Europe Confronts Mediterranean Mayhem – Part I

European leaders were cozy with dictators throughout the Middle East and North Africa for decades. Beginning in Tunisia, citizens have swiftly challenged authoritarian regimes in the region, threatening decades-old enforced stability with non-violent protests. This YaleGlobal series gauges European reactions to a crisis that threatens the continent’s borders, economy and stability. Europe supported and depended on family regimes to ensure stability and provide oil, explains Jean-Pierre Lehmann in the first article of the series. Such arrangements offered few benefits for millions of citizens trapped in the stagnant economies. In terms of demographics and expectations of one another, the divide is deep between the northern and southern coasts of the Mediterranean. He urges Europe to take immediate steps to right past wrongs and nurture stability based on citizens’ consent. Lehmann reminds that Arabs contributed immensely to the European Renaissance before and could do so again. – YaleGlobal

Europe Confronts Mediterranean Mayhem – Part I

Cooperation between Arabs and Europeans could lead to a new renaissance
Jean-Pierre Lehmann
Monday, February 28, 2011

LAUSANNE: There are moments when history accelerates, and the Arab world is witnessing such a period. It is, for sure, exciting, encouraging for all who appreciate democracy and for many, especially Arab youth, it’s an exhilarating mayhem. What follows the regimes that have been toppled remains an open question, but also the question of how many of the 22 members of the Arab League will undergo regime change in the next few months. Is this purely an Arab affair or will its ripples extend to other parts of the planet? The answer for the region’s immediate neighbor to the north, Europe, is obvious. This is a crisis in the full sense of the term, involving danger and opportunity.

The Arab autocrats were obviously caught off-guard as were Western. Europe’s leaders, all blindsided by an enforced stability in the Middle East/North Africa for decades. Former French foreign minister Michelle Alliot-Marie was a bosom buddy of Tunisia’s Ben Ali – so much so that she had to resign. Mubarak was the toast of many European capitals and invited by President Nicolas Sarkozy to be his co-chair for the much trumpeted, but ultimately failed, Union of the Mediterranean. Tony Blair was instrumental in Colonel Muammar el-Gaddafi’s rehabilitation and the two were on the closest of terms for some years.

As to why European governments were so keen on propping up the dictators is simple and straightforward: They wanted stability and steady oil supply above all else. Not so much stability in the interests of the countries concerned, but for Europe.

Despite apparent agreement and bonhomie, the chasm between Europe and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa has widened dramatically in virtually all respects; but most significant of all in demographics. Go to Morocco and then hop to Southern Spain. The topography is much the same, as is the architecture – the Arabs used to rule the place when it was known as al Andalus, a major center of science and civilization. Whereas Moroccan villages are chockfull of children running around everywhere, Andalusian villages are virtually empty with only a few elders tottering about and immigrants coming to pick the olives.

On the north side of the Med is the world’s oldest population and on the southern side is the world’s youngest. The median age in Italy and Spain is over 40. In Tunisia and Lebanon, it’s 25; in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, it’s 22; in Syria 19, Somalia 18 and Yemen 16! The north is old and rich; the south is young and generally poor.

In the Arab region, stability became stagnation. While most of the world marched forward in the last couple of decades at a brisk economic, social and political pace, the Arab region ruled by monarchs and strongmen remained stagnantly stable. Europe clearly preferred that it stay that way.

Europe and the Arab region are physically and historically close – where would European civilization be without the philosophy, mathematics and sciences provided by Arabs – often classics saved from oblivion through Arab translation? But psychologically they never have been as distant. Arabs tend to be looked down upon and discriminated against in Europe. Yet the Arab region matters greatly to Europe in three vital areas: immigration, energy and security.

There are millions of Arabs living in Europe; immigration and assimilation policies have not been crowned with success, to put it mildly. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French extreme right National Front, who calls for expulsion of immigrants – with mainly Arabs in mind – has, according to polls, support from 22 percent of the French. There are similar patterns elsewhere. Despite all that, many Arabs still dream of emigration to Europe.

The EU’s dependence on oil from the Middle East and North Africa is well over 30 percent. Oil was, of course, the reason the likes of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair were prepared to enter into Faustian pacts with the Libyan butcher.

Two major security issues directly impact on Europe: Israel and Iran. From this perspective also the regimes of the autocrats provided the EU with valuable support as they went along with the Western policy while paying lip service to the Palestinian cause.

Already mayhem in Tunisia and Libya has produced an exodus of Biblical proportion – some 5,000 Tunisians to the Italian island of Lampedusa alone – and the surge of immigrants fleeing to Europe could only swell with Gaddafi’s open war on his people. The price of oil has shot up and an oil price hike comparable to or worse than the 1970s is not unthinkable. With demonstrations breaking out all over, Iran and Al Qaeda seeking opportunity to exploit the possibility of conflict, the potential of civil or even cross-border wars is high. All of this would dramatically negatively affect the cozy life Europeans have become accustomed to and, indeed, believe is their due.

While the Arab region has been stagnant, this is pretty much true also of Europe; not so much in the economy – though there’s a bit of that – but in spirit. The European post-war can-do spirit and ideal has become mired and lost. Especially for the younger European generation, it represents little if anything in inspiration and motivation.

How the EU responds to the Arab “challenge” may determine whether it further stagnates into growing pathetic irrelevance or whether it experiences a much needed renaissance. Here is what it needs to do to achieve the latter.

  • Immediately intensify procedures for the accession of Turkey to EU membership, fixing a deadline no later than 2013, and therefore stop moving the goalposts. Turkey is no longer a peripheral country, it’s a pivotal country.

  • Open EU borders to Middle East and North African exports, especially in agriculture, and also to labor. Review immigration laws and practices.  

  • Set up an Eminent Persons Group from Europe and Middle East–North Africa to design an open, robust, dynamic framework for relations in the 21st century.

  • All such initiatives so far have been too top-down, à la Sarkozy-Mubarak. There should be projects at grassroots levels, including civil society, business, especially those involving the next generation.

  • Israel should be invited to join this new Mediterranean space once it had abided unconditionally by UN Resolution 242.

  • Iran should also be invited on condition that it renounces its nuclear program.

Europe played a determinant role in the 1970s and 1980s bringing about in its own space the end of fascist and communist states. Since this great achievement, the EU has been more bewildered observer of history than maker. And yet it has a considerable potential reserve of soft power. Undertaking steps such as these would work toward restoring dignity, solidarity and hope in the Middle East–North Africa region and a sense of purpose in the EU. The Arabs were influential in bringing about the European Renaissance of the 14th to17th centuries and could play a part in generating a European Renaissance in the 21st.

The future of the Middle East and North Africa depends above all on the people of the region themselves. The EU could play a significant supportive role. If this does not occur, then the mayhem in the Mediterranean will end up causing considerable havoc in Europe. 

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is professor of international political economy, IMD, and founding director of the Evian Group.
Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization