Štefan Füle: EU won’t allow Arab revolutions to be ‘stolen’

stefan_fule_big.jpg

The European Union is not instigating revolution in the Arab world, nor is it trying to impose its values. But once people in Tunisia, Egypt and other counties have embarked on the road to reform, the EU will not allow these revolutions to be stolen, Enlargement and neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

EU Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle is a career diplomat and previously served as Czech ambassador to NATO and Lithuania.

He was speaking to EURACTIV's Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Commissioner: looking at your schedule one cannot say that it is 'business as usual', especially with regard to the Mediterranean dimension of your portfolio. You are not alone in dealing with the challenge posed by the wave of Arab revolutions. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton and Humanitarian Affairs Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva are also busy with this on a daily basis. It seems the European Union is lucky to have the External Action Service while such important developments are taking place.

I think you cannot be more correct, implying that the developments in our southern neighbourhood are actually changing the way the European Union is dealing with its neighbourhood. It's changing our style. It's changing our procedure. It's changing our interaction within and among the institutions, with the member states. That's the first important point.

The second one is that while those developments have a direct implication for us of course, they also have implications on the overall neighbourhood policy. I think it is correct to assume that as the whole European Union is reflecting on what's occurring in the south, indeed historic changes, the east cannot stay away and pretend that in that part, the business stands as usual.

Coming back to the second part of your question, ours is a well coordinated effort. We are not only trying to coordinate the timing of our trips, but we have our teams working together. And it is important to realise that the people I'm working with on neighbourhood are actually the same people Cathy Ashton is working with on neighbourhood. So we do not have any problems in coordinating. On the contrary, the way the External Action Service has been set up allows us a much higher level of coordination, and our colleague Commissioner Georgieva is also taking advantage of that.

We are coordinating not only on the mechanisms we have within the External Action Service and between the EEAS and the Commission, but also within the Commission itself. Each and every week now in the Commission at the college meeting, we have a specific agenda item on neighbourhood policy, where not only the three of us speak, but also with varied and active contributions from the president himself, and a number of other colleagues.

We are trying to cover both the operational aspect of our relationships but also the conceptual. Not a long time ago, at the beginning of March, we adopted a communication on the Partnership for democracy and shared prosperity, which was, I think, a leap in dealing with those countries whom we could call 'emerging democracies' in the south, those who not only committed to free and fair elections, but to deepening democratisation. Within this college we are now working very intensively on the review of ENP policy.

By the way, the 8 March communication is the first joint communication of the External Action Service and the Commission. The strategy paper, the ENP review, will again be a joint paper. And I strongly believe that with those post-Lisbon instruments with a double-headed High Representative/Vice-President of the Commission, with the External Action Service, with our delegations being upgraded to fully-fledged EU delegations, we are now more consistent and coherent, and much better equipped to live up to the expectations of our neighbourhood.

On the other side, we also have to make sure that our values and our interests match each other. Both elements are very, very important for living up to the historic changes in our neighbourhood.

There is, as you say, a sense of history unfolding. As an East European who perhaps remembers the challenge of the '89 revolutions, you probably notice some basic differences. People in Eastern Europe basically wanted to lead the same lives as Western people, they liked the same music, wanted to have the same clothes, the same lifestyle. It's not the same in the Arab world. There may be Western-minded people, but for others there may be other centres of attraction. Some see Iran as a model for them to follow, for example

Yes and no. I see a lot of attraction there by the Turkish example, much more than the Iranian example. But this comparison with the democratic revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, more than 20 years ago, is both fair from some points of view and unfair from others. I think what's fair is to compare the reasoning behind the revolutions: the quest for dignity and equality. People wanted to have a say about their future. That's what's uniting these changes in Central and Eastern Europe and those of the southern neighbourhood.

The second difference is that for the people in Central and Eastern Europe, the fact that there was a European Union, the fact that there was NATO, that there were institutions which actually reflected the very values people were fighting for, allowed them to associate their revolutions and the outcome of their revolutions with the membership in the democratic family, through these two organisations.

In the southern neighbourhood it is a different story. And for the Eastern neighbourhood, it's also a little bit of a different story. This is an issue which the strategic revision of the neighbourhood policy is going to tackle.

And here I hope we will be ambitious, not less ambitious as the people behind the revolution in the south and the people who are behind the reform process in Eastern Europe. We will be much clearer about the end process of this neighbourhood. We will be much clearer in what we are offering. The neighbourhood policy as it has been formulated provides a set of instruments and means to create a zone of stability and peace and prosperity.

Now we want to have a zone of strength and democracy and a zone of a closer relationship with the European Union. Now we want to have much closer relationships with civil society organisations, shifting the focus from relationships with the authorities to relationships with civil society. The time has come to be more ambitious in offering a more solid basis for our relationship.

And again, we would have to differentiate and will be differentiating between east and south. In the case of the east, rather than saying what the Eastern Partnership is not about, we need to make absolutely clear to our partners that it is through this initiative and various programmes that they will be able to build more of the European Union inside their countries. And it is through this process they not only pull their countries closer to the European Union, but at a certain time they will be able to put on the table their European aspirations according to Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty.

For the countries in the south, I think we need also to be ambitious. We need to look beyond their current association agreements. We are ready to embark on economic integration with those countries, in addition to strengthening civil society, supporting their democratic developments, strengthening the democratic institutions and supporting their inclusive and sustainable growth. All of that you could do much better if you engage our neighbours with the idea of gradually creating the kind of European economic area which is working so well in Europe.

Could Tunisia be a sort of pilot? Tunisia started the whole process. It is a small country with huge potential. Could the EU, once there is a government in Tunisia, quickly achieve an advanced status of relations and fill it with content, as an example of what it is possible to do together?

Listen, it could be Tunisia. It could be Morocco. It could actually be any other country which embarks on free and fair elections, which commits itself to freedom of association, freedom of access to information, an independent judiciary, the fight against corruption and the reform of the security sectors. Those are the main elements which if the country committed to them, through this partnership for democracy and shared prosperity, we would be ready to offer much more.

Yes, you are absolutely right that we are at an advanced stage with our Tunisian partners in talking about these. I was in Tunisia a couple of days ago and there were very encouraging discussions because in addition to reforms, the commitment to free and fair elections, we have been invited to help them in preparing for the elections and to monitor the elections.

We have also been able for the first time to talk concretely about their programmes. It is a programme of the transitional government, with the most pressing issues to be implemented by the time of the elections, and some of them by the end of the elections. But it is a good programme, aimed at boosting the democratisation of society and also aimed at addressing inequalities of economic and social development.

Them being committed to the reforms and talking concretely about the steps, and us having a strengthened dialogue with civil society – it allowed us to be more forthcoming with our assistance, both technical and financial: I made that point in Tunisia quite clearly. Subject to free and fair elections, we could foresee a redoubling of our assistance for the years 2012 and 2013, with some of the money being used already for this. And I do not see any problem in having this kind of approach also in other countries.

We know that Cathy Ashton has worked very hard in Egypt. She's going to Egypt very soon. After her visit I plan to go to this country as well, hopefully engaging authorities and civil society there also with concrete discussions about how the European Union can help.

Because particularly in these weeks and months, it is very important for these revolutions not to be stolen or led to a dead end. There we have a tremendous responsibility which in no way questions that it is first of all their responsibility, the responsibility of Tunisians, Egyptians and people in other countries, for their reform process.

It's not about us instigating revolution here or there or imposing our values. But once they embark on the road of reform I think they should be aware that they will have in us a very solid, coherent, helpful partner.

But you have your political limitations. You cannot offer the region the same prospect of visa-free travel as was offered for the Western Balkans. There will be elections in a number of EU countries where immigration is a very sensitive subject. What are you going to suggest instead?

We need to be ambitious and creative, because otherwise we might miss a big opportunity to help these countries more substantially. The mobility partnership we refer to in our communication on the partnership for democracy is a way forward. First of all, it's about avoiding fighting illegal immigration at sea, with hundreds and thousands of people who try to reach the shores.

It is a comprehensive programme, together with our assistance in economic and social development, which should foster fair treatment of readmission and visa facilitation at the same time. It is about fair treatment for a number of mobility issues concerning the possibility of seasonal workers in the European Union, of students: businessmen travel more freely in coming to our countries.

It is about helping people create more opportunities in their own countries, and at the same time opening up. It is about ensuring that this equality and dignity people are striving for is also a feature of our relationship with them, in this sensitive area, without putting out of the question important security questions in the Schengen Area.

I see a number of possibilities there. I think we are willing, if we are creative enough, we can win at both fronts. We can hold up a high standard of security in the Schengen Area and at the same time be a real partner in the mobility of citizens of the southern neighbourhood.

Another challenge is not to send the wrong message: for example to Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. If the European Union is today paying more attention to the Mediterranean, this doesn't mean that Lukashenko can do whatever he wants with his people. The situation there has deteriorated since the elections and this coincides with developments in the Mediterranean… Does the European Union have the resources to deal with both challenges?

Political processes receive all the attention needed and the Union also has the resources, of course. I am talking about financial resources, but also personal. But one thing I want to make absolutely clear: there is nothing like a shift of focus from the east to the south. There is nothing like an imbalance in our attention and our relationship with our neighbourhood. Both south and east are for us very important. If you look at our policies, although they might not make it to the front pages of the newspapers, we are more committed to the east than before.

And quite logically. Number one, because we and our Eastern European partners are reflecting on what's going on in the south. We are changing the way we deal with these situations. And all of that of course has implications on our policy towards the eastern partners.

