Martin Albani joins the CEPR Exchange at the European Parliament to discuss Europe's neighborhood policy in the southern Mediterranean and how the Union could be more effective in a changing Arab world.
Thank you for joining us today. The CEPR encourages dialogue and understanding between Europe and the Arab world – an Arab world which is not homogenous, that consists of different parties, movements and groups that often compete for power just as in Europe. We notice this most poignantly in the Palestinian territories where beneath the Israeli occupation Palestinians still have a vibrant democratic system of competing parties. This often creates tensions and violence struggle as we have seen elsewhere in the region. My first question to you: what should the EU response be to Palestinian reconciliation?
We would certainly support this process of national reconciliation. It is a very important step for the Palestinian authorities and the Palestinian people to be more unified and provide a credible voice in the peace process. We are aware of the problems dividing Palestinian civil society and leadership. In order to talk to such a unified government it is obviously important for the EU that it stands on the firm basis of Israel's right to exist, territorial integrity for Israel, and of Palestinian statehood via a negotiated two-state solution.
The emergence of political Islam is not unique to the Palestinian context. In Tunisia or Egypt for example we see a growing presence of Islamist parties that have come to power through the official political electoral process. What are your views on the emergence of coalition governments in Tunisia as opposed to Egypt?
I think one-sided perceptions of Islamists forces, which are often seen in Europe as a uniform block, is not the best way to view regional developments. In Egypt and Tunisia, as well as in Libya, there are different factions within the Islamist forces – some being more modern, others more conservative. The solution is not to call for elections and then not cooperate in some form with the winning party, as happened in Algeria in the 1990s. We should not be afraid to engage with Islamist groups – at least with the more moderate ones. But we must also try to strengthen and emphasize the need for democratic reforms within these groups. In Egypt, Islamist groups like the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood are quite strong. The Muslim Brotherhood is however not a uniform movement and there are a variety of diverging factions and views within it. In Libya, Islamist forces are not nearly as popular yet, due to the decades of dominance by the Qaddafi regime, but also due to a strong scepticism towards ideologies sponsored from abroad, such as the Saudi Arabian support for the Salafist movement.
Can you give us more details about the situation in Libya? What is Europe's involvement in this stage after having helped remove Qaddafi?
One of the main challenges in Libya is security sector reform. Getting the militias out of the street can only happen if you build up an efficient and democratic police and military apparatus at the same time, while also finding potential solutions to integrate at least some of these young men who were fighting in the security forces. Then there is the political and electoral process: elections are scheduled for June but an electoral law needs to be in place first so it's unclear how this will be carried out. The third big challenge is to build up civil society and help start a national reconciliation process that can unite this divided society. The EU is meant to help build up civil society, create a free media, and reform and build up border management. However, the EU unfortunately has not really delivered on its promises yet and a lot remains to be done.
The EU has responded to what is happening in Syria (the violation of human rights and civilian deaths every day) by imposing sanctions on Damascus which to be honest are not debilitating Bashar al-Assad's regime. How do you see a more engaged response on the European side or is there no option at this point?
Just a quick view on sanctions: I would not go so far as to say that sanctions have no effect on the regime – sanctions do have an effect, but I feel that it's not just about sanctions but also enforcing them. I'm sure you are aware of the incident in Cyprus where a Russian ship was let unhindered to transport arms to Syria - this is clealry unacceptable.
What is your view on international intervention in Syria?
As you mentioned the bloodshed and the killing goes on and Europe, as well as the rest of the world, stands by as this scandalous situation continues in Syria. There needs to be a very strong reaction from the international community in cooperation with the Arab states.
Has the EU moved to assist the Syrian refugees that have fled across the border to Turkey?
There is some humanitarian assistance but we should do much more. We can help the opposition groups with some technical, non-military material such as communication equipment and satellite data.
Europe has many of its own challenges, especially around the Mediterranean with immigration, education, transport and trade association agreements. What are some more beneficial steps that the EU could take to create better relations with the Arab world? Is the EU doing enough?
The EU is definitely not doing enough. I think we have to move from talking the talk to walking the walk. There have been a lot of nice speeches and strategic guidelines, but now we need to implement, and implementation has to go much faster. But it's not only the EU, it's also the Member States that sometimes hide behind the EU. Often they are not ready to make concessions regarding immigration and trade agreements, and to take substantial steps towards those countries. To be fair, there is not a lot the EU can do without the support of its Member States – so this goes together.
The EU needs to become quicker in reacting. This includes increased staff capacities covering EU neighbourhood policy for the southern Mediterranean. We have to change financial regulations so that we can deliver aid on the ground faster and more effectively. We have to work more with civil society and not just with national governments. We have to be tough on conditionality clauses and spell out all the indicators. It's a more for more approach, but also less for less if there is no improvement. In one line: the EU to become more effecient, Member States have to contribute their part as well, and we all have to look more towards actors in civil society.