Many Europeans were baffled when they saw the recent images from Kiev’s Independence Square, or, as it is now being called, the EuroMaidan: Hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, defying the cold and the police warnings, to wave EU flags and to chant “Europe!”
How is it possible?
Not one EU citizen would even consider going to stand on a snowy square with a European flag in his hand to ask for more European integration or a bolder European foreign policy. No. The mood in the EU is one of scepticism, cynicism and indifference. The trend is one of scaling down and of being everything but ambitious.
The result is that the European Union is driving with the handbrake on. It does take measures, but they are always too little and often too late in order to solve the problem or meet the challenge. One example is the financial and economic crisis. Another is the Neighbourhood Policy, which is becoming an unprecedented disaster.
Not only Ukraine broke off the negotiations on its Association Agreement with the EU. Armenia did the same thing in September. Instead, it decided to join the Russian Eurasian Economic Community’s “Customs Union.” Ukraine appears to be following the same scenario. The reality is that Russia bought them out.
A similar scenario is unfolding in the Union’s southern neighbourhood. In the Arab world the main player is not Russia but the Gulf countries, however. Since July, Egypt has turned its back towards the EU and the United States, while receiving billions from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates. Jordan has a direct financial lifeline from Saudi Arabia. Qatar is playing a major role in Libya and Morocco is increasingly looking to the Gulf for a solution for its financial problems.
It is hard to overestimate what is happening. Talks about a customs union and a common currency in the Gulf have been going on for a long time without any progress. But this might change very soon. Just as European integration always moves faster when there is an external threat, Gulf integration is now moving faster because of the threat of Iran. This week the Gulf countries already decided to organise a common military command.
The Arab region is fearing that Iran is breaking its free of its isolation. Every Sunni Muslim country is now convinced that Iran, a Shia Muslim power, will do everything it can to further destabilise the region by supporting Shia Muslim protests. The fact that their old allies, the US and the EU, are the engines behind the new deal with Iran, makes them unreliable in the eyes of many Sunni leaders.
But the lack of a serious EU neighbourhood policy is probably the most visible in Libya. It is the only Arab Spring country where the Muslim Brotherhood did not win the elections. The hopes of the ruling government were set on Europe. Libya needs a lot of support to build a proper security apparatus, to deal with demands for autonomy and to organise a genuine national dialogue in which reconciliation is on top of the agenda.
What the EU is currently doing is far too little and the consequence is that Qatar is stepping in. It is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya. It is helping to push militias to threaten the government to adopt legislation like the Political Isolation Law and a law that forbids interest on bank savings. The goal is clear: preparing the ground for its own political puppets and its own Islamic banks. If you have both, you control the economy and the oil.
Many Europeans might not care about these regional struggles and shifting alliances. But many Egyptians, Libyans, Moroccans, Tunisians, Jordanians, Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians and Azerbaijanis do care. This year I heard from all of them that they had strongly hoped the EU would step up. Even in Baku, everyone is asking for the EU to be more present as they feel squeezed between an increasingly confident Russia and Iran. The people of these countries know very well that the history of the European Union has been one of turning poor dictatorships into prosperous democracies.
Even those Europeans who are less interested in high ideals and the freedoms of other people, should think twice before they shrug their shoulders: A less stable neighbourhood means more illegal immigration. It also means the end of energy supply diversification, making the EU more dependent on the mood swings of Moscow and Riyadh.
These are crucial times for the European Union. In one year it might lose the alliances it has tried to build up for decades. It is time to wake up and to react quickly and firmly. At the same time, EU institutions are preparing for elections and for a change of the guard in almost every top position. But despite this, Europe cannot afford to let those hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians down. The outcome of the Ukrainian dilemma is going to determine how serious the EU is about spreading freedom and democracy. If it loses Ukraine, the EU might also lose its entire eastern and southern neighbourhood. The world is watching.
by Koert Debeuf, 11/12/2013
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Categories: Koert Debeuf Column