Arab Reforms and the Challenges for EU Policies- seminaari, 16.9.2004

It is a great honour for me to participate in the opening session of this conference on Arab reforms and challenges for EU policies.

This event is part of the campaign entitled ’A Thousand and One Steps’ arranged by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The purpose of the campaign is to offer information and events related to the Arab world. This conference is one of the highlights of this project.

I want to thank the organizers – The Finnish Institute of International Affairs, the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and the Gulf Studies Center – for making this conference possible.

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In my remarks I would like to talk about Arab reforms from the Finnish perspective – why the Arab world matters to us and how we want to respond to current challenges. As I represent one of the member states of the European Union, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that this perspective is also a broader European one.

But it is also the perspective of an outsider. It is not for me, or for any Foreign Minister from outside the Arab world, to dictate what should be done in order to produce change. The Arab world has to assert control over its own development agenda. We stand ready to cooperate and help if asked to do so.

There is also a pragmatic element within our positive attitude: namely that it is in our own interest to see a more stable and a more prosperous Arab world. Europe, the Mediterranean area and the Middle East are joined together by geography and shared history. And our geographical proximity to one another is a reality that underpins our growing interdependence.

So, it is clear that our motives include self-interest. A more democratic world is a more peaceful world. In this context, I would like to quote my good friend Commissioner Chris Patten who has said: ”Promoting human rights, democratisation, and the rule of law promotes peace and stability. This is a doctrine of pre-emption to which the EU can happily subscribe.”

This thinking links our policy to the European Security Strategy which was endorsed last December. In the security strategy the Middle East is made a priority.

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Concern about the status quo in the Middle East and its political and socio-economic consequences has recently led to a proliferation of ideas and initiatives seeking to promote change. The problem with these initiatives is that they have usually originated in Western countries.

Today the situation is somewhat different. The need for reform is more widely recognised in the Arab countries themselves. People ranging from the authors of the Arab Human Development Reports to the participants in the Arab Reform Conference of last March at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina are calling for greater civil and political freedom.

However, the progress to this point has been slow. Until late in the twentieth century, those trends were gradual and received hardly any attention. But now, for over a decade more attention has been given to the issue of governance also in the Arab world itself – although it has not always been described by that term.

All this has happened against the combined backgrounds of economic stagnation, inexorable demographics and popular alienation from traditional political life. But people have begun to realize what kind of consequences there will be if the region or some individual countries fall behind the global trend towards greater freedoms and development.

In retrospect, the conference in Alexandria has become even more meaningful since the Arab League Summit in May approved a reform document with principles identical to those of the Alexandria Declaration. This document was the type of reaction we were looking for after starting our dialogue on reform with Arab countries. The document was a significant step forward even if it failed to address the issue of mechanisms for implementation.

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There has been criticism that the EU’s interest in the Arab countries is long overdue. Lengthy indifference to what is happening in the Arab world has placed many of the countries there in the position of societies lacking in prospects, thus preventing the region from being developed naturally. This criticism is partly justified. For us, democratisation in the Arab world was not such a priority as it was in many other parts of the world.

This shortcoming is now being rectified. The EU’s interest, involving action in this field, has already produced some results even if our approach has been somewhat cautious.

Most notably, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, or Barcelona Process, created in 1995, formally enshrined a political commitment to foster political pluralism in the Maghreb and Mashrek countries. Today, some 700 million euros in aid are contributed annually through the MEDA programme. We also have a partnership with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

In the coming years, some countries in the Arab world will also benefit from the new European neighbourhood policy which will generate new partnerships.

These instruments and frameworks are essential elements of the EU Strategic Partnership with the Mediterranean and the Middle East which was adopted by the European Council in June. The core objective of EU policy is to encourage, support, facilitate and promote reform and modernisation, political pluralism, democracy, the rule of law and economic development and growth in the Middle East.

Once again, I want to underline that the key word here is partnership. The strategy should be implemented in partnership with the countries willing to commit themselves to agreed goals and methods. A partnership should not be perceived as a one-way street, a vehicle for the imposition of Western values and interests. The process should be of mutual interest and should be consonant with the value systems of both sides. While democracy can be encouraged from outside, it is best built from within.

