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Developments in the Gulf and North Africa: A view from the European Parliament

Submitted by on 07 Jun 2011 – 12:33

James Elles MEP, Substitute Member of the EP Delegation for Relations with the Arab Peninsula

The “Arab Spring” has seen pro-democracy movements spread round the Gulf and North Africa like a prairie fire. When Mohammed Bouazizi, a frustrated Tunisian fruit vendor, set himself on fire on 18 December 2010, nobody could have foreseen that this would lead to revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, a civil war in Libya, and civilian uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.

The Internet Dimension

What has struck me the most about these events is the power that the internet has to create political change. Using social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and applications such as Skype to organise themselves, protestors have been putting immense pressure on autocratic regimes. This has so far led to the overthrow of two heads of state; Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Alifled on 14 January, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February.

The internet is allowing activists to bypass traditional state control of media, and also to communicate with the outside world in situations where foreign journalists have limited access, contributing to international pressure on autocratic regimes. Estimates suggest that we have been seeing 40-45 tweets per minute from Egypt and 30-35 per minute from Syria and Lebanon, many of which have been written in English for international consumption. Additionally, the use of smartphones means that videos of atrocities can be instantly uploaded to Youtube for the world to see.

A notable development from the perspective of the European Parliament has been that in the past few weeks, thousands of Bahrainis have posted appeals on the European Parliament Facebook page protesting at the passing of death sentences on four anti-government protestors on 28 April. In response, the Chairmen of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Sub-Committee on Human Rights and the Delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula issued a joint statement on 3 May, condemning the death sentences and supporting the “legitimate democratic aspirations” of the protestors. This is a great example of how technology is allowing the people to interact directly with the European Parliament, whereas before communication was restricted to the highest levels.

The Formal Dimension

In support, the European Parliament has also been passing Resolutions expressing its support of the protesters. On 24 March it called on states in the Gulf to “recognise a continuing popular movement for democratic reform”.  Although the European Union influence in the area has hitherto been limited, calls were made for a deepened relationship. (After all, the EU is the second largest trading partner of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the latter is the fifth largest export market of the EU.)

More critically, in another Resolution on the Southern Mediterranean the European Parliament said that policy had “proven ineffective in meeting its human rights and democracy objectives”. It said that “short-term stability has often taken precedence” over such values and that “the EU has neglected dialogue with civil societies”.

The Way Forward

In recognition of this analysis, the EU’s response has been to look for a “qualitative step forwards” based on a differentiated approach that encourages concrete progress in the fields of democracy, human rights, social justice, good governance and the rule of law.  As such, it was announced that a review of the EUR 4 billion already available to the Southern Neighbourhood for the period ending in 2013 would take place to see whether funds should be re-focussed in light of recent developments. The question remains as to whether the EU will be able to find fresh funds for this purpose.

The short term response has been to provide EUR 75 million in humanitarian aid to tackle needs in Libya, and the displaced persons at the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. The EU has also expressed its strong support of the UN Resolution 1973 and the subsequent deployment of NATO troops to the area to protect civilians received, stating that it is ready to provide support as appropriate.  On 9 May, it decided to impose restrictive measures against Syria and those responsible for the violent repression against the civilian population, including an arms embargo, a freeze on assets and a travel ban.

On 4 May, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed such action, saying that it was in the nations of Europe’s interests “to use their collective weight in the world to advance common goals and values and changes in the Arab World”. Just as the EU and NATO offered “the hand of friendship” to new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe in 1990, he said that we can help to transform countries to the South of Europe through broad and deep economic integration, leading to a free-trade area and eventually a customs union, even if EU membership is not on the cards.  The Foreign Secretary stressed that the EU already has the tools to do this but that it must mobilise the political will to put these tools into action.

* * *

Looking back over the last few months gives rise to the conclusion that Western policy makers have been caught unawares by the speed of events and so they are reacting to events taking place rather than formulating a strategic vision on how to conduct foreign policy. More thought has to be given in particular to how the empowerment of individuals – wherever they are – can, through technology, change the circumstances of particular countries owing to their ability to master a critical mass of opposition through modern media.

Furthermore, there is a real need for the EU to think more strategically about the changing world outside its frontiers and to take these changes into account when formulating its own internal and external policy initiatives. There are some positive signs that strategic thinking within the EU institutions is now getting a higher profile than before.