Europe’s role in the Arab Spring

The outcome of the uprisings in North Africa is still in the balance and although it will be mainly up to the North Africans themselves to decide their future, Europe has a key role to play on the side of reform – especially Paris, Rome and Madrid.   

The outcome of the uprisings in North Africa is still in the balance and although it will be mainly up to the North Africans themselves to decide their future, Europe has a key role to play on the side of reform – especially Paris, Rome and Madrid. 

It has been a good couple of weeks for extremists on both sides of the divide between the Western and Muslim worlds. In Benghazi, jihadists killed the U.S. envoy and three colleagues – an act of barbarity guaranteed to create shock and revulsion. Like-minded fanatics fanned the flames through attacks on embassies across the Middle East. The authors of the poisonous little video that began it all thus found themselves succeeding beyond all possible expectation.

Better still, from the perspective of this improbable coalition of hate-mongers, has been the way in which, in the run-up to the U.S. presidential poll, the “clash of civilizations” narrative has been embraced by many in the Western media. So much for the Arab Spring, we are told, when the heirs to the toppled autocrats turn out to be anti-Western Islamists. So much for the chances of Arab democracy, when the right to freedom of expression is so little respected. Time to stop apologizing, and stand up for “Western values.”

Such conclusions may tell us more about their authors than about the real world. Islamists were, after all, soundly defeated in Libya’s recent elections, and the United States is in a minority of Western countries where an absolute right to freedom of expression is not constrained by some form of “hate speech” legislation. Yet the mutual suspicion, and sometimes antipathy, between the Islamic and Western worlds cannot be gainsaid. It has been going on for centuries – and the appearance of large Western armies in two Islamic countries over the past decade, let alone the issue of Palestine, has done little to help. Which makes it all the more important for the West to do whatever it can to help the Arab Spring succeed.

In a recent analysis of relations between Europe and North Africa, we urged Europeans to seize the historic opportunity offered by last year’s uprisings to forge a new relationship across the Mediterranean. Europe has so much to gain if North Africa’s transitions to democracy succeed: economically, if open and dynamic societies replace the closed worlds of the autocrats; and strategically, whether in terms of regional problem-solving, building influence in the wider Middle East, or indeed “re-setting” relations with the wider Muslim world. So we advocated engagement, in place of the old, failed approach of bribing autocrats to keep their teeming populations and disturbing religion at arm’s length – and we urged political engagement as much or more than economic.

The EU has always felt most comfortable working on its neighbors with the instruments of trade and aid. In this way it has bound them closer, helped them to become more like European societies – and often, in the end, brought them into the Union. That will not work for North Africa, which has no “European vocation” – and especially at a time of economic crisis, when Europe has little money to spare, and little readiness to open its markets. So Europe needs to bring other assets – political, diplomatic, and military – to bear.

In particular, it should foster the new impulse to intra-regional integration. The new governments know that co-operation with their neighbors will ease their pressing economic and security problems: the EU is well placed to help both with institution-building, and with big integrative projects such as plans to bring North African solar power to Europe. And if Europeans contribute their military expertise to combating instability in the Sahel, they may position themselves to help with the key challenge of security sector reform that all the new governments face.

It is primarily North Africans who will work out North Africa’s salvation, just as it was largely through their own efforts that they ousted the dictators. But Europeans need to offer what help they can, especially at a time when the outcome is still very much in the balance. The coming years may bring comfort to those who prefer to believe that Arabs are incapable of democracy, or that Islam is incorrigibly hostile to the West. But such an outcome would be a huge reverse both for Europe, and for the peoples of North Africa. There is no need to pre-emptively cede the argument to the extremists.

This article first appeared on CNN's Global Public Square

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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