EU Must Build, not Shout, in the Year of Revolutions

Watching events unfold in Cairo over the last two weeks, towards the dramatic climax of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, has been an exciting and moving experience, reminiscent of those days when we watched the collapse of communism and the spread of democracy across central and eastern Europe 20 years ago. But it presents a formidable challenge to the European Union, now blessed (we hope) with a joined-up foreign policy.

The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and perhaps beyond have profound implications for everyone. They could usher in a period of much greater prosperity and stability for the region, but they could also make a peace settlement for the Middle East even more elusive, provoke a new flow of immigration to Europe and lead to confrontation between Europe and its Mediterranean neighbours.  A massive responsibility rests on the EU to sustain emerging democratic forces in these countries and to stimulate their economies, helping to avert the twin dangers of autocratic rule or religious fanaticism.

The challenge for Europe is not to shout the loudest, but to be effective in building new relationships with new partners. It’s the time for less noise and more action.

High Representative Cathy Ashton has been criticised in the European Parliament for not being forceful or loud enough. She has been vilified, at least in parts of the British press, for saying too little, or too much, or just for being there (see MEP Daniel Hannan’s blog in the Daily Telegraph for instance), but at least Europe now has the means to co-ordinate its broader foreign policy priorities with the soft policies of trade and aid, support for civil society and the strengthening of the institutions which make democracy work.

I must admit that Baroness Ashton is no orator, but if she has succeeded over the last 12 months in creating an EU external relations service capable of doing this job effectively, with the full support of the member states, it will be far more significant than out-doing Sarkozy or Cameron or Berlusconi – or even Van Rompuy – in making public proclamations.

The first overseas trip by the new Tunisian foreign minister was to Brussels, while Ashton will visit Tunis this Monday  February 14. We can expect close co-operation between the EU and Tunisia. Europe has already offered aid and technical help to the interim government in Tunis and can point to the Council decision freezing the assets of 48 individuals including former president Ben Ali and his wife while allegations of corruption are investigated.

Egypt is quite a different case. Ashton had asked for meetings in Cairo later in the week, in particular with Vice-President Omar Suleiman and with opposition figures – a request which was refused before the Mubarak resignation. The message she hopes to bring from Europe is the need for orderly transition to a broad-based government, but she would also carry with her the soft policy tools of financial assistance and support for building democratic institutions and stronger civil society.

The EU is Egypt’s biggest trading partner, accounting for 40 per cent of the country’s exports. A population of 81 million people includes 60 per cent  younger than 30 years old, well educated but jobless, well acquainted with social networks, mobile phones and satellite television services. Trade, jobs and freedom are vital to their future and to the stability of their country. Iran may pretend that Egypt’s revolution is like Tehran in 1979; in fact it has many of the marks of Iran’s repressed green revolution of 2009.

It is worth recalling that Europe had already been talking tough to the Egyptian regime. In a (diplomatic) statement following the EU-Egypt Association Agreement meeting of April 26 2010 the Council highlighted its concerns over the abuse of human rights and the state of emergency which, it noted, had been in force for 29 years. The Agreement, which stresses the importance of human rights,  should provide the ideal context for strengthening Europe’s relationships with a country which is pivotal to the future both of the Middle East and of Europe.