I’m in Brussels at the moment taking part in a conference that brings together scholars and academics from Europe and the Arab world as well as civil society organisations, religious communities, journalists and politicians.
This is the fourth in the series of dialogues organised by the Protestant Academy Loccum in Germany and the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services (CEOSS). The catchy title for this event is – On Equal Footing? Shaping the future of Arab-European relationships.
The conference notes explains that “the aim is trust building between citizens of both regions, critical reflection of images created in public discourse and motivation for common activities towards civic values and democratic culture in their respective societies.”
Copied below is an unedited version of the talk I gave yesterday. I was privileged to share the platform with Dr Wajih Kanso from the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies in Beirut and Mr Hany Labib, a journalist and writer from Egypt.
Working Group 1:
Parliaments and Political Institutions and their role in Arab-European relations
I’m grateful to Dr Anhelm and others for their efforts in taking forward this dialogue here in Brussels.
Dr Anhelm has asked me to offer a few reflections from a UK Church based perspective on Arab-European relations.
He has asked me to do so for 2 reasons.
First, he wants me to draw on my experiences as a parliamentary and public affairs advisor on international affairs to the 26 bishops in the House of Lords to offer some insights on the parameters of the UK parliamentary and political debate.
Before one asks, yes, it is one of the peculiarities of Britain’s parliamentary democracy, and one that we have the dubious honour of sharing with Iran, that a % of Bishops are Parliamentarians.
Since the start of the Arab Spring, Bishops have joined with others in reflecting on developments on Europe’s southern border as well as the efficacy of the British Government’s response.
Secondly, Dr Anhelm wants me to demonstrate that the EU like the Arab League is not a homogeneous entity and that there are a diversity of views across the EU’s member states and between the EU institutions and its member states.
Who better to ask to do this than an Englishmen?
To those unfamiliar with European politics, Britain has a reputation, not entirely undeserved, for being an awkward partner and this awkwardness, which in the field in foreign policy is usually shared by other European governments, makes the development of a coherent and active foreign policy somewhat problematic.
With this explanatory note in mind, the overarching point that I want to make is that the rather joyful simplicity with which European parliaments and political institutions viewed the Arab Spring has not surprisingly fragmented into competing political exegesis each with their own framing values and interests. What does this fragmentation tell us?
The chaotically fluid situation on the ground has created a complexity that many have tried to master by imposing new narratives just as simplistic as the one founding wanting. These narratives jostle for political and media credibility in the hope of holding captive the prevailing political class of the day.
When the Arab uprisings started 3 years ago, many political commentators saw this as Fukuyama’s revenge. More recently the chaos of Iraq and Syria has seen some commentators revisit the clash of civilisations thesis, while others have called on Bernard Lewis and Henry Kissinger to help explain the Islamist antics of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, even while ignoring the democratic progress in Tunisia.
Within this predictable mix new narratives have emerged such as that which holds that what we are seeing is a clash of democratisations with people claiming democratic rights to both emancipate themselves from autocratic rulers and from the traditional influence of the west.
It is possible to identify these narratives or variations of them being played out in the British media’s coverage of the Arab spring and in parliamentary debates.
The intensity with which these debates are sometimes conducted hides 2 uncomfortable realities that shape the political debate in the UK and which in turn impacts on the quality of relations with the Arab world.
First, the fact that no one narrative holds illustrates that we don’t fully understand what is happening in the region. Having initially framed the uprising as a liberal awaking we have struggled to make sense of subsequent developments.
The Government’s response has been muddied and at times incoherent both in terms of its relations over time with a particular country and across the region as a whole. For example, with Syria the Government persists with a narrative that has remained unchanged since the initial uprising even when that narrative has been shown to be woefully inadequate.
Second, the search for a narrative is also a reflection of our own search for identity in a fractured and troubled world. Today, external actors such as the United States and Europe seem peripheral to the politics of the Middle East.
There is a growing recognition that we have limited leverage to affect positive change in the region. The Middle East has well and truly left the post-colonial era, but Western governments and parliaments are still struggling to readjust.
The impact of these two realities is that the Government and I don’t think the British Government is alone in this, risks prioritising interests over values. Increasingly the UK’s relations with the Arab world are seen through a security prism. We are at risk of repeating some of the neo-colonial errors of the past.
This predicament is perhaps best illustrated with regard to Egypt.
A number of parliamentarians, including those on the Bishops’ bench, have sought reassurance from the Government that it will treat with suspicion and scepticism the normalisation of the narrative that the new Egyptian government is promoting.
This is not to suggest that the Government should not work with President Sisi on development, security, migration and other mutual interests. It should, but it must at the same time also maintain some clear and critical distance with the regime.
The Government and its allies in Europe must hold to a long term policy of working to promote the openings of political space in Egypt. Stability cannot be achieved through a security crackdown.
We need to be alert to the dangers that President Sisi will use the rise of ISIS to justify its security orientated policies as a necessity in the fight against terrorism to both a domestic and international audience. While not wanting to rule out that ISIS has links to Egyptian radicals, it cannot be ruled out that the authoritarian crackdown in Egypt is itself fuelling new violent extremism.
Unfortunately a narrative that frames developments in security terms will inevitably see shrinkage in the space for dialogue and a diminishment in the number and type of partners in any conversation.
It is for this reason that dialogues like this that are built on trust over many years are so important. One can only hope that dialogues like this will help all sides to challenge the parameters of the political and public debate in their own national contexts.
Let me conclude by saying a few words about the dialogue at a European level. Many of the tensions that exist between the British Parliament and its Government are replicated across Europe and at the same time between the European Parliament and the European Council.
The differing national interests that inform particular member states understanding of an issue within the European Council and the EU Foreign Affairs Council makes the policy process at a European level some what sub optimal.
The particular narratives that each member states have of any particular situation needs to be reconciled with each other and also with the EU’s self-understanding of itself as a civilian power and its civilising mission.
Even when a position is reached it is open to change. I think here of the decision last year by the British and French Government to say that they were no longer bound by the European Council’s decision to uphold an arms embargo in Syria and that they were willing to supply arms to moderate Syrian rebels.
Yet even if the EU’s rules and procedures were so embedded that cooperation on foreign policy issues was made easier, it is far from clear that this would have helped the EU develop a less uncertain policy with regard to the Arab world.
I think here of the EU’s hesitancy and uncertainty as to whether the EU should send an election observation mission to observe Egypt’s recent Presidential elections. This hesitancy has little to do with logistics and more with how Europe might respond if it found irregularities with the elections.
Let’s remember here that the EU’s overall approach to the transitions in North Africa are based on the principle of more for more and less for less. Despite various European Parliamentary resolutions that funds should be withheld if Egypt’s government fails to carry out significant steps to abide by human and democratic rights and the rule of law, the European Council has so far been reluctant to set red lies.
The EU is perhaps all too aware that if it pressed the question of conditionality that Egypt would in all likelihood look to find other funding from its near abroad – Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In this respect the EU – like its member states – appears to be reluctant to give up the limited influence it has in the region on the alter of high principle.
In the discussions that follows it will be interesting to see whether this view of the EU’s decision making is shared more widely or whether I have been too influenced by my national context. Have I played true to form by being nothing more than the awkward Brit. If that is the case, I apologise and in the true European way I’m happy to be enlightened.