Experts say EU needs to tread carefully over Arab World

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Ahead of today's visit of Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali to Brussels, experts warn that Europe must strike a balance in its efforts to support democratic change in the Middle East and North Africa.

As the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring has spread, paving the way for major political change, Europe is in a unique position to offer support to the new administrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.

But European policymakers insist that they will only get involved at the explicit request of the countries involved.

"It’s absolutely crucial to recognise that we can only help if there’s a genuine willingness to make progress," said Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament. "The ownership of the democratic transition by the countries that are going through that transition … is beyond discussion. We will for example only be active if we are invited to be active."

Lambsdorff himself led an EU election monitoring mission to Libya in July this year.

"Of course that was at the invitation of the Libyan government," he explained. "And the same was the case in Tunisia. The European team was there at the invitation of the authorities. We support countries that are undertaking a transition, but it is their decision to really embark on that path. Once they’ve done that we can support them with a whole plethora of methods."

Fluid situation

Others are quick to point out the dangers of expecting too much from the European Union in such a volatile region, where countries are still facing massive political upheaval and internal conflict. This was highlighted by the recent wave of protests across the Middle East and North Africa following the release of an anti-Islam film made in the United States.

"There are certain things that the EU can do in some countries and not in others and I think it’s important for the EU to recognise that diversity and complexity as it moves forward in trying to extend assistance to a region that’s going through quite dramatic changes," said Todd Landman, a government professor and director of the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution at the University of Essex in the UK.

He was in Brussels in late September to offer advice to European policymakers.

Landman says it would be a misconception to assume that the demonstrators were all fighting for the same thing when they took to the streets last year. Although they were calling for change, that was not necessarily couched in democratic terms. Often protestors were fighting for economic or political change more generally.

Landman acknowledges that moving toward democracy would be desirable from a European perspective, but again he urges caution.

"We need to see how the region understands democracy, how it organises itself politically, what the outcomes of any electoral process might be and whether those electoral outcomes are satisfactory and acceptable for larger geo-strategic interests and I think those are the big questions that we need to debate," he told Deutsche Welle, Germany's international broadcaster.

Financial and technical support

But that doesn’t mean the EU is powerless to help in the Middle East and North Africa.

"There's a lot the European Union can do: It’s the world’s largest donor. It has a very extensive array of policy tools and aid that it can extend to the region," Landman said. "And of course it has its own democracy story and its own story of conflict and enlargement that it can share with the rest of the world. It becomes in a sense a civil power that can share its own experience."

Jörg Faust of the German Development Institute insists that, whilst the EU can contribute to democratisation in the region, it cannot "buy reform." And, he adds, the European Union has its own problems to deal with.

"I think a core problem of the European Union in its attempts to advance democracy and human rights elsewhere is its own internal domestic fragmentation," Faust told Deutsche Welle. "There is a huge problem of coherence regarding democracy promotion and the promotion of human rights within Europe."

There's a lot at stake for Europe when it comes to the establishment of new regimes in the Arab World. But EU leaders point out that it's for the people living in those countries to decide what direction they will take in the wake of revolution.

However, if it's done wisely, the EU can have some influence on democratic discourses by supporting civil society organisations, promoting certain state reforms and offering advice and expertise to fellow leaders.

Since the first demonstrations in Tunisia in December 2010, a wave of popular discontent has shaken the Arab world, with protestors calling for dignity, democracy and social justice.

The EU has dealt with the crisis in trying to adopt a new approach to relations with its southern neighbours, proposing in March 2011 a "Partnership for democracy and shared prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean."

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