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European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy
Strengthening Cooperation on Democracy Support
2nd Transatlantic Dialogue conference
European Parliament premises, Tuesday 15 March
Mr President, Madam Secretary of State,
Honourable Members of this House, distinguished guests,
It is an honour to be here today and take part in a dialogue that is aimed not only at exchanging views but also at looking into the future. At a time when history is moving very fast in Europe’s neighbourhood, the inputs of a conference such as this one are invaluable to get our actions right.
The political landscape of the Southern Mediterranean and the Arab world has changed in a matter of weeks. In several countries of the region, populations have stood up to their autocratic rulers, expressed their frustrations with a courage and a determination that have been a lesson to all of us, and forced them out. Throughout the region, the frustration accumulated during decades of lack of political, economic and social perspectives is expressing itself unequivocally, particularly among the youth. While it is early to predict the shape that events will take in many of these countries, particularly in Libya, it is safe to say that the Southern Mediterranean and the Arab world have already changed beyond return.
The European Union has welcomed these changes whole-heartedly. They are in line with our core values of human rights, pluralism, the rule of law, democracy. They can open no less but a new era in our relations with our neighbours. We are ready for it.
As I have already told the European Parliament, one of the great achievements of the last weeks has been to shed the offensive belief that the Arab world was not “ready for democracy”. The very regimes that have just fallen used to counter us in our attempts to promote democracy by telling us we were trying to impose Western views and approaches. The demonstrators on the streets of Tunis, Cairo and elsewhere have clearly expressed that human dignity and the universal values attached to it belong to nobody. This is why I am deeply attached to referring to them as shared values between the European Union and its neighbours — and this is much more than a semantic difference.
Another argument that some of the regimes that have now disappeared used to oppose us with is that democracy takes time. And this is correct. Democracy, especially the type of deep democratic transformation that people are now calling for in the Arab world, does not come overnight. We know from our own experience that it sometimes takes one or two generations to materialise. We know, even more importantly, that it is a continuous struggle. But this can be no excuse for delaying or slowing down reforms —and even less of an excuse for considering democratisation as a simple option on the political menu. There again, the message we have heard throughout the region is unambiguous: the work must start now and, where it had already started, it must accelerate.
Our High Representative/Vice President Cathy Ashton is very attached to the concept of deep democracy, and I think rightly so. The transformation at play in the Southern Mediterranean reaches very deep into these countries. Elections are, of course, of paramount importance but they are only a part of the picture. Deep democracy is when a simple citizen, man or woman, can go and face their judges knowing they are independent. When they can face the police or the administration without being asked for bribes. When they can live their lives, express their views, invest in their businesses, plan for their future and that of their children freely and without fear. It is the fear, the abuse of power, the self-censorship that has to be uprooted. This cannot materialise overnight but this is the process that the entire region has embarked upon and that we are ready to assist tirelessly —for its benefit as well as ours.
The European Union has much to offer in this transition. We have experience of our own transition: President Buzek and several of us experienced it in our own countries and Mrs Albright was a close and staunch supporter of the process. This knowledge of developing pluralistic political systems, with functioning market economies and with vibrant civil societies must be at the core of our support.
At the same time, the transformations at play in Tunisia, Egypt and throughout the region are proceeding in their own way and at their own pace. Ready-made solutions would not work and nobody should seek to impose them. Each country is different and therefore each country will receive a special, differentiated attention from the European Union. The European Union will commit important resources, both technical and financial, and is ready to draw on its extensive experience on transition if partners so wish.
In Tunisia, the transition government has taken positive steps. Political parties have been liberalised, freedoms of association and expression have been extended, and elections have been called for a new constitutional assembly. The authorities have also announced their intention to adhere to new international human rights conventions and protocols. The European Union has welcomed these steps and offered its support to the new Tunisian authorities. We were swift in providing early support for democratic transition, including preparations for elections. We have already launched actions in support to civil society. We are looking at further cooperation on supporting media and improving the fight against corruption.
