EU must do more for the Arab world

European values cherished just as dearly by our southern neighbours

The EU has a particular responsibility to support the transition in the Arab world. Europe must not let slip this opportunity.

Article by the Dutch Foreign Minister in De Volkskrant

The turbulent developments in Tunisia and Egypt have put us all on tenterhooks. An impressive groundswell of popular protest has opened up prospects of democracy and greater respect for human rights. Thanks in part to the social media, citizens have cast off the suffocating blanket of repression. The demand for freedom, democracy, good governance and a life of human dignity – in both material and non-material terms – has been shown to be universal. The values on which the European Union is founded are cherished just as dearly by our neighbours on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

The urgent need for social and political transition in North Africa and the Middle East calls for a European response. Europe and its southern neighbours are geopolitically interlinked. Europe has huge interests in that region. In our part of the world, too, security and stability are furthered by social and political reforms in the Arab world. The countries in the region are major trading partners and markets for Dutch exports. They control strategic trade routes like the Suez Canal. They are the principal source of our fossil fuels. We also need to work together to combat illegal migration, people smuggling and terrorism. The interests at stake are therefore substantial and many-faceted.

Responsibility

The EU has a particular responsibility to support the transition in the Arab world. Europe must not let slip this opportunity. European heads of government have given High Representative Catherine Ashton the task of developing a package of transition measures to support change in Tunisia and Egypt. Baroness Ashton is travelling to the region tomorrow. She will have to make specific, binding agreements there.

Elections are due in Egypt and Tunisia within the next few months. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) can put its many years of experience in overseeing and monitoring fair elections to good use. Egypt and Tunisia are longstanding partners of the OSCE. EU election observers could also play a useful role.

But more structural efforts by the European Union are also called for. The people of Egypt and Tunisia rose up not only against oppression, but also against the hopelessness of their social and economic situation. The majority of the population is young, but their prospects of a satisfactory livelihood are few and far between. This demands an overhaul of the EU’s current policy in the region.

Neighbourhood Policy

The EU has set aside more than €11 billion for its Neighbourhood Policy for the period 2007-2013. We have to use these funds, which come out of the pockets of European taxpayers, more effectively. The top priorities are strengthening democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and economic development. If partner countries fail to meet conditions on human rights and democracy, aid must be cut back.

There is a need not only to restructure EU assistance, but also to improve market access. Europe has almost completely opened its market for industrial products from its Mediterranean partners. But we still keep our market closed to certain agricultural products from North Africa. The EU could be more generous here.

Europe also has a role in helping establish free trade between the countries of the region. This will boost the agricultural sector, which is important to that part of the world, creating jobs for young people who might otherwise try their luck in Europe, something we would rather avoid. Employment and prospects in the Arab world are essential in that respect.

Assistance

Europe should also step up its technical assistance to the region. European experts should work together more closely with their partners in the Arab world. Experts on the rule of law, competition, customs and taxation should help to make governance more efficient and transparent. The EU’s normative power must be exported to the south. The street scenes from Tunis, Cairo and Alexandria bring to mind Prague, Leipzig and Bucharest in 1989. In the nineties, Europe learned important lessons from the political and economic transition of the countries of central and eastern Europe. We have to share that experience.

The dynamic, not to say tumultuous, developments in the Arab world stand in stark contrast to the total stagnation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Europe must now do everything in its power to get things moving. It is a positive sign that, next month in Brussels, the Quartet (the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union) will be having talks with representatives from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League.

Peace process

On my trip to the Middle East I urged the Palestinian and Israeli leaders to finally resume talks. For too long, the peace process in the Middle East has been at a standstill with occasional small steps forward. The time has come for decisions and for action. Israel cannot afford to determine its position solely on the basis of its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. The Palestinian Authority must realise that unilateral steps will seriously impede effective decision-making.

Now more than ever, the European Union must shoulder its responsibility. That responsibility should be driven by shared values, common interests and crystal-clear conditions. Europe must not presume to prescribe what should happen; we must not lay down the law to those who have shown the courage to fight for more freedom, democracy and human rights. There is more than enough scope in the Arab world for Europe to act on its responsibility without finger-wagging.