Europe has role to play in Arab Spring
September 24th, 2012
09:29 AM ET

Europe has role to play in Arab Spring

By Nick Witney, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Nick Witney is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and former head of the European Defense Agency. The views expressed are his own.

It has been a good couple of weeks for extremists on both sides of the divide between the Western and Muslim worlds. In Benghazi, jihadists killed the U.S. envoy and three colleagues – an act of barbarity guaranteed to create shock and revulsion. Like-minded fanatics fanned the flames through attacks on embassies across the Middle East. The authors of the poisonous little video that began it all thus found themselves succeeding beyond all possible expectation.

Better still, from the perspective of this improbable coalition of hate-mongers, has been the way in which, in the run-up to the U.S. presidential poll, the “clash of civilizations” narrative has been embraced by many in the Western media. So much for the Arab Spring, we are told, when the heirs to the toppled autocrats turn out to be anti-Western Islamists. So much for the chances of Arab democracy, when the right to freedom of expression is so little respected. Time to stop apologizing, and stand up for “Western values.”

Such conclusions may tell us more about their authors than about the real world. Islamists were, after all, soundly defeated in Libya’s recent elections, and the United States is in a minority of Western countries where an absolute right to freedom of expression is not constrained by some form of “hate speech” legislation. Yet the mutual suspicion, and sometimes antipathy, between the Islamic and Western worlds cannot be gainsaid. It has been going on for centuries – and the appearance of large Western armies in two Islamic countries over the past decade, let alone the issue of Palestine, has done little to help. Which makes it all the more important for the West to do whatever it can to help the Arab Spring succeed.

In a recent analysis of relations between Europe and North Africa, we urged Europeans to seize the historic opportunity offered by last year’s uprisings to forge a new relationship across the Mediterranean. Europe has so much to gain if North Africa’s transitions to democracy succeed: economically, if open and dynamic societies replace the closed worlds of the autocrats; and strategically, whether in terms of regional problem-solving, building influence in the wider Middle East, or indeed “re-setting” relations with the wider Muslim world. So we advocated engagement, in place of the old, failed approach of bribing autocrats to keep their teeming populations and disturbing religion at arm’s length – and we urged political engagement as much or more than economic.

The EU has always felt most comfortable working on its neighbors with the instruments of trade and aid. In this way it has bound them closer, helped them to become more like European societies – and often, in the end, brought them into the Union. That will not work for North Africa, which has no “European vocation” – and especially at a time of economic crisis, when Europe has little money to spare, and little readiness to open its markets. So Europe needs to bring other assets – political, diplomatic, and military – to bear.

In particular, it should foster the new impulse to intra-regional integration. The new governments know that co-operation with their neighbors will ease their pressing economic and security problems: the EU is well placed to help both with institution-building, and with big integrative projects such as plans to bring North African solar power to Europe. And if Europeans contribute their military expertise to combating instability in the Sahel, they may position themselves to help with the key challenge of security sector reform that all the new governments face.

It is primarily North Africans who will work out North Africa’s salvation, just as it was largely through their own efforts that they ousted the dictators. But Europeans need to offer what help they can, especially at a time when the outcome is still very much in the balance. The coming years may bring comfort to those who prefer to believe that Arabs are incapable of democracy, or that Islam is incorrigibly hostile to the West. But such an outcome would be a huge reverse both for Europe, and for the peoples of North Africa. There is no need to pre-emptively cede the argument to the extremists.

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Topics: Arab Spring • Europe

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soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. The Sanity Inspector

    It has been a good couple of weeks for extremists on both sides of the divide between the Western and Muslim worlds.

    GONNNGGG!!! You mean the Muslims "extremists" who wish to pursue Jihad against the West, and the Western "extremists" who have the bad manners to notice? Bad lede, didn't read any further.

    September 24, 2012 at 11:20 am | Reply
  2. 100 % ETHIO

    What is this mess?
    Neither it is Religious, nor it is to support peace.

    They are few gangsters, but not religious, who are causing this Satanic flame, by using Islam as cover-up.

