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Reforms in the Arab world: a European perspective

Any outside attempt to impose reforms, without the partner countries having a sufficient stake in the processes and means employed to achieve them, „is bound to fail”. This was the key tenet of a report on „Reforms in the Arab world: what strategy should the European Union adopt?” endorsed yesterday by a large majority of members of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

As MEPs see it, the EU, in defining its position on reforms in the Arab world, must take account of cultural, historical and political differences, whilst at the same time respecting the will of Arab peoples. Forcing them to copy European models „may prove to be counterproductive” argues the Committee report. Change, in order to be legitimate, must be supported by the peoples concerned, and supporting the development of civil society and respect for fundamental rights „must not be confused with the choice of regime nor with the procedures for choosing leaders”, argues the report. Given that the weakness of reform efforts in the Arab world stems partly from disputes between various states, reads the report, „the EU should make every effort to facilitate the political and economic integration of the Arab countries”, and in so doing, it should avoid „any feeling of superiority or the impression of giving lessons”.

Encouraging reform
Bearing these caveats in mind, the report goes on to urge the Commission „to give more encouragement in the Arab world to the movement for the reform of the rule of law by legal means” and to „political reform seeking to legalise the action of opposition movements on the basis of the existing institutions.” Citing the need to engage with reform movements at the regional level, the report also calls for Europe „to give visible political support to the actors in civil society, in associations and in religious life, and in particular to those political organizations which promote liberal democracy by non-violent means, excluding sectarian forces but including, where appropriate, moderate Islamists and secular actors.” The Committee nonetheless stipulates that efforts to engage with the Arab world „should not include persons, organizations and states which condone terrorist activities and deny the State of Israel’s legal right to exist.” Elsewhere, the report notes that „the current path of political Islam does not appear to be providing appropriate answers to the problems of political reform”.

Freedom of religion and the fight against terrorism
The report voices hope „for greater commitment on the part of Arab countries to religious freedom, or the right of individuals and communities to freely profess their beliefs and practice their faith.” Whilst acknowledging that the fight against terrorism is an important aspect of the Euro-Arab relationship, the report stresses that it is vital „that the fight against terrorism does not overshadow or hold back a host of other topics of common interest.” To this end, the Committee calls on the EU to encourage exchanges of students, teachers, academics and researchers between European and Arab countries and to facilitate such exchanges „through an adapted and more flexible visa regime”. The own-initiative report, authored by Michel Rocard (PES, FR), was approved by the Committee with 60 votes in favor, 5 against, and 6 abstentions. (EP Press)