5 July 2012
In December 2010 the world watched as a series of spontaneous and passionate protests swept the nations of North Africa and the Middle East. After long decades of repression, stagnation and kleptocratic rule, the peoples of the region massed in squares to demand their societies back. Few in Europe watched these events and were not struck by the passion of the protestors. But despite this it was also clear that the events of the Arab Spring would signify a major change in our relationship with the Arab world. The political implications are wide ranging and for Europe very important. Our economies too will be impacted, through immigration, trading changes and the cost of conflict itself on the affected nations. Politically a key issue with the Arab Spring for Europe is that we have seen a real rise in political Islam in these nations in the months following the protests. The reason for this Islamist success is partly due to the vacuum brought by the fall of the autocrats. Under the previous regimes it was only Political Islam that found a way to fund and organise itself under such strict dictatorships. The successes of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Al-Nour in Egypt, the Ennahda Party in Tunisa and the Justice and Development Party in Morocco show this trend. It is clear that Islamists are likely to play a decisive role in the shaping of each country’s constitution, as well as the culture of the subsequent political process. The question is whether this will have an impact on Europe’s future relationship with them. The Hamas administration in Gaza and the Shi’ite theocracy in Iran are the spectres in the minds of Europe’s governments when considering this form of political change. With their record of human rights abuses, support for terrorism and contempt for democracy they are hardly encouraging. As we all are aware for decades, Europe’s primary concern in the southern Mediterranean has been security and economic development, anti-terrorism cooperation, border controls against immigration and economic assistance and I believe that for many nations in Europe the type of regime being dealt with was secondary to the security concerns of the West. This security and development first mindset came at the expense of genuine support for democracy in countries like Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak became masters at exploiting such Western fears by presenting radical Islam as the only alternative to their repressive regimes. Now that Islamist parties are coming out ahead in parliamentary elections Europe will have to revaluate its approach to them. For Europe these relationships will be vital, securing its southern border against issues such as terrorism, immigration and the drugs trade. But despite these fears we must remember that Europe has had for decades a modern Islamic state on its border. Turkey, a nation that has been such a beneficial trading and security partner that its membership to the EU is currently being considered. This therefore does offer Europe a useful case study of an Islamist government which is sympathetic to our values and with whom we can do business. The AKP government has shown that Islam can play a role in public life while remaining respectful of a secular constitution. And Turkey’s responsible stance on Syria stands in stark contrast to the position adopted by Iran. We can also be encouraged by the fact that parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have toned down their hardline rhetoric in the months following the mass uprising. But the possibility remains that Europe will have to deal with more aggressive Islamist Governments, and this would have a huge impact on its relationships with its Mediterranean neighbours. That is why it is vital that the UK and Europe discriminates between groups that behave like this and those that are genuinely committed to growing a democracy. We have to approach this situation with the long term goal we desire in mind, a stable Mediterranean with nations surrounding it that Europe can deal with. With this aim in mind the Foreign Office must be prepared to deal very robustly with those who regard violence, threats and intimidation as a legitimate part of the political process - for they are the ones most likely to unravel the gains of the Arab Spring. By this I do not mean ignore them; it’s both possible and right to maintain a dialogue with those who oppose our values. But at the same time we should not afford them the same treatment as those groups which do share our commitment to democracy, human rights and equality under the law. What seems like reasonable engagement to us can easily be perceived as an admission of weakness to the Arab mentality. We need to take the long view. Democracy isn’t just about holding elections - it’s about developing the institutions and practices that guarantee the rights of all citizens, regardless of who’s in power: a constitution, a free press, an independent judiciary, habeas corpus, freedom of religion and freedom from religion. This political change has and will have a huge impact on Europe, and now we have to engage with these nations to help them gain the democracy they have fought so hard for and to try and open discussions with any moderate political parties in the area. But the Arab Springs impact has also been felt in Europe’s economies. The upheaval of the North African nations that imported oil from the Middle East and those that produce and export it, such as Libya, have had a huge impact on Europe. In Libya the civil war and collapse of the Gaddafi regime saw more than 740,000 people flee the country and severe disruptions in the hydrocarbons sector. This fall in oil production has serious implications for the European states that imported oil from Libya. The problems will take a long time to fix, emigration or death of skilled workers, the refusal of foreign companies and experts to work in Libya and the destruction of much of the nation’s oil infrastructure will affect Libya for years. As a result those European nations depending on oil from North Africa will have to seek new trading routes for this