EU must show commitment to the Arab people

Development Policy26 Mar 2011Petra Stienen

Each year, the Spring Summit of the EU is followed by the Brussels Forum of the German Marshall Fund. This is the third year that I have been invited to this meeting of politicians, public opinion leaders, diplomats and young people from the US and the EU. I emptied my diary because it is great to be ‘among the believers’, people who believe that good transatlantic relations are important for the prosperity of people all over the world.

The forum opened with a BBC World debate on the question “Have Western Policies in the Middle East and North Africa Failed?” Nik Gowing interviewed Catherine Ashton (EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy), Nabil Fahmy (Dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo) and Jeanne Shaheen (member of the US Congress). The debate initially focused on the current military action in Libya. Then political writer Timothy Garton Ash challenged the three panelists on why the ‘Arab spring’ seems to have taken us by surprise. He argued that what is urgently needed is medium and long term planning for future relationships between the West and the Arab world. He also questioned Ashton about whether the EU should have a Foundation for Democracy, similar to the US National Endowment of Democracy. This would give more maneuvering space for European civil society organizations to support their counterparts in the Arab region. Ashton implied that something is in the making by jokingly saying, ‘Did you read my emails?’ But she didn’t go into details. She also referred to an earlier piece she wrote for the international media in which she argues that Europe can bring ‘money, markets and mobility’ to the Arab world. And she acknowledged that the EU is like an oil tanker, slow in changing its course, but added that she would like to support ‘speedboats’ which can act more swiftly.

I feel that Ashton missed an opportunity to say more about the lack of planning on the part of the EU, and the need to develop a long-term vision that can anticipate the obvious signs. There is a tremendous task ahead for the European External Action Service to learn from previous mistakes in EU foreign policy in the Arab region. I believe that exactly this will be a really good ‘selling point’ for NGOs vis-à-vis European governments. Because it is clear that governments have to deal with conflicting interests at times, and therefore will not always want to look in the right direction. Many European NGOs are good partners with Arab activists and NGOs and they have extensive knowledge about possible areas for more cooperation with their Arab counterparts.

Mahmoud Salem (Sandmonkey on Twitter) gave the audience a piece of his mind and his words probably reflected what many in the polite and diplomatic audience were thinking. See his blog on Egyptian politics, which gives a brilliant insight into the next steps for Egypt. He put it in simple words, ‘who elected the Arab League?’ But the panel ducked when Nik Gowing pointed out that indeed we seem to be dealing with the League of Dictators.

As a supporter of the courageous attempts of people in Syria to call for their human rights, I had a particular reason to be present at this event. I had received some relevant recommendations for EU action from a number of Dutch NGOs working with partner organizations inside Syria. The NGOs were clear about their position late Friday afternoon on the 25th March: there is still a window of opportunity for dialogue with the Syrian authorities on genuine reform. So perhaps the EU could play an encouraging role in this by sending its highest foreign policy representative to Damascus. The EU was embarrassingly late in supporting the people of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt when they were simply asking for freedom and respect for their human rights. As Ali Atassi, a Syrian journalist and documentary maker points out in an interview on French TV: we want the West to have faith in the power of the Syrian people to take things into their own hands.

In Syria the EU still has the option to act more timeously. But I am concerned that we are making the same mistake all over again by focusing collectively on one country militarily and losing the opportunity for dialogue in another. So I asked Ashton when she was planning to travel to Damascus. As Libya has clearly shown, waiting too long with a real vision and dialogue is a sure bet for things to get really out of hand. I believe that a serious EU initiative towards Syria now, asking the Syrian authorities that they should be serious about implementing their promises as swiftly as possible, may prevent this scenario. Fair enough, Ashton has a tough job and a heavy travel schedule, but her answer proved why the EU has difficulties speaking with one loud voice. She was evasive in her reply and merely said that there are 27 ambassadors on the ground, who are sending messages to put pressure on the government. I was surprised that she chose to stick to ‘diplomacy by declarations‘.

I believe that this is just not good enough at this moment. It is of course up to the people of Syria to determine their future. We can support them though by speaking out about the human rights violations that are happening during the protests and that the regime has been known for perpetrating them for a long time. But we also have to show that we are willing, in the future, to engage with the people of Syria at every level. The EU should be actively present at the highest level in the region right now.

Petra Stienen is a publicist and freelance advisor on diversity, democratisation and diplomacy. She worked as a human rights diplomat in Cairo (1995-1999) and Syria (1999-2004). She is the author of the book Dreaming of an Arab Spring (2008, in Dutch).