Thursday, 10 March 2011

Can the EU rebuild the Arab world like the US rebuilt Europe?

Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has called on the West to create a new 'Marshall Plan for Arab states' in response to the current unrest. Such a plan, modeled on the wildly successful scheme launched by the United States in 1947 to rebuild war-ravaged Europe, would be designed to give new Arab governments the financial support they need to build stable democracies. More implicitly, it would provide a bulwark against Islamism in the same way that the Marshall Plan successfully provided a bulwark against Communism in Western Europe.

Europe is still still haunted by its failure to do anything to prevent the chaos that unfolded in its own backyard in the 1990s during the Balkan Wars. The calls for quick decisive action are coming from every corner. Most politicians now acknowledge that financial support is going to be needed, but there is disagreement about who should supply it. These thorny issues will be discussed tomorrow at a special summit of EU leaders in Brussels to discuss the crisis in Libya.

At the European Union level, there has now been begrudging admittance that the union's approach to its Southern neighbours has until this point been a misguided failure. Valuing stability and protection of Israel above all else has led to the European Union and the United States ploughing billions of dollars into despotic regimes over the past decades, earning them the enmity of the Arab street. For the EU, most of this aid was distributed through the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which gives financial and political assistance to the EU's neighbours.

€2.8bn in assistance has already been pledged to the Middle East and North Africa over the next three years through the ENP. Now that it is clear that a much larger amount than this is going to be needed to support budding Democracy movements, there are questions over whether the ENP is the best tool to use. Southern European countries have long complained that the ENP was always more focused on the EU's Eastern neighbours than those to the South. Why not give the Southern Mediterranean its own new, dedicated assistance vehicle?

Other countries are questioning why European assistance needs to necessarily be part of the EU. The much-mocked "Mediterranean Union" created by French President Nicolas Sarkozy could become the main vehicle for this assistance, France has suggested. Others have suggested that such aid and assistance would be best distributed through the United Nations, which would leverage the combined assets of Europe and America. Still others have said the financing should come from the region itself, with the oil-rich Gulf states being forced to supply aid to the rest of the region (a strategy which is obviously in the interest of their own survival anyway).

Of course all of this new-found enthusiasm for foreign aid isn't the result of sudden benevolence on the part of the EU and US. The West is terrified that the turmoil in the Middle East will result in Islamist governments seizing power in the region. They are desperate to avoid a repeat of what happened in Iran in 1979. The parallels to 1947, when the original Marshall Fund was created, are many. A large region of multiple countries has been thrown into turmoil, with a level of poverty and chaos that has created an atmosphere ripe for exploitation by dangerous ideologues. In 1947 the danger (or perceived danger) came from the Soviet Union. In 2011 the perceived danger comes from Iran.

In both instances the choice was and is clear – either the West pours resources, time and energy into building up the affected region, or the region could easily come under the sway of a seductive but dangerous system of government. But can foreign aid and redevelopment stop the spread of Theocracy in this century in the same way that it stopped the spread of Communism in the last one?

Even if the West agrees that the answer is yes, the questions over how that aid should be distributed are going to be thorny, particularly considering the West has gotten it so wrong over the past decades. There are sure to be long discussions over this issue in Brussels over the coming months.

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