Right in the middle of a global economic crisis, to our amazement, an extraordinarily strong revolutionary movement is sweeping through our southern neighbours.
This movement is rooted in democracy and represents a fight for dignity, human rights and individual freedom – values which all people yearn for more than any others. All this is happening in Tunisia, in Egypt and now in Libya too, working against authoritarian regimes and dictators like Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi – who has decided to destroy all those who stand against him.
The Arab peoples are no longer willing to bear the yoke of tyranny. They will also not stand for directions or political interference from outside. That said, we are called upon as neighbours and friends to accompany the transition process both bilaterally and within the context of the European Union, giving assistance where it is welcome and requested.
The European Union has had the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) towards Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean area at its disposal since 2004. The ENP is geared towards promoting development in the peoples and societies around us. The European Union is the world’s largest donor when it comes to development cooperation, notwithstanding that the amount will always seem inadequate. In the 2007-2013 period, the EU will channel 11.2 billion euro to the countries covered by the ENP.
The southward-looking ENP cannot instigate reform processes, but it can promote them; it can support civil society and encourage reform both politically and financially. It already has a range of mechanisms with which to aid progress in North Africa, from political cooperation, dialogue on human rights and social, economic and cultural collaboration to mobility for professionals and students. These mechanisms are an essential part of the Association Agreements which the EU has signed with countries in the region (there is no such agreement with Libya). We need to adapt them into suitable mechanisms to meet the latest challenges which have arisen among our southern neighbours. The more contacts and reliable links to our neighbours we can forge, the more possible it will be to further the transition to democracy and the rule of law. Even now, every agreement reached between the EU and these states contains a human rights clause. Every agreement examines and reflects how closely the country concerned shares our values. The European Neighbourhood Policy thus already takes into account the different circumstances of each individual case.
However, we also need to be more flexible in the way we employ the mechanisms we have, differentiating even more strongly, engaging in greater political dialogue and doing more for independent civil society. We also need to think about how we can best support economic development among our southern neighbours, such as by further opening our markets. The European Union is an important and attractive partner for our neighbours to the south. The first thing the Tunisian and Egyptian authorities asked of us when Ben Ali and Mubarak had fallen was to conclude negotiations with the EU on “advanced status”.
Now that the North African states have made themselves subject to democratic processes which emanate, just as they should, from the citizens of those countries, the EU must become their ally to help ensure that these processes can be cemented. The Union needs to develop a new strategy for the southern edge of the Mediterranean, as the geopolitical structure which used to frame our actions in the region has been broken apart by recent events. As democratic Europeans, we have a responsibility to do so.
The Governments of the 27 member states must do what they can to help movements directed against authoritarian regimes. They need to make this message heard loud and clear. The European Union must provide political and economic assistance to the new democracies on the Mediterranean.
Part of this strategy of democratic solidarity ought to be to advance equality between men and women. Women in the Arab world have gained much greater profile in the past few weeks than they previously had, and this trend needs to continue into the future. Europe, which is not really in any position to congratulate itself on this score either, must give its unconditional support to women working to realize discrimination-free conditions in the new societies of North Africa.
Libya, too, needs to be included in this strategy. The situation there is highly charged. The EU has to maintain a respectful and generous policy on granting asylum and a refuge for those trying to flee oppression. It must clearly signal its opposition to the Libyan regime, whose merciless military and political violence has killed thousands of people.
No-one has a greater interest in political stability and progress towards democracy around the Mediterranean and beyond than we in Europe. It is entirely within our capabilities to have an influence on events – without of course intervening in them. Let us do so, in an agreed, uniform and visible manner – so that the nascent democracies can be cemented and a bloodbath in Libya and elsewhere avoided!
This is the beginning of the European Union’s greatest responsibility to date. Our immediate neighbours are instigating revolution, and they need us. Europe, after all, is part of the solution for the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
Diego López Garrido is the Spanish Secretary of State for the European Union.
This article appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 22 March 2011.