    If these fanatics would like to be a good Muslims, there are many sections in Quràan to follow, without cherry-picking very few sections, to be extremist.
    Many sections of the Quràan tells Muslims to respect others and to forgive others. So why not follow these???

    It sounds like, if these extreme Muslims got muscles like U.S. has, they will attack anyone with little cause.

    September 24, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Reply
  3. deniz boro

    Do try to concentrate on this issue on the "Asterix and Obelix" and THE DIVIDE. But what makes my stomock turn around is the first pharagraph of this esteemed article. What a way to open up the way...Congrradulations on the "power of word" anyway. I do look forward to other luscious news on your party. Man You keep the world going round.

    September 24, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  4. Alex

    In my opinion we should leave middle-east matters to the middle-east and don't bother them. Help one and the other will hate you and help the other and someone else will hate you. It seems there was more stability when they were rulled by dictators, atleast they could enforce fear in them. Western countries should invest in themselves and new technologies to replace the need of oil. Altho the 'powerful few' people don't want us to be oil-independent just yet since they keep getting richer. But if societies collapse, money will be worthless so i don't see the point of this grant plan.
    It may sound harsh but i still think that the 'rock' will solve this all. That or the violent weather upheaval soon since we have reached the tipping point few days ago...

    September 24, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  5. Ferhat Balkan

    The biggest hurdle to overcome is cultural values and differences that often clash together to create this violence. This is the root of the problem. In today's age of internet and satellite communication, the world is becoming a small place where different cultures mingle together to create a sour soup of misunderstanding. Einstein once said: "Peace can only be achieved through understanding" to stress the importance of an open mind and knowledge. The fundamental beliefs of other cultures will have to be understood and respected. Hard decisions will have to be made in the years to come to satisfy both sides. No doubt, sacrifices will have to be made and new laws put in place to prevent future conflict. If we fail to act, things will only get worse. Closed door policy will not fix the problem. Properly educating our kids to be open-minded and respectful of other cultures will set the future for a greater prosperity and a world of peace.

    September 24, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  6. Klowiepowie

    We don't need a role to play. What we need to do is place sea mines all over the Mediterranean Sea to keep them out. Let them stay there with their 'Spring'.

    September 25, 2012 at 5:12 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    The Louvre Museum in Paris opened a new wing for Islamic Art – the largest in Europe – last week. With 5/6 million Muslims, France has the largest Muslim population in Europe and the government wants to be in the forefront of engaging the Muslim world in all areas. Yet ordinary French – and other Europeans too – aren't interested in anything that doesn't relate to them.

    September 25, 2012 at 6:31 am | Reply
  8. Pnm9pnm

    Well there be blood in the sands next spring?pnm.

    September 25, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Reply
  9. Pnm9pnm

    Can there be blood in the Mideast sands next spring agen?pnm.

    September 25, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  10. chuck

    EUROPE NEEDS TO SUPPORT THE COMMON PEOPLE AND HELP GET RID OF ASSAD WITH THE USE OF THEIR AIRPOWER AND TO ARM THE CIVILIANS TO OUST ASSAD!! THIS GUY IS KILLING HIS OWN PEOPLE AND DESTROYING HIS OWN COUNTRY! THE PROMOTION OF BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS IS A MUST!! KILLING OF WOMAN AND CHILDREN WHO PEACEFULLY PROTEST IS DIGUSTING!!! JESUS TOLD A FRIEND OF MINE PRIOR TO THE ARAB SPRING THAT THE MIDDLEEASTERN PEOPLE--THE DICTATORS AND THEIR HENCHMAN AS WELL AS THE JEWS CAN BE VERY CRUEL TO EACH OTHER–AND THEY ALL STILL DON'T PRACTISE FORGIVENESS AND LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS THEY SHOULD!!

    September 26, 2012 at 12:50 am | Reply
  11. Arslan

    We are witnessing the European spring unfolding to free the European man and women from the slavery of Banks and media. Europe will liberate itself. No doubt.

    September 27, 2012 at 1:21 am | Reply

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