Questioning the State of the Cooperation

Commentators in the Arab world are increasingly criticising that the EU has been reducing the Euro-Mediterranean partnership to a joint struggle against terrorism, drug-trading and illegal immigration. By Götz Nordbruch

The world from outer space perspective (photo: AP)
In the age of globalisation, Europe and the Arab world have come closer to one another - Arab intellectuals argue whether for the good or for the bad

​​"Europe, here we come – or else we'll die trying!" In the Qatari newspaper al-Raya, the Algerian writer Ali Salem describes this as the motto of the African refugees who are pushing at the gates of Europe in Morocco, Algeria and Libya.

"Europe is the conscience of this age", he writes. "It is the product of a long journey filled with barbarous human activity. It is living proof of the statement that crime doesn't pay. Some people think that politics is a crime committed against the people; but Europe has succeeded, after a long struggle, in reaching a level at which human rights are recognised. Now the continent stands there and says, 'Anyone who wants to stand with us, or join the EU, has to clean up his human rights act first.'"

On 27 and 28 November, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (founded in Barcelona) will celebrate its tenth year in existence. Now, just a few weeks before the official celebrations take place, the relationship between Europe and the Arab world is once more up for debate.

Mixed results of EU-Arab states cooperation

In early October, as the refugee drama in Morocco coincided with Turkey's negotiations to join the EU, even more people in Arab countries were questioning the state of this partnership.

In his commentary, Salem paints an idealised image of Europe, deliberately contrasting it with the Arab world. His view is certainly not shared by all Arab commentators. Europe is not just a model of the social rights and political freedoms that Salem claims for the Arab countries too; it is also, and above all, a political and economic protagonist on the world stage, with a major influence on social developments in the southern and eastern Mediterranean region.

Doubts about impact of reforms

From the perspective of the Mediterranean Arab states, who have signed cooperation treaties with the EU, the results of this partnership have been decidedly mixed. And it is not merely the disappointment of their economic hopes that worries them; the Egyptian commentator Sherif Hetata, for example, has said that the economic reforms themselves (which are stipulated in the cooperation treaties) are in stark contrast to the noble democratic principles propagated in the region in recent years by both the EU and the US.

In al-Ahram Weekly, Hetata writes: "No one can reject reform, or deny that many people in Egypt are struggling to achieve democracy. Yet we must look carefully at what is being recommended to us as democratic reform, and we must decide whether these reforms will really do anything to change the autocratic regimes we have already been living under for so long."

He continues: "Is it still possible today to make a distinction between democratic freedoms and the distribution of wealth, democracy and social justice? Is there not a fundamental conflict between the system we have been drawn into – a de-industrialised and economically privatised system – and a democratic praxis worthy of the name?"

Movement of goods, services and capital, but not of people

The postulated goals of the partnership seem no less contradictory. Increasingly, the European side has been reducing this partnership to a joint struggle against terrorism, drug-trading and illegal immigration.

Missoum Sibh, an advisor to Algeria's President Bouteflika explains: "The Europeans and their Mediterranean partners announce the free movement of goods, services and capital. At the same time, they multiply the restrictions on the free movement of people."

Sibh insists that one cannot announce that there will be "inter-cultural dialogue and a free exchange of ideas between different societies" while "preventing the partners in this dialogue and the creators of this exchange from meeting each other."

EU's 'realpolitik' interests

In a commentary for the Daily Star in Lebanon, Ashraf Fahim points out that the EU has very specific interests that drive its policy in the Mediterranean region, quite independently of its general public stance and its statements of intent:

"While the EU took a very target-oriented approach with its economic agenda, it risked less capital in promoting democracy and human rights. In order to avoid controversy, these were adjudged to be matters of 'good governance'. Human rights groups have criticised the EU's reluctance to insist that the human rights clauses be included in the association treaty. Syria, for example, has been given a time schedule for the reduction of customs tariffs, but no such schedule has been mooted for the implementation of political reforms."

EU-US parallels

Against this background, Fahim warns against overrating the role of the EU as an alternative to the USA: "One may prefer the EU's policies to the tendency now widespread in Washington, which is to teach democracy to conquered countries. But the long-term strategy is similar."

Nonetheless, these conflicts are not just about the interests of the EU. They concern, most especially, the self-image of Arab societies and their relationship to Europe.

Hassan Shami's article in the daily paper al-Hayat was written while Turkey conducted negotiations on joining the EU. He recalls the centuries-old relationship between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, and the social changes and political reforms that accompanied it – in Arabic countries, too. The Egyptian rulers of the 19th century, for example, felt compelled to instigate profound transformations, and this also marked a rapprochement with Europe.

As Shami reminds us: even at that time, the Egyptian Khedive Ismael was pointing out the ambiguous nature of Arab-European relations. In 1876, as profound reforms drove forward the modernisation of Egypt while simultaneously strengthening Europe's influence, Ismael declared: "My country is a part of Europe."

Götz Nordbruch

© 2005

Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan

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