Number two, there is this strategic review process of our neighbourhood policy which is going to make absolutely clear that while there is this one general neighbourhood policy, there are these two distinctive pillars of this policy, the southern pillar and the eastern European pillar. And we're going to strengthen the importance of both and the balance of attention between both.

And through that strategic review we are actually, despite the fact that the Eastern Partnership is a relatively young policy, adopted in Prague on 8 May 2009, there is room through the strategic review to streamline our policy, to put forward some new ideas, and also how to differentiate among our Eastern European partners.

And there is also a third reason. It is this forthcoming summit of the Eastern Partnership. The Polish EU Presidency in the second half of this year is going to play a very important role in organising this meeting, towards the end of September. The EU and Ukraine are reaching the financial stage of the negotiation of the Association Agreement and a deep and comprehensive free trade area.

It's the first time that the EU negotiates such a far-reaching agreement of opening to our partner, of giving access to the European Union acquis and, through aligning with the acquis, opening the door to the internal market of the European Union.

Also look at Moldova. Despite them being unable to overcome a political, institutional and constitutional impasse in electing a new president, this country is continuing to make bold steps of the reform agenda. Thus getting the country closer to us. Both Ukraine and Moldova are getting from us the commitment, through the action plan, to sooner or later achieve a visa-free regime. And with Moldova will hopefully start the DCFTA (deep and comprehensive free trade area) negotiations this year.

You have then the south Caucasus where we also have association agreements and a lot of work has been done also to start with DCFTA. We have Georgia where since the beginning of this year we have put into force a readmission and a visa-facilitation agreement.

So there is a lot going on in that region… Yes, we also have there this issue with President Lukashenko's regime which is openly attacking the democratic part of its society, trying to dismantle civil society. But even there we have a policy which goes beyond just reacting to what Lukashenko is doing.

First of all we have these restrictive measures against Lukashenko and his closest collaborators and those who actively participate in suppressing the democratic forces in Belarus. And those who are responsible for Belarus being a country where there are political prisoners.

The Union should speak louder that there are political prisoners in Belarus, and this is not acceptable…

Yes, it is important, and I think we need to be louder and louder in saying that. It's also important that this policy is accompanied in parallel by a strengthening commitment to support civil society in Belarus. It's also important for the authorities in Belarus to know that our policy towards them, if they continue with their current policy, that our policy will remain static.

The foreign ministers were very clear in the past saying that if cracking down on the democratic forces continues we will be considering other measures, restrictive measures: to make it clear to those authorities what our position towards that is.

In addition to that we have made a number of other steps. We are at the same time ready to have a working relationship with them with the intention to start the negotiation for the visa facilitation regime and for readmission, not for the sake of Lukashenko's closest collaborators, but for the people of Belarus, those who are becoming hostage to his isolation policy.

And in addition to that, there is a policy paper – we call it 'Interim Joint Plan' – a conceptual paper for the case in which the Belarusian authorities reverse their attitude, open up, embark on reforms and be interested in a genuine partnership with the European Union. We are already now able to offer a political agreement which would be the basis of the bilateral relationship between Belarus and the European Union, which could later be turned into contractual agreement.

It's a very comprehensive programme, to help Belarus, its society, its economy. It's a very comprehensive programme, to allow Belarus to come closer and closer to the European Union. This plan is obviously not on the table now. We can't imagine it being appropriate in the current situation to discuss it with the authorities. But it is a plan we're discussing with civil society and the democratic forces in Belarus and which through consultations with them will be ready to put on the table once the situation changes.

Has the European Union become a stronger player? We don't see the United States very much in the context of thee developments we have been discussing. This was not the case in 1989. Back then, the United States was the Western leader behind these historical changes. This time it looks different.

It might look different. But let me tell you quite clearly it looks different not because there is less of the United States, no, but because there is more of the European Union. We have the strategic partnership with the United States. I am one of those who strongly believe that the Eastern Partnership should be more than just the European Union policy but should indeed be the framework for a Euro-Atlantic attitude and policies towards that region.

We are, and this is very important, talking to our United States partners and coordinating well not only in various countries in the east and in the south, but we are actually also talking about those conceptual issues.

We are interested in them playing a bigger role in the Eastern Partnership. We have already now certain instruments to interact with the United States relative to our eastern partners. We are keen to turn this excellent cooperation we have on the ground into a joint vision towards this region.

And in the south, just if you take into account the frequency of the conversation and deftness of the conversation between Cathy Ashton and State Secretary Hillary Clinton, and all of us at other levels.

Indeed, it's not about us seeing less of the United States but it's about us seeing more of the European Union, taking into account that it is the European Union's neighbourhood. I would say this is one of the welcome consequences of the Lisbon Treaty and us assuming a bigger responsibility for this region.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe