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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
Speech on the recent events in North Africa
Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET), European Parliament
Brussels, 28 February 2011
Mr President, Honourable Members,
The events unfolding in North Africa and other parts of the Arab world are of historic proportions. We are witnessing a sea change in the internal dynamics of this region. What has happened over the last weeks will have profound and lasting consequences not only for the people and the countries of the region but also for the rest of the world, in particular Europe.
The toppling of former Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak by peaceful protests mostly led by young people will remain in history as a symbol of the revival of the Arab world. For several generations, there has been a pervasive feeling of powerlessness in these countries, an alleged and, frankly, rather offensive “Arab exception” towards democracy, and a deep sense of despair watching change, freedom, modernity happening all over the planet.
This has changed irreversibly. Irrespective of any domino effect, it is now clear that all countries in the region, and all authoritarian regimes elsewhere, have to pay much more attention to the democratic aspirations and well-being of their populations.
We should welcome these changes whole-heartedly. They carry the hope of a better life for the people of the region and greater respect for human rights, pluralism, social justice and the fundamental freedoms which are at the core of our values.
Europe has a vital interest in a democratic, stable, prosperous, peaceful North Africa in its immediate neighbourhood. Europe must and will rise to the challenge of supporting democratic transition in North Africa, as it did after the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989.
Before moving to our response, I would like to say three words of caution.
First, we must show humility about the past. Europe was not vocal enough in defending human rights and local democratic forces in the region. Too many of us fell prey to the assumption that authoritarian regimes were a guarantee of stability in the region. This was not even Realpolitik. It was, at best, short-termism —and the kind of short-termism that makes the long term ever more difficult to build.
I am not saying that everything we did was wrong, rather that Europe, at this particular moment more than ever before, must be faithful to its values and stand on the side of democracy and social justice. The crowds in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and elsewhere have been fighting in the name of our shared values. It is with them, and for them, that we must work today —not with dictators who are, as we speak, spilling the blood of their own people with utter disregard for human life.
Second, we must avoid at all cost a blanket approach to all our Arab and North African neighbours. The uprisings in the region have many causes in common: authoritarian regimes, paralysed political systems, a lack of employment for young graduates, violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. However, each of these countries is different and we will have to adapt our policies accordingly.
We cannot have the same approach towards Tunisia, a small country with a rather homogenous population, a strong middle class and long-standing links with Europe, or towards Libya where tribal links remain highly prevalent: any transition there will therefore have to reflect this element of the social fabric while ensuring inclusiveness.
Third, while we should and will focus on the short-term negative consequences of the changes in the region, we should not lose sight of our long-term interests. Yes, there may be rising irregular migration flows originating from Tunisia, Libya and, to some extent, from Egypt. Yes, there will be a certain political vacuum in the newly democratising countries, including an increased visibility of Islamist parties and, at least in some of them, a worry that they may not want to play by the rules of democracy. Yes, there may be rising oil prices, lost investments and business. Yes, there may be potential civil war and instability in Libya. We know that the forces of change that have been unleashed will not produce stable political systems overnight. Yet, we must weather these risks without losing sight of our long-term common objective: a democratic, stable, prosperous and peaceful North Africa.
So what do we intend to do to contribute to change in the region?
Our first priority is to ensure the success of the democratic transitions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Under the leadership of Catherine Ashton, we have set up task forces to prepare comprehensive support packages for Tunisia and Egypt. We have consulted widely, including Members of this House, academics and non-governmental organisations, and listened to their views on the priorities for these packages. We are currently seeking the inputs of EU Member States. The initial results of our work were discussed at last Monday’s Foreign Affairs Council and will be on the agenda of the upcoming March European Council.
In Tunisia, we have announced an immediate assistance package of €17 million for immediate and short-term support to the democratic transition and assistance to inland impoverished areas. This entails support for the preparation of democratic elections and for NGOs, which is crucial for the consolidation of the democratic process. We are also supporting the work of the three commissions established in January, for which teams of experts are already on the ground.
These are only first and modest steps. We are now reviewing our existing co-operation programmes with a view to better taking into account the needs of the new emerging Tunisia. We are also ready to resume negotiations on the strengthening of bilateral relations with Tunisia (“statut avancé”). We hope to be able to conclude these after the upcoming elections, with a democratically elected government. We still need more thorough discussions with the Tunisians on what they need and how we can most efficiently provide our support.
For Egypt, it is still premature to announce a support package for democratic transformation. The Egyptian authorities have engaged in internal discussions on how the international community can be best supporting the democratic transformation and socio-economic needs.
As HR/VP Ashton announced in her visit to Cairo last week, the EU is ready to help as soon as Egypt is ready. We will not dictate outcomes. We will not impose solutions. This is a country where we already have comprehensive programmes supporting socio-economic reforms and human rights, good governance and democratisation. We can go much farther in the new political environment but they constitute a good basis to build on.
Based on collective demands emanating not only from the interim leadership but also from opposition parties, civil society and youth, we will revise, review and adapt our on-going support to optimise our response to Egypt’s democratic transformation and to increased socio-economic justice.
Catherine Ashton and I told the Council that we believe the EU should assume leadership in coordinating the international community’s response to the historic events in Tunisia and Egypt. We need to avoid overlap and maximise collective impact. This will require strengthening co-ordination within the EU, particularly with and among Member States, as well as with our main international partners. This is why we organised last week a conference in Brussels with key international institutions and actors such as the World Bank, the European Investment Bank or the Council of Europe, to mobilise all possible instruments in support of the democratic transition of these two countries. We intend to have later on a Ministerial conference. In parallel, we will support the international conference to be organised by the Tunisian authorities in Carthage, most probably in March.
These steps of immediate support to Tunisia and Egypt are essential but they should only be part of our response. It is crystal clear to us that we need to reflect on our entire approach towards the Southern Mediterranean and seek to adapt all our policies and instruments to what is happening in the region.
There is, of course, a strong link with the ongoing review of the European Neighbourhood Policy, on which I have addressed this Committee several times and I will not expand now. The Commission held an orientation debate on the ENP last week to prepare our work for the Communication on 20 April. I trust you will find in our new approach the level of ambition and commitment that you have consistently called for, particularly as regards stronger partnership with societies, greater differentiation, and being ready to go farther with our neighbours implementing ambitious political and economic reforms.
We see, however, a need for faster and more specific action: President Barroso has asked all Commissioners to identify possible initiatives towards the “new” Southern Mediterranean in their respective policy areas and HRVP Ashton and I will put together a Communication on this contribution of Community instruments to be adopted on 16 March, in time for consideration by the European Council.
We are now going through fifteen years of experience of Euro-Mediterranean co-operation. We are reflecting on how we could do more to address long-standing frustrations in essential areas including the most sensitive ones, such as migration, mobility or market access. We are examining how other policy areas such as, for instance, our experience at regional and rural development can be best put to use, in this case to tackle regional inequalities. We are also taking a fresh look at our financing instruments, including the possibility to re-programme funds, make better use of blending facilities including the Neighbourhood Investment Facility, bring in more private sector money for more profitable investments, as well as support partners in facing short-term difficulties with their balance of payments.
In short, we are leaving no stone unturned —and we will also be honest as to what can be done with existing funding, what could be achieved through more loans and blending, and what might require fresh funds. As I mention funding, I would like to salute the determining role of the European Parliament in securing a €1 billion increase in the ceiling of lending that the European Investment Bank can make available to Southern Mediterranean countries.
Mr President, Honourable Members,
I would like to use this opportunity to say a few words on Libya and on migration, which are of course two matters of urgent concern to all of us.
First, Libya. There was a long discussion at the Council on how best to respond to the crisis there. While several of us would have liked to see sanctions decided during the Council and applied even faster, I am pleased that the decision was finally taken today and that we have been able to agree on lists for travel bans and asset freezes reaching even beyond those adopted in the United Nations. I want to salute the exemplary co-operation between the Presidency, the Commission and the External Action Service in achieving this result.
We are giving the absolute priority to the repatriation and the safety of the many European citizens who are still in Libya. HRVP Ashton activated the MIC (Monitoring and Information Centre) on 23 February in order to facilitate the evacuation of EU citizens and maximise the use of transport and other logistical assets. In parallel ECHO has already made €3 million available to tackle the immediate humanitarian needs of refugees fleeing Libya at the Tunisian and Egyptian borders.
In substance, I think it is absolutely clear to all of us that Colonel Gaddafi and the Libyan leadership have reached a point of no-return. The repression they have inflicted on their population had not been seen in Europe’s neighbourhood for at least a generation. Beyond our essential humanitarian and consular duties, there can be no more dealing with Libya’s government until he and the perpetrators of these acts are gone.
Second, migration. We all know it is not an easy issue. Justice and Home Affairs Ministers already discussed the situation in the Mediterranean region on 24 and 25 February. The Interior Ministers of six EU Mediterranean countries met last week in Rome. Commissioner Malmström has ensured the full mobilisation of European instruments, including Frontex through the Hermes 2011 operation, to deal with the crisis that affected Italy last week and to prepare for all scenarios. I know Cecilia is planning to de-brief the LIBE Committee on this subject tomorrow, in the presence of members of this Committee.
We must take the correct view of these events: they show we will have to strengthen cooperation with North African countries, in line with the EU global approach on migration. Of course, we should ask our partner countries in North Africa to prevent irregular migration and cooperate on return and readmission. The EU will have to develop more ambitious approaches in the field of legal migration of workers, for example in the context of temporary or circular migration. This is a request that has been made to the EU by Tunisia, and it is preferable to manage this type of migration rather than the humanitarian crises stemming from uncontrolled migration. This is another issue on which we will need the full support of this House.
Mister President, Honourable Members,
We are confronted with a historic challenge and it is my conviction, as well as that of President Barroso, HR/VP Ashton and the entire College, that Europe should not fail or remain a spectator in what is happening.
In full co-operation with our Southern partners, we can, we must and we will act swiftly and decisively to help shaping the new Southern Mediterranean. The European Parliament has a great responsibility to ensure that the EU adopts the policies and strengthens the instruments necessary to meet this challenge. We know we can count on your full support.