No time for doubters
Europe must do more to support Arab democracy, out of self-respect and self-interest
Feb 24th 2011 | from the print edition
WHEN people took to the streets of Tunis, France offered to help President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s security forces. When they filled the squares of Cairo, Italy praised Hosni Mubarak as the wisest of men. And when they were slaughtered in Tripoli, the Czech Republic said catastrophe would follow the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Malta defended Libya’s sovereignty and Italy predicted that the protests would lead to an Islamic emirate.
With every new Arab uprising, some European country has placed itself on the wrong side of history. So it is no surprise that the European Union has been slow to tell regimes to listen to demands for democracy and to condemn violent suppression.
When it comes to action the EU has fared even worse. It moved to freeze the assets of the Tunisian and Egyptian strongmen only after they had fled or resigned. Mr Qaddafi, despite his use of aircraft to kill Libyans, faced no immediate sanction from the EU (it halted trade talks and said it was “ready to take further measures”). Even the Arab League, the world’s biggest club of autocrats, suspended Libya’s membership. European warships and planes have been deployed, not to help Libyans but to stop refugees and migrants from landing on European shores, or to bring home EU nationals. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus might ask why he and his lieutenants have been singled out for punishment by the EU, which has frozen their assets and banned them from travelling to the union. After all, he only stole an election, cracked protesters’ skulls and jailed opponents.
One explanation is that it is still early days; the EU took more than a month to impose sanctions on Belarus. Another is that, given their history of imperial meddling in the Arab world, European countries should stay out of the revolts. The third is the fear of provoking collapsing regimes into taking European expatriates as hostages. Yet it is hard to avoid the suspicion that too many European countries are still more worried about stability in the Middle East than about democracy. For now, they have neither.
In truth, nuanced EU statements will hardly have been noticed by the protesters. Wrist-slapping sanctions would do little to change the actions of desperate rulers. But if only to send the right signal to other Arabs who are watching events, Europe needs to stand unequivocally on the side of those trying to cast off dictatorships. Just avoiding gaffes would be progress.
A better test of European diplomacy will be whether, in the longer term, the EU can help north African countries establish lasting democracies. Europe has a wealth of experience in helping to reform former totalitarian states. The democratisation of eastern Europe, though incomplete, is a striking success for the “soft power” of the EU, a body without much of the hard sort. But if enlargement has been the EU’s most successful foreign-policy tool, the attempt to promote reform in borderland countries with little hope of joining has largely been a failure. The EU’s “neighbourhood policy”, launched in 2003, aimed to create a “ring of friends” by extending aid and benefits, such as access to the single market, in return for economic and political reforms. The idea was for an ever-closer association in which neighbours could enjoy “everything but institutions”.
Yet the EU has little to show for the billions of euros it has spent. Belarus remains Europe’s last dictatorship, Ukraine is moving backwards, the Arab-Israeli conflict is unresolved and punctuated by violence, and north Africa has languished, until this year, under the rule of autocrats. To its east, the EU has tried a bit harder to promote political reform, due in part to the demands of its ex-communist members. But in the south the EU has focused mainly on economic development; this area gets the lion’s share of neighbourhood-policy funds. Nicolas Sarkozy’s vanity project, the “Union for the Mediterranean”, a political club that has been paralysed since its inception in 2008, has if anything boosted Arab monarchs and presidents-for-life.
Stability has been paramount for many reasons: preserving Arab-Israeli peace treaties; fighting jihadist terrorism; curbing weapons of mass destruction; protecting oil and gas supplies; and preventing mass migration to Europe. These are not trivial concerns. Europe must deal with the neighbours it has, not the ones it would like. Its mistake was to lose belief in their ability to change for the better. But now that the Arab world is being remade from within, European policy must change too.
The EU’s foreign-policy chief, Cathy Ashton, is being showered with ideas: Germany says EU support (including lifting barriers to agricultural trade) should be linked to democratic reforms. Italy wants more “carrots” to encourage orderly but rapid change, including an upgrade of relations with Egypt and Tunisia and a new system to manage migration. France, Spain and four others plead for more spending in the south and boosting the Union for the Mediterranean, with few or no conditions.
The end of communism in the east was a great blessing for Europe. The fall of dictators in the south could be too, though the transition is bound to be more uncertain. In 1989 western Europe’s communist foes collapsed; the people rose up against the resented Soviet occupier and were attracted by the West. In the Arab world it is the West’s awkward allies that are falling, and the people there have long resented Western overlordship.
So far the revolts of 2011 have been strikingly free of Islamist, anti-imperial and even anti-Israeli ideology. Such sentiments could yet be stirred if Europe appears to be colluding with hated rulers. The uprisings have removed Europe’s dilemma over pursing stability or democracy—its interests against its values. Stability is gone; interests and values are the same. The only answer is to embrace, help and protect those who want democracy.