Europe’s southern neighborhood has entered a new era. The uprisings that began in Tunisia in December 2010 have unleashed a set of dynamics that have changed the region. Europe has long-standing political, security, and economic interests in its relations with the Arab world. The new and fast-evolving conditions present a complex set of opportunities and risks. Europe needs to develop its southern neighborhood policy to reflect the momentousness of recent developments and to build on opportunities where they emerge and to manage risks where they menace.
Importantly, the prodemocracy values of the recent Arab uprisings have increased the space of common political values between Europe and its southern neighbors. In previous decades the Arab world had gone through ideological waves of anticolonialism, Arab nationalism, socialism, and political Islam, all of which posited a strong conflictual relationship with Europe and the West. The prodemocracy demonstrations of the Arab Spring have emphasized a universality of values that embraces both East and West. It is this commonality of values that underpinned the growth of the European Union in Western Europe, and then allowed its expansion into Central and Eastern Europe. This commonality of values should also enable a fresh approach toward European-Arab relations that is built on deeper trust and cooperation.
Most importantly, it is critical that Europe help Arab countries that have overthrown their rulers to consolidate their transitions. Many revolutions that start with liberal agendas regress into authoritarianism as they face daunting political, security, or economic challenges. Europe has deep experience in political transitions—whether from fascism to democratic republics or from absolute to constitutional monarchies. Europe should share this experience with its southern neighbors and offer meaningful assistance in helping design and manage the constitutional, legal, and institutional aspects of political transition.
At the security level, revolutions are moments of national vulnerability, and Europe should be well aware that this period might be one in which security assistance—and occasionally intervention—is a necessary ingredient. In countries in transition, like Egypt and Tunisia, Europe needs to work with the governments and the security forces to ensure that armed groups do not succeed in hijacking or ruining the transition. Europe should also draw on its historical experience to provide guidance and assistance in terms of how armed forces can play a stabilizing role while ceding increasing power to elected civilian authorities. This area of civil-military relations and security sector reform is going to be an issue of key importance in the years ahead.
In countries in crisis, like Libya, Syria, and Yemen, Europe has to assess its responses on a case by case basis, weighing the costs of intervention against the consequences of inaction. In Libya, the NATO no-fly zone was a necessity to prevent a humanitarian disaster, and has helped unseat one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional regimes in recent history. Looking ahead, Europe needs to be standing by to provide rapid state-building assistance to post-Qaddafi Libya. Toward Syria, Europe was correct in imposing sanctions against the increasingly brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, and should work with Turkey and other friends in the region to stand by the protestors and push the regime to accept real and immediate political reform. In Yemen, the risk of state failure is immense, and Europe should continue to back the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative to find a soft landing to the deep crisis there.
Much of the Arab unrest was linked to desperate socioeconomic conditions. These conditions also fuel the south-north migration, which is a main cause of concern for Europe. Postwar Europe had the Marshall plan, and post-Soviet Central and Eastern Europe had EU assistance and membership to transform their economies. The Arab countries that have thrown off dictatorship need their own Marshall plan. Europe and the United States have promised $20 billion in aid within the context of the G8, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development plans to begin investing up to $3.5 billion a year in the region. This is significant—particularly in light of the deep economic crisis in Europe—but a larger and more strategic economic partnership needs to be developed, necessarily with the participation of the oil-rich Gulf states, to ensure that the large non-oil countries of Europe’s southern neighborhood can achieve high levels of growth and job creation. This will help secure the transitions, protect against regression into new forms of authoritarianism, reduce migration to Europe, and strengthen south-north interests and relations.
The GCC is a great source of capital. It has responded to the Arab Spring by providing some assistance to countries in need. Politically, however, it has been alarmed by the pro-democracy wave and has offered GCC membership to Morocco and Jordan, hoping to create a club of monarchies that would resist this wave. Europe needs to work with Saudi Arabia and the GCC to help make the case that monarchy and responsive government are not mutually exclusive, and to press the GCC to use more of its oil wealth to spur growth in the large non-oil countries of the region. The experience of several European states in building constitutional monarchies would be instructive.
Finally, political stability and economic growth will not be achieved in a region in crisis; and there are two crises that will destabilize the region in the years ahead: the Arab-Israeli conflict and the tensions between Iran and its neighbors. The two conflicts need high level attention and are not disconnected. Left unresolved, the Arab-Israeli issue will come back to poison political transitions and might facilitate the rise of radical groups that speak to popular outrage regarding Jerusalem and the Palestinian issue. This could have the biggest impact in Egypt, whose political fate will play a determining role in defining the pattern of politics of most Arab republics.
With regard to Iran, tensions unleashed by the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the evolution of Iran’s nuclear program have created a pattern of increasing conflict not only between Iran and much of the Arab world, but also between Iran, Israel, and the West. Left unresolved, this confrontation with Iran could unravel the precarious situation in Iraq, undermine Gulf security, and unleash sectarian tensions in Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Lebanon; it could also lead to military confrontation between Israel and Iran, or even between Iran and the West.
Neither of these crises is easy to resolve, but Europe cannot afford to ignore them as it deals with the consequences of the Arab Spring.
The first decade of the twenty-first century started off ominously with Islamic terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe and Western invasions of two Muslim countries; this second decade has started positively with prodemocracy uprisings in several Arab countries calling for human rights and accountable governments. Europe has key political, security, and economic roles to play in helping to consolidate the positive aspirations of its southern neighbors. People on both sides of the Mediterranean have a deep interest in the success of this consolidation.
Paul Salem is the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon.
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