False neutrality

Development Policy07 Mar 2011Frans Bieckmann

The uprising in North Africa and the Middle East calls for a thorough rethinking of the European Union’s and its member states’ policies towards the region. Europe’s reaction to the recent events in its backyard has been slow, ambivalent and without long term strategic vision. The lack of a coherent response to the Tunisian uprising may be forgiven: almost nobody was prepared, not in the Maghreb nor outside, neither policy makers nor academics. Only a few experts have written about the undercurrents in North African societies and not one, to my knowledge, predicted the uprisings. But with regard to Egypt, it was fear for change, and thus a traditional reliance on ‘stability’ as a guiding concept, that directed official reactions – apart from some obligatory references to human rights and restraining the use of violence. Europe backed Mubarak for quite some time, and steered towards the remaining in power of the military that had always been the backbone of his regime and of western interests in the region.

It are these, very narrowly defined national interests of Europe (and member states) that are increasingly becoming an obstacle to clever, long term strategic behavior. Even if your main priority is to secure an oil supply or limit immigration into Europe, it has now become obvious that a clear view is necessary on the position, the needs and the wishes of the populations of those countries.

But that is not the case. See for example Ana Echagüe of Fride, in the Spanish version of Foreign Affairs, who states that the Spanish response on the events in the Middle East and North Africa is focused on ‘national interests and (that the Spanish government) has not defined its strategic targets apart from commercial interests and security’. What she says about Spain is also valid for Europe:

‘Saying that “to intervene earlier in Egypt would have been interference” is hypocritical. The position of the Spanish government that the internal political and social forces should direct the reform processes in each country reveals false neutrality. Closing your eyes for lack of democracy and violation of human rights is not maintaining a neutral position; it is supporting a dictator who oppresses his people.’

It may be too late now, but for the longer term strategic goals of European foreign policy there is a great urgency in reviving the efforts for a closer collaboration between Europe and its southern neighbors. Or better still, reinventing it. Not in terms of close ties with dictators and elites, but with and for the people. The Spanish and other European allies have quite extensive experience in financial and other kinds of European support in the difficult process of reconstruction and democratic progress after years of dictatorship. This is the process Tunisia, and maybe other neighboring countries, will be experiencing during the years to come. We, Europe, should have a clear vision of how to help them in these reform processes that indeed they have to direct themselves.

The Spanish might take the lead in this. But they may not be capable at the moment – at least that is what Ana Echagüe implies when she describes the futile efforts in 2010 to organize an EU-Mediterranean Summit in Barcelona. The Summit should have pushed the Union for the Mediterranean, a 43-country partnership that was the result of the Barcelona Process and is part of the European Neighbourhood Policy. This Union for the Mediterranean urgently needs new blood, ideas and above all – political priority.

Echagüe nevertheless argues that Spain should take the lead, which is a logical assumption. But then again, northern European countries should accept their responsibilities as well. They effectively – and with reason – in 2008 blocked the original, much more ambitious idea of the French President Sarkozy for a Mediterranean Union parallel to the existing EU collaborative efforts with other Mediterranean countries. Now they should use their experience with European integration to strengthen the ties with North African countries, for a start. And they should do so not just in the usual institutional and high level political terms. ‘If Europe wants to avoid future embarrassment, it has to give up the close ties some of its politicians have had with the North African elite’ writes Anna Khakee, also of Fride, in another commentary.

On the contrary, Europe should include the populations of those countries; even more so. Not only those living in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, but also the millions living abroad in the EU countries. Integrating all of them in the struggle for a more democratic, equal, prosperous and non-violent process of change would benefit not only the local circumstances of people in North Africa, but could also help strengthen divided national societies in Europe. A common effort of North African and local organizations in European countries to establish a democratic reconstruction process in their home countries, could create a more equal and positive atmosphere, countering current polarization fuelled by rightwing antagonism all over Europe.