Over the past six months, Europe’s woes have intensified after a bloody attack in Paris last November, in which 130 people lost their lives, heightened security fears; and the inability to deal with the thousands of refugees who continue to arrive on European shores has raised economic and social concerns.
Despite having to manage these problems within Europe, a large group within the European Parliament is attempting to expand beyond Europe’s borders, adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to deepen engagement between European centre-right parties and their counterparts in emerging democracies in the Middle East and North Africa following the Arab Spring.
The Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR), the third largest parliamentary group, is to hold its second summit in Turkey on March 19 – having launched a summit in November in Tunisia – to continue spreading the values of centre-right political parties in Muslim-majority countries.
AECR encourages a free market, arguing that without inclusive growth, it is difficult to maintain the rule of law. It also tries to show how strong, centre-right principles such as pluralism go hand-in-hand with the principles of Islam.
Al Jazeera spoke with Syed Kamall, chairman of the ECR Group, United Kingdom, about the aim of the Antalya gathering, how a centre-right agenda is linked to Turkish politics, the influx of refugees into Europe, his response to accusations from leftists of neocolonialism, and other issues.
Al Jazeera: How does your initiative advance the values of centre-right political parties in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa?
Syed Kamall: From the EU perspective, there are many challenges across the region, from security and conflict, to youth unemployment and economic stagnation. We have been working so that EU support is tailored to the specific circumstances of individual countries.
We also want to support parties in developing the skills needed to operate in a democratic system. We stand for open and liberalised markets, which we believe offer the best chance for entrepreneurs to thrive and build a strong economy.
So we will do all that we can to help parties in the region to highlight the benefits in promoting economically liberal policies and reforms.
Al Jazeera: Many in the region believe that the Arab Spring has achieved little and that corruption and harassment are rife. How can centre-right policies help?
Kamall: I think the key to reducing corruption is building a small state in which all people feel they have the same opportunities, which is where centre-right policies of encouraging entrepreneurship and personal responsibility come in.
Rather than a few people ruling under a corrupt regime, everyone should have the same opportunities to take part in public life, and to open a business, to grow it, and to offer opportunities to others.
Al Jazeera: Some on the left in Tunisia accused you of neo-colonialism. How do you refute these accusations?
Kamall: I thought that those comments were ridiculous. Our interests were to help those parties and organisations that want to promote a pluralist and open society, and to start a dialogue. We believe it is to our mutual benefit to pursue common interests, including in trade, investment, culture, and security.
It is only through cooperation between the European Union, its member states, and the countries of the MENA region that we can ensure the aspirations of the Arab Spring uprising are fulfilled, guaranteed and cannot be reversed.
I find it interesting that if I espouse freedom and liberal democracy I am accused by socialists of seeking to import Western ideas or meddling, while the left feel that they should be able to import their failed ideologies of socialism and Marxism from the West, which have led to misery for millions.
Unlike socialists, we do not seek to impose our views on people and tell them what to believe. We are conservatives, so we seek to encourage open debate and free speech so that the true spirit of the Arab Spring can be realised, and everybody can have a share in the open society that people were trying to create.
Al Jazeera: What do you hope to achieve in Turkey?
Kamall: Turkey is becoming one of the most central countries to solving so many crises, whether in Syria and Iraq, or the migrant crisis, or the ongoing debate about the future of secular Muslim countries – so it seems the right place to host this conference.
Quite honestly, I also intend to ask some questions of the Turkish government about their handling of some human rights and media freedom issues … I am concerned and will be looking to have a constructive discussion on these points.
Al Jazeera: And how can a centre-right agenda fit in with Turkish politics now?
Kamall: Let’s face it. Turkey faces enormous challenges today – on its borders, with the refugee crisis, and in its internal security situation. I think it can sometimes be easy for us in Europe – sitting in our comfortable ivory towers – to fail to see the scale of Turkey’s challenges.
In the face of those challenges, we believe it is more important than ever to hold fast to the values that have worked in the past: pluralism, respect for minorities, and a liberal market economy that spreads wealth to everyone.
Al Jazeera: Another development since your last meeting is the massive expansion of the refugee crisis. How do you propose solving this?
Firstly, we need to send out a strong signal that getting on a boat or paying a trafficker is not going to give you a better life in Europe. Only genuine refugees and those accepted through legal migration channels will be welcome to come. I believe that this is best achieved by having a system that resettles people directly from conflict zones under the UNHCR’s supervision, rather than an open border that allows anyone to come and claim, and then have to go through the tough task of returning those irregular migrants.
We should ask how we can better secure our external borders, whether through greater coastguard resources under the EU’s Frontex border agency, or using ships under a NATO operation that would also target and take out people traffickers.
We are failing to get some of the basics right, such as immediately detaining people when they enter Europe, fingerprinting them, and swiftly processing their claim. If they have a right to stay, then we need to look at how we can accommodate them, give them housing and language lessons, and generally help with their integration into life here during their stay.
If they do not have a right to stay then they should be returned to their home country, and their home country should honour its agreements with the EU to accept them. We need to be clear that asylum seekers do not have freedom to move around Europe, but generally should be made to apply for asylum in the first safe country they come to.
When we finally start to implement some of these rules then we might start to stem the flow to more manageable levels. I believe that this is the best way to ensure that genuine refugees are not constantly pushed to the back of the queue by economic migrants.