"Europe Has a Major Role to Play."
It could. Given its proximity to the Arab world, its welter of diplomatic ties, the weight of its commercial connections, its ample aid budgets, and much else, Europe should be a major player in the region's political evolution. During the last two decades, Europe set up gleaming cooperative frameworks to intensify economic and political ties with the region, including firmly stated principles of democracy and human rights. Yet the first of these, the so-called Barcelona Process, proved to be toothless on democracy and rights. Its successor, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's Union for the Mediterranean, was even weaker.
A whole series of obstacles have inhibited Europe's efforts to turn its value-based intentions into real support for Arab political reform. European leaders fear that political change might produce refugee flows heading north, disruption in oil supplies, and a rise in radical Islamist activity. Traditional French and British ties with nondemocratic Arab elites only add to the mix. The tendency of lowest-common-denominator policies by the consensus-oriented European Union has further undercut efforts to take democracy seriously.
The new fervor for democracy in the Middle East represents an enormous opportunity for Europe to regain credibility in this domain. The European Union played an invaluable role in helping influence the political direction of Central and Eastern Europe after 1989 thanks to the promise of membership for those states meeting certain political and economic standards. The same offer is clearly not possible now, but the core idea should be preserved. Numerous Arab societies badly need reference points and defined trajectories as they try to move away from decades of stagnant autocratic rule. If Europe could reinvigorate its tired and overused concept of neighborhood partnership by offering real incentives on trade, aid, and other fronts to Arab states that respect democratic principles and human rights, it could redeem its past passivity. Brussels appears to be starting to move in this direction -- but follow-through will be the rub.
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