The road to Jerusalem runs through Cairo, Tunis, Benghazi.

It’s time the EU practiced the democracy it preaches.

Tuesday, 22 March, 2011 - 01:39
London, UK

Many Europeans who opposed the US invasion of Iraq saw the imposition of democracy through war as wrong. Nevertheless, while these Europeans saw homegrown democracy as something to be hoped for, only a few Marxists and libertarians dared dream of a popular uprising. Still, for those who cared to look, annual reports by the UN’s development programme (UNDP) which detailed the catastrophic socio-economic conditions across North Africa and the Middle East, were clinically portraying ‘pre-revolutionary’ conditions. They are no longer ‘pre’.

Decision-makers in European capitals underestimated the exasperation of Arab populations and viewed relations with Arab leaders from a post-9/11 perspective: authoritarian regimes were bulwarks against Islamism and represented the best way to ensure stability. A long-standing status quo dictated Europe’s Neighborhood Policy (ENP) with its Southern neighbours. The ENP is the framework of external relations established by the European Union in 2004 after its enlargement to deal with the countries at its periphery.

In March 2010, Stefan Füle, the EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement and the European Neighborhood Policy visited Tunisia and declared that the country was “in many respects, an example for the region”. A meeting of the EU-Tunisia Association Council, a forum for the promotion of preferential or ‘upgraded’ relations between Tunisia and the EU, was scheduled to take place in late January – but by then the uprising in Tunisia had led to the flight of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s autocratic president.

Before the recent events, President Sarkozy’s Union for the Mediterranean had crudely attempted to de-politicise Euro-Mediterranean relations. Clauses in agreements between Arab countries and the EU, that were meant to provide for the protection of human rights and civil society, were quietly dropped. The frameworks for the EU’s ‘Euro-Mediterranean Partnership’, the Barcelona Process and the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), ostensibly based on ‘shared values, democracy and human rights’, failed to relate to any internal political issues that were seen as too ‘sensitive.’

Now the noises coming from Brussels and other European capitals express a collective will for a change of approach. Commissioner Füle himself expressed Europe’s mea culpa for having supported authoritarian regimes at the expense of the defense of human rights for so long. The European Commission’s new strategy of a “Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean” aims at rewarding the commitment to free and fair elections with access to European sources of funding, support for civil society groups, the promotion of “inclusive economic development” and – controversially – enhanced mobility between southern Mediterranean countries like Tunisia and European Mediterranean countries such as France and Italy. Even if member states approve this new approach, it remains to be seen whether these measures can restore the EU’s democratic credibility, after decades of conniving with authoritarian regimes in the interests of Western security, controlling migration and guaranteeing energy policies.

So far, relations between the EU, Israel and the Palestinians have not been considered in the ENP review. Israel-Palestine seems surprisingly quiet at the moment, but this is an illusion. The impact of the regional turmoil will inevitably be felt there. A democratic Egypt cannot be expected to acquiesce in the continued occupation of the West Bank and, particularly, with the status quo in Gaza. The more isolated Israel becomes in the region, the greater the price that the US and the EU may have to pay for backing it.

The democratic uprisings have created great excitement and hope among young Palestinians. It is no coincidence that the “Gaza youth manifesto for change ” was released at the same time as the winds of revolution started to blow through the region. However, while socio-economic conditions and political configurations in the occupied Palestinian territories strongly resemble those of their neighbours, the Palestinian thirst for democracy is also about national self-determination. Faced with few political options and a general disillusionment with what both Palestinian and Israeli politicians have to offer, it is hard to see how the new mood for change will not also be felt in this part of the Mediterranean.

The EU should not miss the boat. There is a desperate need for a comprehensive review of its policy priorities towards Israel and the Palestinians. Its post-9/11 approach revealed a lack of commitment to democracy when aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) was suspended after Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections. The mantra “anything but the Islamists” was heard in Tunis and Cairo as well as in Tulkarem and Khan Younis. Since 2007, the EU has concentrated its financial state-building efforts in the PA–controlled West Bank alone, despite the Fayyad government’s lack of democratic legitimacy.

European leaders may believe that Salam Fayyad’s institution-creating achievements will be useful when the time comes, but time is definitively running out for the two-state project.

At the very least, the EU should seriously support intra-Palestinian reconciliation efforts and reassess the objectives of its assistance to the Palestinians. At the last EU-Israel Association Council (February 2011), the EU put an upgrade of its relations with Israel on hold but nonetheless decided to “further explore with Israel the opportunities still offered by the current Action Plan in a number of sectors and policy areas … and pursue technical talks in order to identify areas for future potential cooperation”.

Before January 2011, the mainstream view among European political analysts was that if the EU wanted to make tangible progress in Euro-Mediterranean cooperation, it had to prioritise peace-making in the Middle-East. Now, regional democratisation could itself contribute towards the dynamic of conflict resolution, as well as benefiting Europe’s trade and security objectives. As such, 2011’s winds of change demand a revisiting of EU policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also a reappraisal and consistent reapplication of Europe’s democratic principles more generally.

For now, it is crucial that the EU sends a strong signal to Israel that relations will only improve if Tel Aviv complies with human rights and humanitarian law and gives clear guarantees, backed up by actions, which demonstrate that it is committed to the construction of a viable Palestinian State. An essential first step would be a freeze on settlement building.

Agnès Bertrand-Sanz completed her Ph.D in international law at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) in 2010. Since January 2009, she is the Middle East policy officer for APRODEV, the association of Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox European development organisations (including Christian Aid UK, Diakonia, ICCO, Broet fur die Welt). She also teaches External Relations of the European Union at the Lille Institute of Political Studies (Science-Po Lille).

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