Arab Spring and European Fall – promoting democracy abroad while fighting crisis at home

The title of this article is taken from a lecture held at Copenhagen University a couple of months ago. All of the European Union countries had their Secretary of State attending a summit in town. Two of them, the local Secretary of State from Denmark Villy Søvndal, and the Swedish Secretary of State Carl Bildt took time to attend a lecture before the big summit later in the day. Denmark is currently holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union. The Presidency of the Council of the European Union is responsible for the functioning of the Council of the European Union, the upper house of the European Union’s (EU) legislature. It rotates between the member states of the EU every six months. The presidency is not an individual, but rather the position is held by a national government. It is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the President of the European Union. The presidency’s function is to chair meetings of the Council, determine its agendas, set a work programme and facilitate dialogue both at Council meetings and with other EU institutions.

Copenhagen and the rest of Denmark has suddenly become the centre of attention within the European Union, once again holding the presidency. Last time out in 2002, the then Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, took it upon himself to negotiate an enlargement of the European Union, inviting a lot of the former East Bloc states to become members. The current Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt has set the bar somewhat lower. She intends to raise the awareness of the European Union in Denmark, and also secure the fiscal treaties. Securing awareness to Danes about a Union that we have been members of since 1973, might sound strange, but the Union is still considered as a weird size, taking place and making decisions far away in Brussels, Belgium.

One of the ways to raise the interest about the European Union has been the many lectures taking place all over Denmark these months. One was about the relationship between Europe and the Middle East. With the Arab Spring sweeping the region of the Middle East, a region within close proximity to Europe, many European leaders have had to deal with a new reality. Before, the regimes of Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia had close ties to the European Union. The Union had excellent trade-agreements with the regimes, so when the dictators suddenly fell, the politicians from Europe had to switch course and instead talk about the importance of promoting democracy and supporting free elections. Of course the leaders of Europe had said this all along, but it had always sounded very hollow, as no real pressure was implemented on Mubarak and his foes.

The fact that European leaders now supports democracy in the Middle East of course sounds great, but is it also true? When Swedish Secretary of State Carl Bildt was asked from the audience at the University, why Sweden supports a country like Saudi-Arabia in the arms-trade industry, the Secretary diverted the question. He mentioned the fact, that Sweden could influence a country like Saudi-Arabia, by negotiating with them, and hopefully stop the Saudis from meddling in the affairs of other countries, like they did in Bahrain. The Danish participant Villy Søvndal had no better answer when he was confronted with the fact, that a Danish citizen is still imprisoned in Bahrain for participating in the demonstrations against the regime. The Danish national has been sentenced to death, while advocating the same ideas about democracy and free elections as the European politicians are hailing at a daily basis.

The European Union has its own problems. Even though the Union is the biggest integrated economy in the World, even bigger than the United States, and also one of the biggest trading powers of the world, the continent of Europe has also been severely hit by the global financial crisis. It is impossible to open a newspaper or turn on the news in television, without reading or hearing about the horrendous economical situation in European Union member states such as Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Republic of Ireland. This is creating havoc in Europe. The people of Germany and Finland, some of the only countries who have lived up to the financial agreements in the union, are weary about the fact that they have to pay for the misfortunes in other European countries. The economic tension has brought the well-known disagreement within the Union back to the surface.

When it comes to foreign policy, the European Union members also have trouble talking with the same voice. Foreign policy cooperation between member states dates from the establishment of the Community in 1957, when member states negotiated as a bloc in international trade negotiations under the Common Commercial Policy. Steps for a more wide ranging coordination in foreign relations began in 1970 with the establishment of European Political Cooperation which created an informal consultation process between member states with the aim of forming common foreign policies. It was not, however, until 1987 when European Political Cooperation was introduced on a formal basis by the Single European Act. EPC was renamed as the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) by the Maastricht Treaty. The coordinator and representative of the CFSP within the EU is the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (currently the British national Lady Catherine Ashton) who speaks on behalf of the EU in foreign policy and defense matters, and has the task of articulating the positions expressed by the member states on these fields of policy into a common alignment. The European Union does not have one unified military. The predecessors of the European Union were not devised as a strong military alliance because NATO was largely seen as appropriate and sufficient for defense purposes. 21 EU members are members of NATO while the remaining member states follow policies of neutrality. The Western European Union, a military alliance with a mutual defense clause, was disbanded in 2010 as its role had been transferred to the EU.

Denmark and other European countries had troops in Iraq. Denmark and other European countries still have troops in Afghanistan. Denmark and other countries supported the liberation of Libya from the dictatorship of Gaddafi. A lot of other European countries were against these abovementioned operations. Europe can not agree on how to react towards Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian situation still creates turmoil with the European Union. All of these examples show how the European Union fails to present a common voice. The remark from former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, when he asked where to call when he wanted the Unions opinion on a foreign matter, still seems adequate.

Carl Bildt emphasises the fact, that the progress in the Middle East after the Arab Spring is not only the responsibility of Europe. The whole world has to take part. Villy Søvndal says that Europe can’t turn their back on flourishing democracies, and that we have to implement new trade-agreements, mainly with the countries of North Africa. When asked whether Europe can afford to promote democracy in the Middle East, given the grim economic situation, the two politicians mentioned that we can’t afford not to help.

The recent events in Syria, has sadly shown that Europe can’t do anything to put pressure on the remaining regimes in the Middle East, leaving Europe obsolete and irrelevenat.


About the Author
David Jano earned his Master’s degree in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Southern Denmark. He has written on the Middle East for various Danish magazines.