The Arab Spring: We need to offer assistance to our Arab friends if their Spring is not to become a Winter

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By Alyn Smith
 
In Strasbourg this week we had a sobering moment of clarity in just how big  the gap sometimes is between the EU’s ideals and our actual power to effect change.
 
Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was a Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident and human rights activist; a man who put human rights before his own interests and whose activities, including hunger strikes, earned him severe punishments, including internal exile, at the hands of the Soviet authorities.

By Alyn Smith
 
In Strasbourg this week we had a sobering moment of clarity in just how big  the gap sometimes is between the EU’s ideals and our actual power to effect change.
 
Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was a Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident and human rights activist; a man who put human rights before his own interests and whose activities, including hunger strikes, earned him severe punishments, including internal exile, at the hands of the Soviet authorities.

In his honour and in his memory the European Parliament presents an annual award for freedom of thought and promotion of human rights. 

Previous winners have included Aung San Suu Kyi and Kofi Annan and while it isn’t the Nobel Prize, it is democratically decided by MEPs and gives the Parliament a chance to reflect on how the EU’s core values are being promoted. 

This year’s Sakharov Prize was awarded in Strasbourg this week, the recipients coming from Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya, the countries of the Arab Spring, the beacons of hope which have shone so brightly this year.

We honoured, posthumously, Mohamed Bouazizi , the Tunisian vegetable seller who in an act of desperation set fire to himself, kicking off the wave of protests which saw the ousting of three regimes and may yet see more;

  • Asmaa Mahfouz who was instrumental in organising the protest in Tahrir Square;
  • Ahmed al-Sanusi, who spent 31 years in jail in Libya for opposing the Qadaffi regime and is now helping to govern that country;
  • Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer who stood in opposition to the Syrian authorities;
  • and Ali Farzat whose cartoons inspired revolt and whose hands were broken for his trouble.

Asmaa Mahfouz and Ahmed al-Sanusi addressed us with moving and emotional speeches in Arabic while Ali Ferzat, made a speech by recorded message given he could not travel.  Razan Zaitouneh remains in hiding in Syria, a fugitive from the regime she opposes, but still promoting dissent with the increasingly authoritarian and increasingly unstable regime.

The great and the good gathered in Strasbourg in admiration of such courage, including the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Baroness Ashton, who was visibly emotional and engaged.   She works within severely restricting limitations but in my view she’s doing pretty well in spite of that.  She has very limited role in co-ordinating that which can be co-ordinated amongst the member states and trying to project those values on an unstable world and her obvious engagement with the causes of the Prize winners was a mark of the regard in which they are held. 

Photos were taken, anthems were played, ovations given, and as an exercise in giving emotional support it was good and I was pleased to play my part.

But even as we stood in praise and admiration, even as we acknowledged the courage and the fortitude of these activists, even as Europe reached out a hand of warm friendship to our Arab neighbours, I felt a cold finger of frustration and fear tapping on my shoulder.

I know the Middle East well, I spent a big chunk of my childhood in Saudi Arabia and I continue to harbour great affection for the area, less affection for the regimes in charge but it remains a big part of my mental worldmap.  And I am gravely fearful for the region, and I am fearful about the impact that continued regional instability could have on the wider world.  I fear that one generation of strong men will simply be replaced by another generation of strongmen (and they will all be men).

Generation change without attitude change, regime change without a change in government culture, changing the names without changing the practices will hinder, hamper and hamstring the reforms needed to produce and promote economic development, leaving the massively young populations of the Spring states without jobs or income but with time on their hands, a grievance seeking a target, and the shadows in the background are the conjoined spectres of food price inflation and rising oil and energy prices.

The Arab Spring has not made the Middle East more stable, it has done quite the opposite, and the scope for rebellion to run to resentment remains very real.  There is a pressing need to support the development of democratic and civil society in the region – for our benefit as much as for theirs –
and we are not doing enough, not nearly enough, to help them.

Our humanitarian duty, itself an imperative, is allied to a fair dose of self-interest and should include a canny eye on the future.  The impact of further unrest in the sweep of the Arab world on our countries will be significant, largely through soaring energy prices caused by the unrest and increasing numbers of refugees fleeing the unrest, and that at a time when we have yet to put our own economic houses in order and are shaky enough on our own.

In September I proposed that the EU needed to think big, and to invest heavily not in promoting a particular side or ideology, but in upskilling civil society as a whole in a series of very different countries unused to democracy.  I don’t think we’ve made much progress.  There is fertile ground there; democracy may be unfamiliar but the Arab Spring states have by and large educated and literate populations, and no shortage of hunger for change.

I proposed that the EU make a big, comprehensive offer to the Arab Spring states, of eventual membership of the European Free Trade Area or European Economic Area (I’m not greatly bothered which) as an end point to a massive and comprehensive upswing in engagement by our governments and the institutions of the EU itself in training up and supporting civil society in the Spring states. 

Starting the accession process need not set a timescale (see how long Turkey has been in discussions, for example) but it would be a serious and genuine boost, and focus, to engagement.  It would also change the nature of these EU-associated clubs, and give them more of a role than waiting room to the EU itself, no bad thing for the EU as a whole long term.

The process is well understood within the Brussels system.  The Commission opens negotiations on behalf of the Member States of the EU with the government of the country concerned.  Together they work their way, chapter by chapter, through all aspects of the country’s life, laws and
governance.  Each chapter is an exercise in taking stock of where the country is on a particular policy area, and an assessment of what needs to be done to bring them to EU levels of development followed by help to bring them up to those standards.

If you look, as an example; at the Icelandic accession you’ll see that five Chapters in the ongoing negotiations cover Company law, Enterprise and industrial policy, Trans-European networks, Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, and Financial and budgetary provisions.  Four are already closed because Iceland already meets, and in fact exceeds, the EU standards but for other nations it’s a longer and harder job to come up to scratch. 

Imagine if we could offer that help, that mentoring, that constructive criticism, to our friends in the Arab Spring states.  How much greater a contribution could the European Union make to the peace and stability of the region – of our neighbours – and to growing peace in the world?

The response I had back from Baroness Ashton when I suggested this was, as far as it went, reasonable and it is fair to say there are things happening, slowly, but I just don’t think we’re doing enough and the scale of potential disaster is enormous.  Our engagement is simply not enough and it is more than possible, it is likely, perhaps probable that we will regret that we missed this opportunity, this windfall chance to make a real difference.  We should seize this day.

Building democracy and fostering a civil society in the Arab Spring countries will be messy, untidy and chaotic; it will take time and effort on the part of EU officials, member state governments and their parliaments.  It will take money, more money than has been invested thus far at a time when all budgets everywhere are under unprecedented pressure. 

But if the Arab Spring slips into an Arab Winter of frozen development and the repetition of a history so recently rejected the alternative is even worse.  We need them to succeed every bit as much as we need success for ourselves.  We do not live alone on this planet; let’s reach out our hands in friendship.

Alyn Smith is an SNP member of the European Parliament