Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

The Arab spring and Europe's chance

By Massimo D'Alema ( Updated: 2011-10-28 09:20

ROME – The term "spring" may suggest a gentle awakening, but what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East is a true revolution, fomented by a new, digitally-savvy generation. The Arab upheavals are a by-product of the inexorable process of globalization in the twenty-first century, with almost instantaneous communications and increasing contact with the West transforming social and economic expectations.

Only by fully understanding the demands and grievances of these Arab revolutionaries will the West be able to give the region appropriate support – and this support is critical. The Arab revolts have not been directed against the West – on the contrary, they have been fed by Western democratic principles and values – but they could yet produce a reactionary backlash.

There are three preconditions that Europe and the United States must meet to ensure the prevention of such a scenario. First, Western countries' support must be unambiguous. The Arab peoples must see clearly that the EU and the US genuinely intend to sustain Arabs' demands for democracy, freedom of speech, and economic opportunity. In short, the region's people must have evidence of the West's interest in establishing their right to human dignity and higher standards of living.

This means developing consistent policies and putting in place concrete measures aimed at favoring a peaceful transition to democracy. It also means isolating dictatorships across the region – even those governments traditionally considered to be Western allies and reliable economic and political partners.

The second precondition for encouraging peaceful political development in the Arab world, which applies to the EU in particular, is to approach the Mediterranean region with the same resolve that was brought to Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West identified common goals for countries facing the difficult post-communist transition to democracy and a market economy. The former Soviet satellites were offered the alluring prospect of joining the EU and NATO, which helped smooth the way for radical political and economic reforms. While the EU cannot make the same offer to the Arab states, it has a moral duty and a political interest in presenting them with something comparable.

In practical terms, the EU needs to offer its Mediterranean partners major concessions on market access, financial aid, and migration policy. It must greatly reduce the technocratic aspects of its approach to external action, and at the same time make its relations with southern Mediterranean countries a top priority.

In institutional terms, this means replacing the ineffectual Union for the Mediterranean with a successor that demands fully democratic governance as a criterion for membership. The Italian Council of the European Movement, for example, is calling for the establishment of a Euro-Med Community between the EU and non-EU Mediterranean countries. Its focus, besides economic integration, should be promotion of peace and human rights.

The third precondition for Western credibility in the Mediterranean region is to take a genuine step towards resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Thus far, this has been the chief obstacle to stronger partnerships between Western countries and the Arab world. The EU and its member states must commit themselves to finding a viable strategy to end a conflict that is now well into its seventh decade.

The Arab spring offers an extraordinary opportunity in this regard. Arab dictators have long lacked interest in real peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because the region's precarious stability provided justification for their own undemocratic regimes. Israel must now be well aware that new democratic governments will not tolerate a situation that was acceptable to authoritarian Arab regimes. Unlike their predecessors, the new Arab leaders will resolutely demand human rights for Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

The Israeli government's weak and myopic attitude toward the Arab spring is puzzling, not least because it has long been the region's only true democracy. But US President Barack Obama's administration seems to have understood the extent of the changes taking place in the Middle East. In May, Obama publicly stated that a return to negotiations on the basis of the pre-1967 borders is essential.

The US, or Obama at any rate, seems to be moving in the right direction, despite the round of applause that greeted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's uncompromising speech before the US Congress last spring. In contrast, the EU is once again showing itself to be irresolute and riven by internal divisions on both the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (or lack thereof) and the Arab upheavals.

The same incoherent approach has in the past undermined the EU's efforts to project a credible foreign policy, ensuring that Europe is all too often perceived as feeble and inadequate. If Europe does not want to be marginalized in international affairs, it must quickly develop a strategic response to the Arab Spring, underpinned by a compelling vision of the future of the Middle East and North Africa.

Massimo D'Alema, Italy's prime minister from 1998-2000, is President of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and of the Fondazione Italianieuropei, and chairs the Italian Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Europe's World, 2011.

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