The EU Response to the Arab Spring

Remarks by EU High Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Cather­ine Ash­ton on
“The EU Response to the Arab Spring”
The Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion, Wash­ing­ton
It is a great plea­sure to be here in Brook­ings again and always a plea­sure to be in the Unit­ed States. Hav­ing just come from Juba I seem to have brought the weath­er from South Sudan with me. Thank you all for com­ing. I thought what I would do is to con­cen­trate a lit­tle bit on some of the key issues that are hap­pen­ing in the neigh­bor­hood of the Euro­pean Union, col­lec­tive­ly known as the Arab Spring, and then make some com­ments about how we in the EU are respond­ing. Then I would like to have a con­ver­sa­tion with you in the time that we have left.

I want to start with a few words about the rela­tion­ship between the Euro­pean Union and the Unit­ed States, because I think we are at an impor­tant moment — a moment when that rela­tion­ship is chang­ing, and chang­ing for the good. It used to be the case that the Unit­ed States focused very much on Europe as a place where it was nec­es­sary for them to be, to sup­port and deal with prob­lems that were cre­at­ed over the last 50 years. Not least, of course, in the West­ern Balka­ns in most recent times.

I have always believed that the EU needs to take more respon­si­bil­i­ty for what it has to do in its own neigh­bor­hood and that as we get bet­ter at doing that, our rela­tion­ship with the US changes to being col­lab­o­ra­tive part­ners in solv­ing prob­lems rather than per­haps rely­ing on you. I say that because some­times in Europe and some­times here peo­ple ques­tion whether there is as much inter­est from the US in the EU. I think the inter­est is as great as ever and the amount of traf­fic between my office and the State Depart­ment and my meet­ings and con­ver­sa­tions with the US are end­less and con­sis­tent and con­stant. And the rea­son for that is because we are now work­ing togeth­er to try to address dif­fer­ent prob­lems. But I say all that in the spir­it of know­ing how much the Unit­ed States has meant to the EU and how much we want to keep that strength­ened rela­tion­ship into the future.

So we then turn to our neigh­bor­hood. When I became the High Rep­re­sen­ta­tive, which was a lit­tle bit of a shock to me, as you may have read, I said that there were three things that I need­ed to do in my mandate. 

First, it was to cre­ate this new ser­vice — the Euro­pean Exter­nal Action Ser­vice. Essen­tial­ly it was about bring­ing pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics togeth­er in one focal point of the Euro­pean Union. So the coun­tries, indi­vid­u­als, civ­il soci­ety, peo­ple try­ing to talk to Europe, did not feel that they had to talk to an end­less parade of dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions, but rather that they could talk through one to the Euro­pean Union.

Sec­ond­ly, I said we should be judged as the EU by our effec­tive­ness in our own neigh­bor­hood. I said that long before the Arab Spring, long before the changes that we have seen in our neigh­bor­hood. But I felt it then and I feel it now.

And third­ly, that we need­ed to devel­op our strate­gic part­ner­ships, of which our rela­tion­ship with the US is per­haps the most obvi­ous, and at times the most important.

When we think about what has hap­pened in our neigh­bor­hood, I think we can divide it into three dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble areas of con­cern. In a sense what hap­pened in Tunisia and then in Egypt, demon­strat­ed the desire of peo­ple to deal with their con­cerns about both the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, the cor­rup­tion they faced, and also the eco­nom­ic chal­lenges and I will say more about that lat­er. The results are yet to be final­ly deter­mined, but inter­im gov­ern­ments are try­ing to move for­ward towards elec­tions and try­ing to tack­le also the eco­nom­ic problems.

We have coun­tries like Syr­ia and Libya, which are in vio­lence and quite a lot of chaos. In Syr­ia it is very hard to read exact­ly where that is going to come out, but we stand with the Unit­ed States and have been very deter­mined to try to get this vio­lence to stop, to stop the intern­ment of thou­sands of peo­ple, and to see Assad real­ly move for­ward with the dia­logue, frankly the results of which have hard­ly been sort­ed out as necessary.