important resource. The Arab Spring has also had a huge impact on European immigration. According to the European Border Control Agency it has led to a huge surge in immigration to the EU, particularly to Greece via the Turkish border. Some reports suggest this rise is as much as 50% higher than in the years prior to the Arab Spring. One of the problems is the reduction in visa requirements in Turkey prior to this mass unrest in North Africa. The area this policy affected encompassed many of the countries affected by the Arab Spring and it has served as a route for those affected by violence to flee towards Europe. As much as we do have a responsibility to help those displaced by war the flow of immigrants is straining the relations between Europe and some of its neighbours. With EU nations already facing double digit unemployment, this rapid influx of immigrants is another problem they have to adapt to. And it is an expensive problem. The added security and border control needed, the cost of helping those who need asylum, the wider cost on the availability of jobs and the need for tax money to help support immigrant families are all being added to the burden many countries in Europe are already labouring under. Finally, I could not discuss the impact the Arab Spring has had on Europe without mentioning the one area that is both of utmost danger to Europe and is still in the balance, Syria. With a brutal civil war still ongoing and the threat of escalation to its neighbour Lebanon, this unrest seems likely to have a huge impact on Europe’s future. We have also seen a polarisation of international politics between Europe, America and China and Russia over the future of Assad’s regime. Some see the conflict as part of a proxy war between Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, who support the Sunni-led opposition, and Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon, who support the Alawite-led government in Syria. In February 2012 German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned that a proxy war in Syria could cause a confrontation that drags in Moscow and Beijing. Before his departure to the 2012 G8 Summit, the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that actions, which undermine state sovereignty may well end in a full-blown regional war. It is therefore clear to see that for Europe the managing of this situation is hugely important. But with the actions of the Syrian Government, such as the banning of all media organizations, the death of two Western journalists in Homs and the attack on a lone Turkish jet over international waters all make this increasing difficult for the EU. With this level of instability in the region and the threat of escalation to other nations that neighbour Syria we do see the knock-on effect to trade and especially the passage of oil and gas through the Middle East. It should also be mentioned that the trade embargo now placed on Syria by the EU also has had an effect on those nations in Europe who previously did trade with Assad’s regime. Turkey, for example, was a key trading partner with Syria and the benefits of this relationship were passed on with Turkish trade westwards. With the international situation still unclear and with the violence seemingly never ending within Syria it is difficult for us to see what the outcome will be. However it seems clear that it will have large implications for Europe and Europe’s future relationship with this area of the world. The involvement of Iran in the Syrian conflict is also an issue of huge concern for Europe and the West. The links between the two nations are well known, spanning for three decades. Now with Iranian troops reportedly operating in Syria the threat of a regional conflict intensifies. I believe that through helping Assad in a protracted Civil War Tehran hopes it could force Western governments to step back from this region. It also seeks to limit the impact of Saudi and Qatari funding of opposition funding. It is clear that for Iran the focus is on safeguarding its interests and ensuring the popular revolutions that have gripped the Middle East do not spread to Iran. I am also concerned that it may try its hand at securing concessions from the West over its nuclear programme in return for withdrawing support for Assad. With sanctions biting hard this would be one way of alleviating Western pressure. For Europe this Iranian involvement is of great concern and the threat of regional war if the West intervenes is stalling any attempts to stabilise the region. The Syrian crisis has quickly become a setting for a power struggle between Iran and the West and the impact this could have on Europe if allowed to ignite would be huge. To sum up I believe that the impact the Arab Spring has and will continue to have upon Europe cannot be underestimated. Politically it will lead to the rebalancing of our relationship with those nations affected. Economically we have seen the impact that the uprisings have had on a number of key areas. Hard work is needed to ensure that these relationships can be rebuilt, and if not that new ones are opened with other regions for trading purposes. The impact of immigration is also a huge issue that has been brought about by the Arab Spring, with thousands of people fleeing into southern Europe to escape the violence. Lastly but by no means least we see the threat of regional war in Syria and the elephant in the room: Iran. There is a real danger of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran played out in Damascus and the threat of international stalemate and polarization between Russia, China and the West should be a constant concern. This is something that European leaders need to devote a great deal of attention to. We must help the people of Syria escape this violent repression and at the same time ensure that we do not allow Iran to force the region into a protracted state of unrest. All in all I believe that the Arab Spring is not only a key event for the people of those nations that can now move forward into democracy but is also a pivotal moment for Europe and the way it interacts with the world around it.