Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


New democracies, new EU
La Stampa - February 28th 2011

The resistance of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to accepting either the moral or the practical logic of his situation, holed up in Tripoli and with more than half of his country (measured by population) in opposition hands, should surprise no one. During his more than 40 years in power in Libya he has never shown either a strong moral or practical instinct, except for preserving his own power.

Nevertheless, the Arab awakening that began just over two months ago in Tunisia, continues to bring surprises. It brought one special and welcome surprise to this commentator as recently as Saturday, concerning a country far away from North Africa. And I believe that in the long term, a period measured in decades, it is going to bring a special and remarkable surprise to the European Union as a whole.

Let us first deal with a non-surprise. Since the Tunisian revolt began, it has often been said and written that the wave of protests in Arab countries were unexpected and unpredicted. Yet the opposite is true, in all aspects expect the timing. Upheavals, including both social and political revolutions, have been predicted for the Arab world constantly over at least the past two decades. The problem is that they were predicted so often that people yawned and ceased to pay attention.

Having been surprised myself by events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Oman and elsewhere, I realised that I should not have been surprised when a former colleague at The Economist, where I worked from 1980 until 2006, suggested I should read a long "special report" their foreign editor, Peter David, published on the Arab world on July 25th 2009. Entitled "Waking from its sleep", Mr David´s article wrote that there was "a fever under the surface" in most Arab countries, and cited countless earlier books and articles by others that had come to the same conclusion.

Once you look at the facts, it is the delay in revolution that is surprising, not the fact that it is occurring today: in the 21 countries of the Arab League, the population has doubled in the past 30 years, more than half of the 360m people there are under 25 years old, they are increasingly urbanised, and through satellite TV channels such as Qatar´s Al-Jazeera, they have had more and more access to information. Yet despite high oil and gas prices, personal incomes have stagnated and political reform has been virtually non-existent. So no one, least of all the ageing dictators and their cronies that rule over them, should be surprised that unrest and revolution is spreading.

For that reason, we should in future consider it a surprise if it does not spread much further—west to Algeria and Morocco, east to Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. As with central and eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the spreading revolt will not always bring democracy and will not always succeed in overthrowing regimes entirely. But the pressure from it will be relentless.

            Saturday´s surprising development came in the United Nations Security Council´s decision to impose sanctions on the Gaddafi regime in Libya, to freeze its assets and to refer Colonel Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Welcome and appropriate though these gestures are, they are in truth little more than gestures, given that the murderous Gaddafis holed up in Tripoli are not in much of a position to be affected by asset freezes or bans on their travel. The true significance of the resolution lies in the unity of the Security Council and, in particular, in China´s albeit-reluctant support for the measure.

            In effect, China has just voted to refer Colonel Gaddafi to the ICC for having acted against his opponents in pretty much the same way as China did in 1989 when faced with the Tiananmen Square revolt. Chinese troops then may have fired into the crowds from footbridges rather than helicopters or fighter planes, but there is little doubt that Deng Xiaoping, China´s then leader, would have ordered even greater force to be used had it been necessary.

            Today´s China, much more than that of 1989, is insistent on the importance of multilateral institutions and agreements. That is why it is significant and surprising that its government has now stated, in the leading multilateral institution, that it considers the use of murderous force in the suppression of an uprising to be a crime for which government leaders can and should be held accountable.

            This is a remarkable change. It will be a statement of which it will be important to remind China when next Tibetans or the Muslims of Xinjiang go out into the streets. Until then, or a new Tiananmen protest in Beijing, we cannot know how seriously to take it. But it could well represent a kind of coming of age: the point when China´s increasing exposure around the world (there are a reported 30,000 Chinese workers in Libya) force it also to take a more responsible international stance. And perhaps, just perhaps, the time when it would respond to domestic dissent through a massacre has now passed.

The long-term surprise that will occur because of the events in Egypt, Tunisia and now Libya is one that casts us far into the future. It is the consequence for the European Union of the now possible, even likely, spread of a democratic revolution across a wide swathe of North Africa and the Middle East. We should be patient in assessing how far that revolution will go, just as we were in the first months after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. But also, like then, it will pay to plan and think ahead.

The evolution of the EU has consisted of a series of ideas that seemed far-fetched when they were first proposed but which later came to seem inevitable. The next such idea is likely to be the expansion of the EU to encompass the southern coast of the Mediterranean. No one now expects such a development; given that France, Germany and several other EU countries cannot even accept the idea of membership for Turkey, which is already a democracy.

But think back to the early 1990s: it quickly became clear that Western Europe had a huge interest in fostering the stability, friendliness and economic development of its neighbouring former Soviet satellites, which it did in a long, slow process that culminated in full EU membership for ten of them well over a decade later. Not all the former Soviet satellites became democracies, and not all have now joined the EU. The same will probably apply in North Africa and the Middle East.

Still, just think about the parallels between the fall of the Soviet Union, in the EU´s eastern borderlands, and the fall of Arab dictatorships on the southern coast of the Mediterranean. As after 1989, the huge interest and historic opportunity that today´s Arab awakening offers to Europe will become clearer and clearer, in the next months and years, for both good and ill.

America has tricky military issues in the region, and will be held responsible for what does, or doesn´t, happen in Palestine. Europe, as after 1989, mainly has economic and cultural links to offer, which are more positive. European countries are already the biggest trading partners for most North African states; Italy is a leader in its oil and gas links with Libya and Algeria for example. The logic of those links, along with fears of instability and mass migration, can point in only one long-term direction: membership of the EU of some sort for some North African countries.

More likely than full membership, as we understand it today, is a new sort of union in which there are several forms of membership. That is already true today, with only some of the 27 EU members being part of the euro, or of the Schengen passport-free zone. So a new formula will need to be found to offer economic integration, including eventual open trading access and the single market, to democratic countries in North Africa, probably stopping short of full free movement of labour. All this will mean that the European Union itself will have to again change its name: it can become the European and Mediterranean Union.

Without such a proposal, such a long-term vision, what will Europe have to offer the new North African democracies, as and when they emerge? A little aid, and a few university places: that is all. Yet, as after the Berlin Wall fell, we have something very valuable to offer, as an incentive for democratic reform: the chance to join us.

It sounds difficult, even before you start to mention Islam. Don´t forget, however, that this development would also make economic and political sense for Europe. Mediterranean, in its Latin root, means middle of the earth, after all, not some kind of southern frontier or barrier. It was the centre of our world for centuries. It is part of Europe´s neighbourhood.


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