Arab Spring – a Berlin Wall moment or missed opportunity?

The Arab Spring has continued unabated over the long hot summer months, and with the end of the Holy month of Ramadan it is only likely that we will see an upsurge in continued activism.

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 Published in The Caledonian Mercury 16 September 2011

Long-entrenched dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya have been toppled, and who knows where the unrest will spread to next? I grew up in the Middle East, am a member of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the Arabian Peninsula, a regular visitor to the region and know it well. 

And I am certain that the forces of change across the Arab world have been misinformed. This is not a brave new dawn for democracy in the Arab world. The hope, bravery and ambition of those millions of protestors may well turn to disappointment and resentment if we let them down. Indeed, what replaces the (very unlamented) ousted dictators may well be worse if we do not massively increase our encouragement with such democratic forces as there are. 

While a thirst for democracy may well have motivated some, knowing the Middle East I think the actual impetus to bring millions out on the streets was more basic. I have long argued that food price inflation, amplified by climate change, is global policymakers’ single most pressing issue, even above energy prices. These riots were about food prices, a lack of decent jobs and the cumulative pressures of the exponential birth rates all Middle East countries have sustained over the last two decades.

This simmering resentment against regimes, fuelled by mass media and social communications that governments worldwide struggle to cope with, saw regime after regime topple, providing glimmers of hope amid much trauma and heartbreak. The recurring slogan Ash-sha`b yurid isqat an-nizam (The people want to bring down the regime) indicates the protestors knew what they wanted rid of, there is less agreement on what comes next. I am gravely concerned it might not be better and could well be worse. We Europeans must step up to ensure that hope is sustained.

So what now? The European Union response to the Arab Spring has been muted, but that is not a criticism. The EU does not do guns and tanks and bombs, thank goodness. Individual European countries have intervened militarily, notably France and to a lesser extent the UK in Libya. While I am far from a pacifist, and backed intervention on the basis of the UN resolutions, I cannot help but think that behind the grandiose language emanating from Paris and London there were the motivations of a French presidential election and a still new prime minister all too keen to be seen on a global stage as cities in England rioted themselves. 

There were also breathtaking double standards given these very governments were just a few short months ago all over the previous regime as full-time lobbyists for our arms and energy companies. The UK government invited both Libya and Bahrain to the Farnborough Airshow in 2010 and to Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi) in 2009, and more than half of the exhibitors at the Libyan Defence and Security Exhibition in November 2010 were British. 

And nobody in the Middle East is under any illusion that if Libya did not have spectacular energy reserves, our pious leaders would be considerably less agitated. Just along the coast the wretched benighted people living in occupied Western Sahara have been crying out for western intervention for years, to no avail.

However, this article is about what is possible, not raking over past and indeed ongoing failures. While the EU is not much good in a military crisis, that is a strength not a weakness. The EU is emphatically not a military bloc, and long may that continue. The EU is a community built on the three pillars of trade, democracy and human rights. It has, gradually, seen a zone of prosperity and democracy spread from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, the Arctic Circle to the Southern Mediterranean. 

The EU did not bring down the Berlin Wall, but it helped, and helped nurture stability and democracy where anarchy could have replaced Moscow rule. Similarly, the EU did not topple dictators across the Middle East, but neither did it sell them arms or train their secret policemen. Clean hands are rare in geopolitics, but the EU has cleaner hands than most. 

The Arab Spring could be no less historic than the fall of the Berlin Wall, and no less an opportunity for the EU. We need to turn our attention to how to bring the new countries into our ambit, to support democracy, trade and development to ensure that people in those countries stay there and build their nations, not flee on boats to ours or turn to the forces of radicalism who will be all too quick to blame the west for their failures. We need to bring something substantial to the table, something more than a bit of humanitarian aid here and there, worthy though that is.

The SNP wants to see Scotland at the heart of the EU, a full member state playing our part in the Council of Ministers in our own right. I do not believe EU membership is realistic for the Arab countries, but other associations already exist which I believe are tailor-made for the role. 

The European Economic Area EEA and the European Free Trade Association EFTA, currently populated by Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, are trading blocs which are close to, but not part of, the EU itself. They have much the same standards, not least over trade and democracy – but do not cover, fully, the freedom of movement of persons. I believe we need to bring EEA membership for all Arab countries, especially North Africa, formally on to our agenda as a key objective for us all. It is of course a long way off, but in the absence of a goal one drifts. 

A genuine offer of eventual accession to the EEA would focus minds in both Brussels and the Arab capitals. The conditional process towards eventual accession would give us a common rulebook where presently the EU has a messy series of bilateral agreements, and has frequently turned a blind eye to human rights abuses. EEA membership, conditional upon the states meeting the rules of the club, would be a difficult but genuine goal. It would be a hefty encouragement to progress and would also necessitate the investment by the EU in training and support for courts and civil society in the same way as we supported the former Soviet bloc states. 

There is little tradition of democracy across the Middle East, but that does not mean it cannot be fostered. After the fall of the Berlin Wall sceptics feared democracy in Eastern Europe was impossible, too. Encouraging and training-up democracy and civic society will be a substantial challenge, but we are up to it. 

Or we could be up to it. The glittering prize would be to see our zone of prosperity, democracy and peace extent to the Sahara and the Arabian Gulf, replacing our current southern fringe of poverty, despotism, radicalism and refugees. I have this week written to the EU high representative for such common foreign policy as exists, making this suggestion. I hope it is a constructive one, and demonstrates that Scotland wants to be part of the EU for a reason. We have ideas and vision as well as expertise and commitment. 

An Arab enlargement of the EEA would also change the nature of the EEA, and indeed of the EU itself. If it would make sense to change the EEA’s name who cares, so long as it does the same job extending the rule of law, human rights and trade to countries unfamiliar with them to their benefit and ours? The present EU as a whole, not least in the eurozone countries, is evolving fast, and we risk a dangerous period of navel-gazing and self-obsession while the eurozone puts its house in order. We need to think beyond our borders, and we need to think bigger.

The west, collectively, does not have clean hands over how we have dealt with the rulers of the Arab peoples. Member-state capitals continue to be more interested in the arms trade than in democracy. But the EU has not, and the EU has a historic chance to act on our collective behalf. There’s a club worth being part of.