In Egypt, we have been in permanent contact with the transitional authorities. We expect signals from them regarding how we can assist their reform efforts. In the meantime, we are intensifying our support for the Egyptian civil society.
Other countries in the neighbourhood have seen encouraging developments. King Muhammad VI of Morocco has announced a constitutional reform, which he intends to put to a referendum. Intensified and accelerated political reforms have also been announced by King Abdullah II of Jordan. There is hope that the swift finalisation and implementation of these initiatives will allow for the acceleration of the reform process at work in both countries.
In all countries of the Southern Mediterranean, stepping up the political dialogue will be a key priority for the EU in the years to come. We need to understand better the dynamics of each country and also we need to convey more clearly our intentions. In this context, I am glad that Algeria has accepted to establish with the EU a formal mechanism for discussing political issues, in particular security issues and human rights.
Our new approach to the Southern Mediterranean is contained in the joint Communication on “Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity" that was adopted by the Commission and the High Representative on 8 March. We have identified several priorities: supporting democratic transformation and institution building; increasing dialogue and support to civil society, promoting mobility and people-to-people contacts; and buttressing economic growth, notably by improving market access.
The Communication expresses our belief that now is the time for a qualitative step forward in the relations between the European Union and its Southern neighbours that engage in a genuine transition towards democratisation. This new approach will be rooted unambiguously in a joint commitment to our common values: democracy, human rights, social justice, good governance and the rule of law. The EU offer for a Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity can only be based on such a joint commitment.
The EU will increase its engagement with civil societies in all countries of the region. Supporting the development and the strengthening of civil societies is essential in the early post-revolutionary stage. Non-governmental organisations will have a crucial role to ensure that transition authorities remain accountable; they are also instrumental in coalescing the many demands of public opinion. We will seek to maximise the assistance that Member States can offer at short notice to develop a platform for civil society, political parties, trade unions and associations.
Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Allow me to say a few words specifically on Libya. Muammar Gaddafi continues to defy UN Security Council resolution 1970. His use of heavy weapons against his own people, particularly civilians, may amount to crimes against humanity. Those involved in planning, deciding or executing such actions must be held accountable. I am proud that Europe has been at the forefront of the effort to insert into Resolution 1970 provisions on referral to the International Criminal Court.
The Gaddafi regime has lost much of its legitimacy. It is hard to envisage how the regime will be able to gather support from the local population after the very intensive combats that are taking place and that may continue for some time. Our immediate focus is on evacuation and dealing with the humanitarian crisis. We also have to make every effort to ensure that peace is rapidly restored and we are keen to work with and for the Libyan people —but we will not work with a dictator who is spilling the blood of his people with such violence and disregard for human life.
Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The European Union intends to be much more than a mere spectator in the events that are unfolding in the Arab world. We have the will, the means, and the instruments to help. But of course this also reaches beyond the European Union: our international partners, particularly the United States, have a lot to offer and there is also a large part of the work that can be better done by Parliaments, political parties, civil society organisations. As I have said already before the European Parliament, we see our relations with our neighbours as evolving towards partnerships between societies, in support for the development of genuine pluralism. And this is also where the experience you all bring can provide us with much needed insights and advice.
The events in the South have triggered many useful discussions about our values and the way we reflect them in our relations with our Southern partners. The special relationship between the EU and the US had a specific role to play here. We need a continuous political dialogue, not only within the EU but also with our US partner. Not to reassure each other about our adherence to these values, but rather to focus on how we deliver on them: how we can ensure that our values and our interests meet each other and that shorter-term considerations and worries, however legitimate, do not stand in the way of delivering on them. The enthusiasm of the last weeks and the long-term vision that is emerging for the region must continue to feed our work, not just in the immediate future but also for the long haul —and there we should stand ready to be judged on our deeds and not only on our words. I see our transatlantic dialogue and the special relationship between the US and the EU as essential to interact, reflect and help each other uphold our commitments and our responsibility. And I believe it is mature enough to discuss all our actions, including the tough or the realistic choices that may lie ahead, while never letting go of our long-term objective of a democratic, stable and prosperous Southern Mediterranean and Arab world.