By David Brunnstrom / Reuters
BRUSSELS: Europe, with its history of war and authoritarianism not long in the past, is often quick to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law as the values it wants to see other states adopt.
But the unrest sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, bringing down authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Tunisia, has forced it to face an uncomfortable truth: for years it turned a blind eye to such undemocratic regimes, favoring stability and a semblance of order over the risk of political unrest or chaos.
The trade-off provided several benefits, keeping the threat of Islamist militancy in check and holding back a potential wave of economic migrants, while trade and business opportunities grew steadily, if not at exceptional rates.
Now, with popular revolts throughout the region, Europe is trying to carve out a new approach, while not appearing hypocritical or ending up on the wrong side of history. At the same time, many of the threats it feared most in the past, particularly migration, have become acute, not diminished.
“The European Union has been struggling to find an appropriate policy to apply to North Africa and the Middle East,” said Clara of the Centre for European Reform.
“We are really at a point where there will be lots of difficult questions and I think right now the EU is clearly uncertain how it’s going to address them.”
The ability of Europe, and the United States, to influence peaceful democratic change may now be significantly reduced, analysts say, not least because European states remain unwilling to deliver the incentives that could encourage change.
“There is a risk that things go very badly,” said O’Donnell. “Depending on how the transitions develop there could be significant civil unrest and violence in various North African regions.”
A big threat, as already evidenced in Tunisia, where thousands of people have fled by boat to Italy, is migration, an issue that could easily spread to other regional states.
“Civil unrest can spill over into other countries and contribute potentially to further radicalization of certain groups and it can have very significant spill over effects on the Middle East peace process,” said O’Donnell.
“The problem is that the few incentives the EU could offer — liberalizing trade in agricultural goods and facilitating free movement of people — it has been very averse to deliver.”
Not only have countries in southern Europe resisted opening markets to competing goods from North Africa, such as citrus fruits, tomatoes and olive oils, populations across Europe don’t want to see visa rules relaxed to allow in more migrants.
Eastern Europe not a model
Some commentators have compared the democratic wave sweeping North Africa and the Gulf with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe at the start of the 1990s. But Michael Emerson of the Centre for European Policy Studies said the EU now found itself in a fundamentally different position.
Two decades ago the EU was able to influence positive change by offering eventual membership to former Soviet bloc states. But North Africa has no such prospect and even offering visa-free travel remains politically unsellable in the EU.
“Visa-free for North Africa is not going to fly — there are limits,” Emerson said. “This is the difference between offering membership perspectives and not doing so. If you’re not doing that, then your leverage is limited.”
While the EU can step up programs to promote democracy, it would have to work hard to rebuild its credibility among reformists in North Africa, said Richard Youngs of the Madrid-based think tank FRIDE.
“The EU has miscalculated badly over the last decade in equating the status quo with stability,” he said. “It really has to show the EU is willing to live up to its commitments to integrate North African economies and political systems into a genuine project of regional integration.”
The challenge for the EU is not so much having an influence — its vast trading power and the attractions of a marketplace with 500 million consumers give it that — but ensuring it brings that influence to bear quickly and in the right way.
“If we’re seen to be seriously behind the curve, there is the risk of getting caught on the wrong side of history,” said Youngs, pointing out that past experience has shown the risks of a radical backlash if heightened expectations of change after pro-democracy uprisings are not met.
“The international community has to act quite quickly and show that political change can be accompanied by really tangible economic and social change.”
But with major vested interests in the region — not least in the oil and gas sectors, in which North African states are big suppliers to the EU — the bloc as a whole is likely to remain extremely cautious in its approach and to renewed unrest.
EU members with close historical ties in the region, particularly France and Italy, also frequently take positions that conflict with northern European member states.
“There comes the question of how they relate to countries with regimes still in place,” said O’Donnell. “I don’t see the EU transforming its approach to Libya, for example.
“But it’s going to be very difficult for the EU to say it fully supports democratic transition in Egypt while not raising matters with Egypt’s neighbors, when Egypt’s neighbors are going to be quite uncomfortable with what’s happening in Egypt.”