Arab Spring reveals EU weakness

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

In the wake of this spring's popular uprisings across the Arab world the EU must now think in terms of billions, not millions, in aid for reforming countries, writes European Parliament Vice-President Edward McMillan-Scott in an exclusive op-ed for EURACTIV, calling on the bloc to seek comprehensive engagement in their democratic and transition processes.

Edward McMillan-Scott (Yorkshire & Humber) is vice-president of the European Parliament for democracy and human rights. A former leader of the Conservative MEPs in the EU assembly, he was expelled from the party for objecting to its new EU alliances and joined the Liberal Democrats in March 2010.

"Foreign affairs often trip up politicians. There have been widespread criticisms of various national leaderships as well as of Brussels' response to the Arab Spring.

Many believe that it is as important as communist Europe's revolution in 1989 in spreading democracy, economic growth and renewed hope of Middle East peace. But just as the fall of communism caught leaders off guard, so have the events in North Africa and the Middle East wrong-footed their successors; and the EU's new foreign service has been found wanting.

I have visited Cairo twice in the last month to meet the acting government as well as those who led the revolution, and know this region of the world well, so my perspective is different.

When I was involved as a senior Conservative MEP in discussions in London, these were nearly always without reference to the values of democracy, human rights or the rule of law to which billions worldwide still aspire and a happy few million Arabs have now grabbed for themselves.

Over the past month, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague have been forced to backtrack and apologise for misreading the historical events taking place in what the EU calls our 'Neighbourhood'. The nadir was Cameron's diversion from a Middle East tour to Cairo for a photo call in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the Egyptian revolution, while eight arms salesman skulked in the hotel.

All of this comes after Hague's assertion last year that human rights was 'at the heart of' Britain's foreign policy. He said: 'Human rights are not the only issue that informs the making of foreign policy, but they are indivisible from it, not least because the consequences of foreign policy failure are human.'

Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, has repeatedly made similar claims, despite an almost complete absence of any structure capable of delivering this within her new administration.

The views of many conservatives are in contrast to the line taken by the Liberal group in the European Parliament on the nature of the evolutions in the broader Middle East region. I recall the same short-sightedness in 1989.

In a speech in Brussels after meeting with Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, to discuss the forthcoming EU emergency summit on developments in Libya and North Africa, Nick Clegg, the UK deputy prime minister, called – as do his EU partners – for a massive European response to the bravery of populations in North Africa fighting for democracy. 'They have created an unexpected and game-changing turn of events in Europe's neighbourhood: we must provide a game-changing response,' he said.

He echoed the exact same sentiment that I have so often spoken and written about when he acknowledged our failures in 'allowing autocratic regimes to get away with making pretence of reforming'. I believe that we should reward reform, not simply dole out largesse unconditionally.

The deputy prime minister also warned: 'We should never hold back from advocating our belief that freedom and the rule of law are the best guarantees of human progress and economic success, and that each country should find its own path to achieving peaceful change.'

The international community – from Washington and the Arab League to the UN and the ICC – have all reacted more quickly, more coherently and more astutely to these pivotal events in the Arab world than some governments.

I can only hope the EU now will think in terms of billions, not millions, of aid for reforming countries; and of a comprehensive engagement in their democratic and transition processes."

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