And in Libya, to see Kad­hafi go and the peo­ple of Libya to be able to deter­mine their own future and their own gov­ern­ment. I was in Beng­hazi quite recent­ly to open the EU office in order for us to chan­nel through that office the sort of sup­port that peo­ple in Beng­hazi and across Libya need. And then my third group, coun­tries that are try­ing to make the changes with­out chaos and reform now. The two coun­tries that strike me the most are Moroc­co and Jor­dan – inci­den­tal­ly both led by kings and who are try­ing to find the right kind of eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal reform to respond to what peo­ple are ask­ing for and to what they know needs to hap­pen in their coun­tries polit­i­cal­ly and economically.

And then at the heart of the region, the Mid­dle East Peace Process, and the needs with which we are try­ing to deal with this week in Wash­ing­ton in our con­ver­sa­tions and dis­cus­sions with­in the Quar­tet to find a way to get the par­ties back to the nego­ti­at­ing table.

I just men­tioned those coun­tries, but I could also men­tion oth­ers, to try to get a sense of the dif­fer­ent fla­vor of what is hap­pen­ing in the region and the way with which we need to approach the needs of peo­ple. There are two fun­da­men­tal­ly big chal­lenges in all of those coun­tries and they are very famil­iar chal­lenges for all of us.

The first is the polit­i­cal chal­lenge: How do you build what I describe as a deep democ­ra­cy. That means think­ing beyond the idea of an elec­tion as being that great crown­ing moment, when you put real elec­tion to work and elect a gov­ern­ment — to build­ing the sort of insti­tu­tions and the frame­work you need to make sure that kind of democ­ra­cy has roots that are long and deep. And that you don’t elect the gov­ern­ment just once, but most impor­tant­ly of all that you have the right to kick them out at the next election. 

That means think­ing through how we build with them the inde­pen­dent judi­cia­ry, how we build the kind of soci­ety and civ­il soci­ety that is able to respond to the needs of peo­ple and hold the gov­ern­ment to account. A par­tic­u­lar area that I wor­ry about a lot is how you build the role of the oppo­si­tion, because in so many coun­tries across the world the win­ner takes all in the elec­tions, and we don’t have the frame­work that allows the oppo­si­tion to hold the gov­ern­ment to account and to be, if you like, a gov­ern­ment in wait­ing. And that’s going to be one of the chal­lenge that we have to tackle.

If you talk to peo­ple in Egypt, they talk to me some­times about how they would like a retired Pres­i­dent walk­ing around, because as they would say “in 70,000 years nobody has ever retired”. And we know how impor­tant it is to see that gov­ern­ments come and go and for the politi­cians to have a shelf life after which they have to retire and return to nor­mal life. And in some coun­tries they have not expe­ri­enced that in a very long time, if ever.

Equal­ly too find­ing ways in which we devel­op for par­tic­u­lar groups in the soci­ety this capac­i­ty to be able to engage. When you look at the South­ern Mediter­ranean and North Africa, you are par­tic­u­lar­ly struck by two groups. First are the young peo­ple. The role of young peo­ple has been well doc­u­ment­ed already, but nev­er to be under­es­ti­mat­ed in terms of what they did and what they con­tin­ue to do to make the demands for their own polit­i­cal future. And the demands for their free­dom and their human rights, and an end to cor­rup­tion. And to see a way for­ward in the build­ing of polit­i­cal parties.

And also for women in that part of the world who are par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned to make sure they can take their place in that polit­i­cal space.

Again you can hear some con­cerns that hav­ing par­tic­i­pat­ed in the changes and rev­o­lu­tions, they would not like to go back to the role they used to have. Or as impor­tant, and this is cer­tain­ly true when I talk to some of the women in Libya, in Beng­hazi, that they have no his­to­ry of being involved in civ­il soci­ety and no knowl­edge about how to engage and how to encour­age oth­er women to engage and feel they can do it. Clas­sic prob­lem of self esteem and feel­ing this is not for you – this is some­how a man’s world. It is a prob­lem that still exists in most coun­tries of the world in my expe­ri­ence, but par­tic­u­lar­ly exists where there has been no tra­di­tion­al his­to­ry of this at all. So try­ing to engage and devel­op the capac­i­ty for them in the polit­i­cal par­ty process.

