The EU and the Mediterranean democratic awakening

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

When Southern and Eastern European countries rebelled against their non-democratic governments, the European Union supported their path to democracy and its influence was vital, writes Brussels-based researcher Hendrik Tiesinga, arguing that it would bring great advantages for all sides if the EU were to extend the same assistance to the Southern Mediterranean now.

Hendrik Tiesinga is a Brussels-based researcher and writer. This op-ed was sent exclusively to EURACTIV.

"After Greece, Spain and Portugal booted their fascist or military governments in the 1970s, the European Union was quick to offer them membership to consolidate their young democracies. Likewise in Eastern Europe, offering a clear path to membership was instrumental in supporting their new democracies after 1989.

Just look at the difference between the Eastern EU member states on the one hand and Russia, Ukraine and Belarus on the other to see how it has accelerated democratic reform. Now what will be our response to the democratic revolutions on the other side of the Mediterranean?

Egypt, Tunisia, perhaps soon Morocco, Libya, Algeria. Add to that list the troubled democracies of Lebanon, Israel (this is a troubled democracy) and Palestine, plus the now-maturing democracy of Turkey, and we have a community of democratic nations bordering the Mediterranean, the ancient European heartland.

But what will the EU's response be? Will we respond with open hearts and minds? And open up the Union to Mediterranean members of the European family? Or will we allow bigoted ideas about Arabs and Islam to keep dividing us? If it is human rights, solidarity and democracy that defines our shared European heritage, than these new democratic nations are as much part of it as Greece and Portugal.

Arguably many of the current Mediterranean EU members have at least as much in common with the Southern Mediterranean as with Northern Europe. Likewise Northern African and Turkish migration to Northern Europe has brought these cultures closer together than many of us would like to admit.

I'm not necessarily arguing that all these countries should become full-fledged EU members soon or even later, although I'm open to that option. The main pressing concern is that the EU needs to respond and offer the newly democratic nations of the Mediterranean, a pathway to being in real democratic partnership with the European Union.

Supranational democracy in the European Union has been instrumental to bridge and heal centuries of national, religious and ideological hatred, war and divide. Centuries of distrust bred by conquest, terrorism and imperialism by both Islamic and Christian/Western powers can and must be bridged by the same formula.

The revolutions of the past month provide a unique window of opportunity for Christians, Muslims, Secularists and Jews from the greater European region to meet each other through the framework of supranational democracy, dialogue and human rights and start working on resolving some of the deep-rooted divisions and conflicts that have pitted these different groups against each other.

On a practical level a partnership like this can offer Israel security, Palestinians a state, stability in the young democracies, a place for Turkey in Europe, increased trade and economic growth in the region, cheap labour for European companies, jobs for all the young people in the region and a mechanism to deal with migration issues.

The European Union, the engine of peace in continental Europe, has to step up and fulfil its mission in the Mediterranean."

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