. A partial opening of Europe’s borders to skilled workers has to be part of this solution, but is not enough on its own. We need intelligent programmes that will make it possible for highly-skilled Arab workers to work, train and network in EU countries for between, say, three to five years and that also offer incentives and support mechanisms for them then to set up their own businesses when they return home. The preconditions for “circular migration” of this sort have to be established in the workers’ countries of origin, and the costs could be partly met by employers in Europe. One possibility is that they would pay part of an Arab worker’s salary into a venture capital fund for returnees from Europe provided they actually go into business back in their home country. In return, European companies would be permitted to recruit staff on a quota basis from outside the EU.
Education also has to be a strong focus for future co-operation. Why not gradually extend successful programmes like the Erasmus student exchange programme to the countries of the Mediterranean neighbourhood? And co-operation between higher education institutions along with targeted negotiations on the recognition of qualifications from Arab countries could help to improve the quality of education there while fostering exchanges of skilled labour.
Another area in which the interests of North and South overlap is energy policy. Not only countries that lack energy resources like Tunisia and Morocco but also their resource-rich neighbours like Algeria and Libya should be interested in the shared use of renewable energy. Yemen is a sad example of what happens when a country’s limited natural resources are not invested in forward-looking technology but are instead consumed by a corrupt elite.
What we need is political vision for the region, and the political will to work on this vision with Arab partners. It isn’t going too far to call for a Marshall Plan for the region, and our own European interests in security, migration, energy policy and economic growth should motivate us to approach this task whole-heartedly.
But another word of warning; the Western world likes to understand the “Arab spring” in terms of its own concepts and experience. Our own people either think Arab nations are en route to becoming Western-style democratic societies based on the rule of law, or they believe that radical Islamists are bound to gain the ascendancy unless there is a “strong hand” to suppress them. Both are wrong. The reality is that Arab societies lack any such clear orientation because the lack of public debate on self-determination but the persistence of corruption and nepotism have prevented it.
It is – if another reason were needed – why we in Europe must engage in a genuinely open dialogue with the Arab world on democracy, the rule of law and the social market economy. Intergovernmental consultations are not enough. To grasp the opportunities of the Arab spring it is in our own interest that we should broaden and deepen our dialogue.