Again one of the chal­lenges where you don’t have polit­i­cal par­ties that have had time to devel­op is how to ensure that they too can take root. And that we respect all polit­i­cal par­ties who are will­ing to say that we stand for the val­ues of democ­ra­cy and we stand for fun­da­men­tal free­doms and human rights. Who­ev­er they are and from what­ev­er tra­di­tion they come. We have got to be clear about what we are say­ing about what we hold dear and what we believe to be very impor­tant. It is the chal­lenge of help­ing them build that and make it deep; it is an ongo­ing chal­lenge that we very much have to be engaged in. It is inter­est­ing for us in the Euro­pean Union because with­in the 27 mem­ber states we have a num­ber of coun­tries who them­selves have been through a rev­o­lu­tion and change – who saw walls come down. And you have to find a way to build their democ­ra­cies and to rebuild their polit­i­cal process and to find ways to do it in deep and endur­ing manners.

So mak­ing sure that the con­sti­tu­tions are in place and sup­port the peo­ple and being the guardian of that process on behalf of the peo­ple is equal­ly impor­tant. And that is some­thing that in par­tic­u­lar­ly Egypt is engaged in now. Build­ing the con­sti­tu­tion, sup­port­ing the growth of polit­i­cal par­ties, help­ing the insti­tu­tions that make democ­ra­cy pos­si­ble come into being and to flour­ish, know­ing that you have an inde­pen­dent judi­cia­ry, know­ing that you have the civ­il ser­vice and build­ing civ­il society. 

When I first went to Tunisia and met with civ­il soci­ety groups for the first time they were in a room togeth­er, they had nev­er been allowed to meet each oth­er before. Build­ing for them is part­ly to learn how to deal with each oth­er. In Beng­hazi, when they called a meet­ing at the local uni­ver­si­ty of peo­ple inter­est­ed in form­ing orga­ni­za­tions, 200 orga­ni­za­tions turned up that had formed them­selves in the last few weeks, along with 55 news­pa­pers who are now flour­ish­ing in Beng­hazi. Free­dom of the media and the press are incred­i­bly impor­tant aspects of all the build­ing of the polit­i­cal process.

And then the sec­ond chal­lenge is eco­nom­ic – I would argue that democ­ra­cy will only take root if you also are able to see the poten­tial for eco­nom­ic growth and devel­op­ment. You know the sta­tis­tics of the lev­els of unem­ploy­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly among young peo­ple, and the need to try to devel­op the econ­o­my to sup­port espe­cial­ly the young who want to get jobs and have a future and poten­tial. Along­side that the build­ing of the infra­struc­ture needs to take place to enable all of that to flour­ish effi­cient­ly and I would link that back to also the build­ing the rule of law and jus­tice and so on. The inward invest­ment is only going to come when busi­ness feels that they are actu­al­ly able to flour­ish in an atmos­phere of rule of law that is going to work for them too.

There is a huge amount of work to be done to get­ting the econ­o­my to grow. I think in Egypt tourism is run­ning at 35% — it real­ly is the time to go and see the pyra­mids. It real­ly is the time to sup­port coun­tries who need that tourism come back and who got the poten­tial to try to deal with the debt that’s build­ing up and real­ly want to get their econ­o­my to move. Par­tic­u­lar aspect of that for me is about small busi­ness­es, the back­bone of all the econ­o­my. 3% of all small busi­ness­es with the EU of 27 coun­tries trade out­side the EU. It is a very small fig­ure and if you could dou­ble that you could do a lot for the Euro­pean econ­o­my. Imag­ine too what we could do if you sup­port small and medi­um sized busi­ness­es in the coun­tries in our neigh­bor­hood to be able to grow and devel­op their poten­tial too. As well as build­ing against the back­bone of some of their eco­nom­ic needs. Jor­dan — 52% of the water is lost in the pipeline that brings it to where it needs to go, they have mas­sive infra­struc­ture needs. Cairo — the metro needs to be extend­ed. Tunisia — the road net­work needs to be built. And there is an ambi­tion in Egypt to have a mas­sive hous­ing pro­gramme that will build social hous­ing right across the coun­try, around which you can plan whole com­mu­ni­ties and sus­tain­able devel­op­ment for peo­ple to be able to work and live togeth­er in those com­mu­ni­ties. Includ­ing train­ing, edu­ca­tion, jobs that will help those com­mu­ni­ties be sus­tain­able in the long term. So a huge amount needs to be done.

