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Europe Must Rise to the Challenges Presented by the Arab Spring

Europe's response to the Arab Spring has been lacking in ambition, imagination and generosity. From the actions and words of European leaders there has been too much focus on halting the flow of migrants and not enough on the historic opportunity before us.
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Co-authored also by Timothy Garton Ash

Europe's response to the Arab Spring has been lacking in ambition, imagination and generosity. From the actions and words of European leaders there has been too much focus on halting the flow of migrants and not enough on the historic opportunity to reset the relationship with Europe's southern neighbors.

It is still too early to tell what the long-term consequences of the Arab Spring will be. For Tunisia and Egypt there is a promise of more plural and responsive government after decades of top-down rule. For Morocco, Jordan, and some of the Gulf States there is a chance of reform without the pain of revolution. And the violence in Syria, Yemen and Libya may yet give way to positive change. But, whatever opportunities and threats history may bring, the short-term political instability is already leading to an economic slump in many of the countries in the region, in particular in countries that do not export oil or whose industries have been disrupted, as is the case in Libya. A recent report by the Institute of International Finance shows how a collapse in tourist revenues, capital flight, and rising inflation could see real GDP growth in non-oil countries -- Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia -- go down from an average of 4.4% in 2010 to -0.5% in 20111.

These economic challenges -- coupled with the underlying forces of demography, rising inequality, unemployment and corruption -- could threaten the emergence of an Arab spring. The EU should do all it can to avoid this scenario. The "dignity movements" which sprung up in the Arab world were not a call to join the West but rather an attempt to emancipate the citizens of these countries from within. But the EU -- whose destiny is adjoined to the Arab world through migration, energy, security as well as centuries of historical and cultural ties -- has a great interest in assuring that these early revolutions are successful to prevent the emergence of less friendly counter-revolutions. Not least, in this early phase it will be crucial that the EU supports the liberal and democratic forces in these countries that advocate the rights of minorities and women as well as basic freedoms such as freedom of speech, religion and press. It is imperative that the Arab spring becomes a spring for all and not just for a new elite.

What is more, it has many assets at its disposal. Much of the intra-European discussion has been on how the EU can support political reform through election-monitoring, support for political parties and programs on the rule of law and transitional justice. The EU should set up an arm's length equivalent of the National Endowment for Democracy to deliver tailored assistance to each of the countries in the region, as well as exploring whether Arab counties could be allowed to join the Council of Europe which would give their citizens access to the protection of the European Court on Human Rights.

But the EU will have little credibility on these issues if it does not find visible ways of supporting the fragile economies of its southern neighbors. There are many things the EU could do to support Tunisia and Egypt in the short-term: finding symbolic ways of re-assuring tourists that it is safe to visit these countries; granting temporary access for agricultural products to European markets to help replace lost income from their devastated tourist economy; setting up investment vehicles which could bolster the SME sector; recognition and aid for hosting the thousands of refugees who have escaped from Libya. For the longer term the EU needs to come up with an attractive economic and political vision for its relations with its southern neighbors.

The biggest challenge will be to move away from the "one-size-fits-all" technocratic agenda of the European neighborhood policy towards more individually tailored political and economic strategies towards each of these vastly different countries. The EU has started an internal debate on how to increase access to markets, money and mobility for countries serious about political reform. This vision could include moves towards a customs union and more creative measures to reconcile the urgent desire of people in the region for mobility with the need for EU states to re-assure their citizens that their security will be enhanced (borrowing from the precedent of the Balkans). Against the backdrop of recession and austerity in EU member states it has been hard for leaders to muster the political and economic capital and creativity that these events demand; but history will be unforgiving its Europe's leaders fail to rise to the events.

Emma Bonino is the Vice President of the Italian Senate; Mark Leonard is Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations; Ana Palacio is the Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain (2002-04); Daniel Sachs is the CEO of Proventus AB; and Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. All serve on the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Europe and Central Asia

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