The Arab Spring and Europe’s turn

Europe has a unique opportunity to help its southern neighbours move from revolution to democracy.

Eu flag
After corrupt leaders are ousted, nations of the Arab Spring must begin the process of building new governments – Europe is hoping to assist that process [GALLO/GETTY]

Until now, and with few exceptions, the West has nurtured two distinct communities of foreign policy specialists: the development community and the democratic community.

More often than not, they have had little or no connection with one another: development specialists dealt comfortably with dictatorships and democracies alike, believing that prosperity can best be created by concentrating exclusively on economic issues and institutions.

The consequences of this approach have a special resonance in the Arab world today. But, as the recent United Nations Security Council debates on the Arab Spring have shown, it is not the major emerging countries that will influence events in the region.

Brazil has barely uttered a word in reaction to the region’s tumult, while Russia and China have little taste for sanctions against Libya in light of their own autocratic governments.

All of this adds up to a unique opportunity for the European Union to support its neighbours’ transition from revolutionary upheaval to democratic government. At the same time, we need to promote the progress of other regimes in the region toward inclusive democracy. Indeed, the EU is their natural partner in this endeavour.

Since the launch of the Barcelona Process in 1995, EU Mediterranean policy has been criticised for not linking financial aid to democratic reform, and for giving priority to European concerns like immigration, security, and cooperation on counter-terrorism.

At the same time, EU policy has sidelined clear southern priorities, like opening up Europe’s agriculture and textile markets. The result is that the vision of the official Euro-Mediterranean Policy (EMP) has lagged far behind its original goals.

Europe should shift its focus from immigration and security back to policies that reflect the original objectives of the Barcelona Declaration. The EMP’s central goals were to advance a “comprehensive partnership” and political reform, and to create “a common area of peace and stability”, together with a Euro-Mediterranean free-trade area.

Democracy, rule of law, human rights

Moreover, the associated MEDA funding mechanism crucially and specifically included the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights. This link between security, democracy, and human development has since been broken and needs to be restored through investment in good governance, regional development, and education.

The EMP evolved in 2004 into the European Neighbourhood Policy framework, and in 2007, the European Neighbourhood Policy Instrument (ENPI) replaced MEDA as the EU’s main financing mechanism for Euro-Mediterranean policy.

This put human rights funding into the National Indicative Program (NIP), which encompasses 17 countries: ten in the south and seven in Eastern Europe.

Although good governance and human rights remained among the ENP’s proclaimed goals, official communications of the European Commission show that it emphasised security and border control.

When the EMP was “re-launched” in 2008 under the newly established Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) to give it greater political emphasis, the result was an exercise in “realism” that further weakened the original EMP.

And, for all its high-flown language, the UfM is an empty shell. This is partly due to unfortunate timing: the UfM’s launch coincided with the outbreak of the Gaza War and became entangled in the complexities of Arab-Israeli relations. But the initiative also failed to gain momentum among political leaders.

To implement the far-reaching vision of the Barcelona Process, the ENP will have to revisit the way it distributes its financial support, rebalance the funding that it provides to the EU’s eastern and southern neighbourhoods, and place much greater emphasis on democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.

Education remains a key area where the EU should contribute to the development of the southern neighbourhood, if only because young people are a growing majority of the Arab population.

Although many Arab states have been opening new schools and universities, and are allowing more private educational institutions to flourish, the quality of education in the region still leaves much to be desired. Religion remains a compulsory subject throughout university programs, while inquisitiveness, critical thinking, and objective analysis are all widely discouraged.

As the Jordanian intellectual and former foreign minister Marwan al-Muasher has argued, state and religious interpretations of history, science, and political values are hammered into Arab students. Wilfried Martens, President of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament and former prime minister of Belgium, recently made a similar point:

“The West is not at war with Islam. Christianity is not at war with Islam. And neither is democracy. All three, however, are incompatible with a certain interpretation which claims that the scripture is the basis upon which to build a state.”

Of the Arab countries receiving ENP funds, only Egypt has channeled a high proportion – nearly 50 per cent – toward education. In any case, Europe’s spending on education in the region is scattered among inter-regional, national, and thematic programs, which makes it difficult to see how these funds’ effectiveness might be measured.

Europe now faces key decisions that concern both its values and its interests in the Arab world, and the reconciliation of its short- and long-term objectives.

Infrastructural investment and economic reform are crucial for the Mediterranean region’s future development, but they cannot transform the region without a parallel emphasis on democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and education.

To advance both objectives, the EU must link its investment and aid programs to concrete progress on democratisation, and press for much greater accountability and improvement in reforming educational systems throughout the region.

Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and a former senior vice president of the World Bank, is a senior fellow and lecturer at Yale University.

A version of this article was previously published on the Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.