So my final point is about what has Europe done in response to those two big needs. First of all, for Europe this is about whether we are going to be effec­tive or not. To be effec­tive in our neigh­bor­hood is the proof of the Euro­pean Union for­eign pol­i­cy project. I think we have to and we have com­mit­ted to being there not only just for the short term, but for the medi­um and the long term because this is a long term job.

We have rewrit­ten our neigh­bor­hood pol­i­cy to build on 3 Ms. Mon­ey — get­ting addi­tion­al resources into the area, so along with the 5.7 bil­lion Euros we already had, we added anoth­er 1.2 bil­lion. Get­ting oth­er investors, like the Euro­pean Invest­ment Bank to add anoth­er bil­lion Euros a year for the South­ern Neigh­bor­hood while con­tin­u­ing to sup­port what is need­ed to be done in the East. And the Euro­pean Bank for Recon­struc­tion and Devel­op­ment respond­ing to my request, work­ing with oth­ers, to add 2 to 2.5 bil­lion a year each year over the next few years in pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor invest­ment to get busi­ness mov­ing and to get the infra­struc­ture in place. I think as well the build­ing of polit­i­cal par­ties and build­ing the polit­i­cal process to pro­vide the kind of long term sup­port that will be nec­es­sary, and help­ing them with elec­tion obser­va­tion so that the elec­tions are done prop­er­ly. Sup­port­ing them in secu­ri­ty issues — bor­der man­age­ment, reform of secu­ri­ty sec­tor, police reform and so — that are so impor­tant as you move into democ­ra­cy and build con­fi­dence in peo­ple that they can rely on those insti­tu­tions to oper­ate on their behalf, sup­port­ing their human and fun­da­men­tal rights as well. And try­ing to do that in the con­text of all that big support. 

So 3Ms: Mon­ey, which I just described. Mobil­i­ty — offer­ing the sup­port espe­cial­ly for young peo­ple and for busi­ness­es to take advan­tage of edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties in the EU, busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties in the EU, and sup­port­ing them in doing that, rec­og­niz­ing this is a young work force that we are going to need in the Euro­pean Union in the future. And Mar­ket access, the third M – how do we sup­port them through trade to enable them to grow their economies and to get the kind of sup­port they need. Bear­ing in mind that as their mar­kets grow they pro­vide mar­kets for us. All that with­in the back­drop of rec­og­niz­ing that if we can sup­port our neigh­bor­hood into future, it will be to our advan­tage as well.

Just one very final com­ment. We are doing this against an extra­or­di­nary dif­fi­cult eco­nom­ic back­drop, you know that here and we know that in Europe, and it is very impor­tant that we send the mes­sage very clear­ly to our peo­ple, that it is about for­eign pol­i­cy in their own inter­est. If we have a good neigh­bor­hood that is sus­tain­able and secure, that is demo­c­ra­t­ic and eco­nom­i­cal­ly grow­ing, that that is to our advan­tage because we are able to trade with them, to work with them, to sup­port them and to see them as our neigh­bors into the future. So as I began, Europe should be judged by its abil­i­ty to oper­ate in its own neigh­bor­hood and my deter­mi­na­tion is to make sure that the judg­ment is a pos­i­tive one. 

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