Almost a year and half after the Arab uprising began, Europe, like the United States, has yet to find new ways to deal with the countries that have started major political transformations: Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Nor have these two players created policies for countries such as Morocco and Jordan that are implementing moderate change precisely in order to prevent social upheaval.
The European financial crisis seems to absorb all the time and a good part of the resources of the European Union. But the main problem is the lack of an official discourse from Brussels and individual European governments about establishing the necessary new relationship with the Arab countries.
Since the end of the colonial period, Europe has based its relationship with former colonies on obtaining cheap access to natural resources, selling weapons, and increasingly moving manufacturing production to "maquiladoras" or duty-free free-trade zone factories in some of these countries in order to profit from their cheap and tightly-controlled labor force. Politically, Europe's aim was to preserve stability, to do business in the region and to secure Israel´s geopolitical position (a role supported in particular by Egypt and Jordan). At the same time, Europe was the beneficiary of massive funds that repressive Arab elites transferred to banks, to investments (e.g., real estate), and to other operations that were not always clear and legal.
The crony elites of the rentist states in the South found perfect partners in the North. In the last several decades, the neoliberal economic model was promoted with equal enthusiasm by local governments as well as European and US investors and international financial institutions. The result in the region was a growing inequality and increasing impoverishment of the lower and middle classes. Even when Europe launched such initiatives as the Euromed conference, the outcome was the promotion of neoliberal economics more than an open dialogue about democracy and social justice.
The reintegration of Muammar Gaddafi´s Libya into the international community that was led by the United Kingdom, France and the US was an example of the cynical concept of political dialogue. And Europe's low political profile in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also not been helpful, particularly in recent years, in terms of portraying Europe as a respected actor in the region.
While many European governments and the private sector cultivated these relationships, the EU and its aid and cooperation agencies channeled funds for development and good governance programs that barely helped to soften the impact of repressive and predatory local governments. In parallel, since the 1950s Europe has absorbed a steady flow of immigrants from several Arab countries. A two-way and seemingly unconnected relationship was created: investments in Arab maquiladoras and arms went south, while profits and poor immigrants traveled north.
Although Europe is currently busy confronting its financial crisis and internal divisions, it urgently needs to redefine its relationship with the Arab world, demonstrating a shift from favoring elites to supporting democratic political change, democratic actors and an economic and social justice agenda. Europe and the Arab world need to jointly address a series of common issues, such as access to energy resources, environmental agreements in the Mediterranean region, reinvestment of energy benefits to create infrastructure, and promotion of higher education and other social services.
It is also crucial to establish rules for the arms trade and assistance for security sector reform that help consolidate the rule of law and transitional justice. Europe and Arab states need to support implementation of fair tax systems and reform of state institutions, reorientation of EU aid in the context of North-South agreements, the equal inclusion of women, recovery of assets that former dictators hid in Europe, and joint efforts to promote international justice. Agreements on immigration should take into consideration both that Islam today is part of European culture and that this is opposed by a racist wave.
EU institutions, governments, the private sector and civil society need to discuss with their Arab counterparts the kind of investments and policies that will create employment for the region's youth. This is a challenging issue, given that austerity policies promoted in the EU are creating a mass of youth unemployment there. Growth and investments, not to mention austerity measures, do not necessarily generate more employment. What are needed are policies of redistribution. Toward this objective, Europe must start cutting its links with Middle Eastern crony elites.
Politically, Europe could play an important role supporting the coalition governments that are emerging from the on-going Arab reform process. The experience of coalition governments in Europe and beyond could be shared and supported. But Europeans must be prepared to accept, first, that Islamic parties can participate in and even lead Arab coalitions, and second, that Arab democratic processes will take time and might adopt hybrid shapes that do not necessarily coincide with the liberal model.-Published 24/5/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org