Europe, it is time!

Posted in Europe | 06-Apr-11 | Author: Ambika Vishwanath

The Barcelona Process of 1995 was one of the first in extensively detailing ‘democracy’ as a foreign policy initiative for the European Union with respect to the Middle East. Components of democracy promotion were restricted to a few countries, namely the big three – Britain, Germany and France; had an emphasis on soft security issues and socioeconomic development; and adopted a bilateral approach towards each country as opposed to the region as a whole. Over the last sixteen years the process became the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, included more countries and a stronger military component after the US invasion of Afghanistan and faced serious backlash on the home front after the 2008 financial crisis. Yet, the core of Europe’s policy has not changed much over the last two decades, and with the ongoing shifts in the MENA region, leaders from the continent are forced to reassess their stance and take a harder look at a decades old approach.

Albert Einstein once said, ‘imagination is more important than knowledge’. Today, more than ever, the old hand in Europe is going to require a lot of imagination and out of box thinking to deal with future issues. The death of a young man in Tunisia has set of a chain of events in the region that is unstoppable and poses several security and policy challenges to European nations as separate entities, as well as the European Union as a whole. Security challenges are no longer simply restricted to war generals and the ‘situation room’; the theatre has extended far beyond and calls for a new approach in this age of globalisation. There is a daunting new spectrum of security challenges that could emerge including chemical and biological weapons, unrestrained terrorism, mass migration and health related crises.

Until now, neither European nations nor NATO members have planned the needed double strategies for peacemaking in past conflicts like Afghanistan, or more recently in North Africa. Diplomacy, aid and other soft tools remain too separate from the military. France, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries have excellent ‘soft’ relationships with several North African and Middle Eastern countries. Sweden and Switzerland especially have taken on new challenges emerging from climate change and water scarcity; issues which will exacerbate current tensions as they will affect livelihood and food security. Many of these countries have made important contributions and increased their legitimacy, especially where the United States has been unsuccessful. While these efforts need to be built upon, the need of the hour is smart double strategies that combine resources, means, military leverage and most importantly a regional base and support. Without regional support, any intervention will seem like Europe is imposing democracy from the outside, the very fact that Washington was criticised for less than a decade ago. The need of the hour is also a combined united stance from Europe and not fragmented piecemeal efforts.

Prior to the military intervention in Libya, which was largely spearheaded by the US and France, the continent clung to a show of speeches and crisis management stuck in bureaucracy, overcome by shadows of the past. The continent is loath to get involved and the economic situation at home is a major obstacle. Critics argue that a collapse of an authoritarian regime doesn’t necessarily signify an automatic transition to a democracy, and they warn of continued instability and radicalisation in the Arab world. These dangers do exist and backlash will be inevitable, but if Europe dithers too much, they will be risking even greater dangers in the future. If leaders fail to align with and support those calling for a new style of democracy, they will run the risk of making new enemies in the near future and throw away the opportunity of gaining new alliances and partners. Europe, in particular Central and Eastern Europe, remember only too well the challenges that come with a transition from authoritarian regimes to liberal democracies. These countries have a lot to offer in this respect and there are valuable lessons to be learnt; which will allow peripheral EU states to play a larger role in foreign policy creation.

Europe must play a more proactive role in transition in the region, and aid in developing all aspects of a democracy which include a vibrant civil society, a free press, free movement and access to education; thus supporting a nation not only in terms of military or economic aid. The entire region is grappling with problems of extremely high unemployment of about 16 per cent and alleviating poverty and providing employment will be major challenges for the region in the coming years. Failure to address these effectively will certainly create conditions fostering further unrest, leading to a cycling of inconclusive protests. Italy, hosting almost 20,000 refugees is already an example of what is to come in the future.

New challenges require imagination, where solutions are unconventional, and the continent cannot go at it alone. Qatar, with its creative and unusual foreign policy, could well prove to be the partner in providing the US and European forces the required political cover in a region long suspicious of western intervention. Doha’s recent military involvement in Libya is a starting point, as well as its recognition of the Transitional National Council, along with Italy and Greece. The EU would also benefit by involving Turkey and enlisting their support for future endeavours, as a strategic alliance which has growing goodwill in the region. Turkey has effectively used tools of trade, telecommunications, and hard diplomacy to build relationships and emerge as a prominent power. On the other hand, Britain has begun providing rebels in Libya with telecommunication equipment, an important means of aiding their efforts without putting guns in their hands.

The Munich Security Conference 2011, lead by Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, offered a space for an array of perspectives to converge. A panel on the crisis in Egypt and the ripple effect in the region brought in views not only from the typical politicians and military experts but very importantly also from the development and civil society – signalling that a shift in how Europe views the challenges emerging from the region is required. The conference also created a space to bring in experts from Asia, realizing that new perspectives are necessary and that there is a world of experiences; long before India was invited to offer its knowledge and expertise on building a base for future elections in Egypt.

Such imagination to look beyond the conventional is required on a larger scale, where new non-traditional challenges are seen as potential opportunities for partnership. It is time for Europe to shake off the dust of the great wars and seize the chance to risk a little and aid countries that lie beyond a strip of blue sea. It is time to build good neighbours and bridges across the Mediterranean. Otherwise, the long term risks of a policy that does not show solidarity with the changing movements in the region will be far greater; risks that children of tomorrows Europe will be left to grapple with.