In the 20th century European influence in the Middle East had started to diminish as soon as the European states came down from their high on expansionism. In the post-colonial world the United States overtook the role of preponderant actor in the region, investing billions of dollars in development (well, and war), especially in those countries that recognised Israel and signed peace treaties. The new common European approach was soft-power based. The EEC tried to act on peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, when the Venice declaration was issued jointly with the PLO. Although it called for the acknowledgement of the Palestinians right to self determination and the integration of the PLO in peace negotiation, the European efforts never went beyond the declaratory level, as the EEC and later the EU suffered from a sheer lack of leverage. Indeed the special relationship between the US and Israel made it possible for the latter to simply ignore European demands. Germany, as one of the most powerful states within the European Union, has stayed rather quiet in that area. Indeed its history with the holocaust and the resulting everlasting guilt has been defining German Middle East policies and since the official reconciliation with the state of Israel, the latter has been able to count on Germany as a strong partner, because it has committed itself to unconditional support of the Israeli people’s right to exist.
European active foreign policy has truly started with the Barcelona Process in 1995. The creation of a Euro-Mediterranean Partnership sought to increase and enhance cooperation with the Arab countries whilst promoting common values such as democracy, freedom of speech and human rights. In the end, quite the opposite happened, because European states started to cooperate with autocracies, which turned out to be a rather lucrative business. Who doesn’t like to sell their aircrafts, rifles or communication technologies to a nice guy living in a tent? Too bad that the same nice guy now uses them against his own population!
Finally, the European Union has never been able to solve the dilemma between stability and democratisation in the Middle East. Indeed, at the beginning of the Arab Spring, the European countries stayed rather timid in their support of the revolutionaries, as they clearly feared the instability that could have been caused by the uprisings
A New Middle East
2011 (and not 2008!) is the year of change! A huge and terrible domino game is taking place in the Middle East, shaking up regimes and making some crumble. The most accurate comparison is probably the one with the 1848 revolutionary wave in Europe, where change didn’t happen drastically (it took France another 22 years to become a republic and Germany didn’t unite before 1870) but the bulwark of authoritarianism had been shaken and its base was as fragile as ever. Many predictions as to the Arab world’s future exist; nothing is certain, but one thing: there is no return to the initial situation! Thus it is the moment for the EU to act. The revolutionary wave has raised political interest, especially among the formerly politically uninterested youth, and it is an incredible opportunity to undertake deep institutional changes.
On top of that, another shift can be observed: The United States is slowly losing power and Assad wasn’t the only one to notice it. Considering the proximity of the next presidential election, it is unlikely that Obama will put more pressure on Israel, after his meagre attempt of demanding a return to the 1967 borders. Also, a recent survey has shown that the EU is more popular amongst Arabs than America or the major European States (The Economist, 28.05.11). Europeans are thus in the position to take the lead, especially given their proximity and their interest in a stable Mediterranean. As for other international heavyweights, Russia or China are no models for democracy and freedom, and their relationship with the Syrian government does not speak for their case. The Arab World should be able to count on the region, where the principles it is fighting for first arose.
Now, someone else is spreading its influence in the region, and unfortunately I am not talking about a fluffy democracy, but of the most solid and strict regimes of all: Saudi Arabia. It “scrambles to limit region’s upheaval” states the New York Times. On top of its interference in Yemen or Bahrain, it indeed recently addressed invitations to the Gulf Cooperation Council to the monarchies of Morocco and Jordan. The KSA’s containment policy relies on its incredible wealth and grants are often distributed to fellow Arab countries. If containment is successful, will the Arab Spring have happened in vain?
Recently, academics have been calling for the end of orientalism, because the revolutions have changed the perception the world has of Arabs but most importantly they have changed the image Arabs have of themselves. After decades of political immobility, they realised that they are able to shake things up and to show their pride for their nation, leaving aside confessional differences. So the changes have deeper anchors than the Saudis like to hope.
What is there to do?
On the economic side of things, the EU would have the capacity to offer incentives to encourage democracy. In fact, a draft policy encouraging reforms through grants, loans and improved access to European markets has been passed from the European Commission to the member states, which are now in the process of revising it. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the EU remains divided on that matter: Eastern European states are very positive towards supporting a new Arab World whereas Western European states remain quite reluctant, which is also due to the fact that they are the major donors of development aid. It is however important that the economic incentives do not encourage a rentier state mentality, as this would only lead to more corruption and it would not increase productivity nor economic growth.
On a political level, it is important that the new Arab democracies gain a real international weight. A way to help raising the Arab voice on a global scale would be through providing them with a stronger clout within the United Nations. The promotion of human security is also a policy the European Union should prioritise, because the current Middle Eastern concept of security separates it from development and apparent islamist or terrorism threats are often used as an empowerment tool for autocratic governments.
Finally it is important that the EU gives up its once-size-fits-all policy and starts tailoring individual policies according to the different needs and conditions of each Arab country. It seems that in Brussels politicians are just generally confused and they are not waking up from their bureaucratic coma. Maybe it only takes a good shake to do that and maybe someone should tell them that they should face their responsibility towards the Arab people but who will, if its not the European citizens? I just hope that all the lives lost to the causes of freedom and democracy over the past months, all the injured, all the destructions and all the fleeing will not have been in vain. Deep inside me, I have faith that they didn’t. Now it is up to the European Union to make a real and powerful gesture towards valuing the people’s sacrifices.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East