The Arab uprisings of recent months have done much to challenge Europeans’ perceptions of the populations of most Arab countries, seeing them as largely disinclined to change and acceptant of tyranny and injustice. For now, it turns out that many Arab societies are as thirsty for freedom, justice and democracy as any others around the world, and so share with them these universal values.
The ideas that Franco Frattini develops for making these aims a reality strike me as likely to command widespread agreement. If the prosperity of the region is one of the main aims of euro-Mediterranean co-operation, we need to know much more about how authoritarian regimes believe they can combine economic growth with political reform. In recent years, not a few in the European Union had closed their eyes to these regimes’ receptiveness on the need for change.
The eternal debate that pits security against democratisation is far from over. For many years the EU has chiefly engaged with its Mediterranean neighbours through immigration and extremism, and the wave of change in some Arab Mediterranean countries is regrettably being accompanied by a wave of illegal migration. As Franco Frattini rightly notes, this will raise European fears, of course, and may fuel the idea that democracy in the EU’s southern neighbours may even be a fresh source of insecurity.
It is not hard to understand that for many Europeans their own security is a priority, but nevertheless that should not prevent them from concentrating on the vital importance of Arab democratisation. The internal efforts to bring this about in Arab countries needs to be matched by pressure from our EU partners to the north, and together this could lead to real change.
Some of Franco Frattini’s excellent ideas for supporting the transition processes in Tunisia and in Egypt clearly need to be moved as quickly as possible from the theoretical to the practical. We need to see concrete measures soon. Tunisia’s needs, for example, are not so much technical or logistic, nor even political, but they are essentially economic and financial. Greater flexibility from the EU side on the free movement of people would obviously be very helpful, and could take the form of an agreement on the concerted management of migration. This could be negotiated with all the members of the European Union, with the aim of reducing the pressure for temporary work permits while greatly improving the chances of success of the democratic transition.
The EU must promote change in those Arab countries that have still to take their first step towards genuine political reform. This also requires a real change in European attitudes and a shift away from the realpolitik that has determined many of their policies in the past. The introduction of participative democracy in Arab countries has to become a real and infallible requirement of the EU.
If European efforts on the vexed question of democratisation have so far been useless, it is because these were policies that in no way addressed society or the youthful populations of the Arab world who no longer trust their own governments. For these young Arabs, the EU is above all perceived as the partner of the dictators. This means that the way to regain their confidence is by being inflexible on the need for Arab democratisation, and that in turn requires a strong return by the EU to conditionality.