As for the various actors engaged, I do think that, in addition to officials, the partnership should involve a broad range of partners on both sides – NGOs, business organizations, grass root organizations, religious groups, schools, academia and the media.

We should adopt a positive attitude towards an active dialogue with those Islamic organizations and political parties which do accept the principle of pluralism.

It is obvious that our offer of partnership does not appeal to everyone. One of the issues we still have to tackle is how to promote reform in unwelcoming territory – that is to say in countries with governments that are not enthusiastic about our objectives or the idea of partnership, governments that indeed fear their own downfall or serious internal disturbances as a consequence of reforms.

Despite these inherent apprehensions, these countries cannot be ignored as they are very likely to become sources of concern anyway.

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Of profound interest to Europe and the whole world is the Arab response to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This has a direct link to the debate on reform. Moreover, our credibility in the eyes of the Arab world demands our full involvement in international efforts to resolve this longstanding conflict.

Even though the UNDP reports show some sympathy for the argument that the Arab-Israeli conflict has been both a cause and an excuse for slow Arab development, they do not entirely accept that explanation. We too should firmly and repeatedly reject its use as an excuse, as that would be counter to the interests of the countries in the region. It is clear that neither reform nor progress on the peace process can be a pre-condition for the other.

Yet there can be no long-term stability without the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have an enormously positive impact on the whole region. That is why the EU, together with other members of the Quartet, should continue to push towards this end as a top priority.

We still see the Road Map as the basis for reaching a negotiated agreement resulting in two viable, sovereign and independent states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. This vision is not only shared by the Quartet. It is now also endorsed by the United Nations Security Council in its resolution 1515.

After the publication of the Gaza withdrawal plan, the role of the Road Map may have become more blurred. The withdrawal as such is welcome but if accompanied by new measures which are clearly contradicting with the Road Map such as the expansion of settlements, the misgivings about ”Gaza first” turning into ”Gaza last” are understandable. Therefore some action is needed in order to re-establish the Road Map as the frame of reference. The Quartet and the European Union have clearly identified five elements in accordance with which the withdrawal has to be implemented. The first requirement is that we should adhere strictly to these terms at the same time as we try to give them more operational content.

It is also clear that the Road Map as a document needs some updating. For example, the timetable put forward in the original version is no longer valid.

During our deliberations we must see that the ability of the Palestinian Authority to function as the central governing organisation in the Palestinian territories is maintained. This requires implementation of reforms as envisaged in the Road Map. Elections are a test criterion of willingness and ability to continue reform. Under the current circumstances local elections are feasible and therefore we want to encourage the Palestinian Authority to proceed with the electoral process. The international community should assist where needed.

In general it is true that elections alone do not make a democracy. Yet they must be embedded in society. In addition to Palestinians, several countries in the Middle East will be holding elections in the next few years and we should pay particular attention to them.

I would also like to emphasise the role of independent but responsible media as a key element in any democratic society. When functioning appropriately, the media can also play a role in educating people. We should support all efforts to strengthen progress towards that goal.

Before I conclude, I would like to say something about the important subject of women and development in the Arab world. Enhancing the participation of women in economic and political life should of course be high on our agenda. No country can succeed in the long run if half its population are denied their basic rights. If this happens we are faced with a litany of problems.

The 2002 Arab Human Development conference concluded that ”Society as a whole suffers when a huge portion of its productive potential is stifled, resulting in lower family incomes and standards of living.” So critical is the empowerment of Arab women to the authors of the report that they list it as one of three central components of a strategy for rebuilding society. Other components are human rights and freedom and the acquisition and consolidation of knowledge by Arab nations.

Fortunately, the situation is gradually changing, as we can see. In Morocco King Mohamed VI has announced sweeping reform of the legal status of women. His reform overturns the legal definition of women as inferior to men and establishes equality under law. Importantly, the reforms were introduced within the context of Islamic law.

Another promising development occurred in 2002, when the Emir of Bahrain announced parliamentary elections, as well as municipal elections that would permit women candidates to run for office. This move represented a significant step forward for women’s rights, political and economic reform, and the Emir’s plan for achieving broader political participation in Bahrain. In the United Arab Emirates, the education system has been reformed to ensure equal learning opportunities. Women there go to school alongside men, and are provided with education up to and including university level.