Europe likes to compare the events in the Middle East to its own transformation following the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is easy to see why. When Polish people voted in their first free elections more than two decades ago and formed the Soviet bloc’s first non-communist government, it helped spark a chain of events across the region.
Hungary also played an early role, abolishing the people’s republic and cutting down its fortified border with Austria, allowing hundreds of East Germans to cross through.
Revolutions swiftly followed elsewhere.
In a way, the overthrow of Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali led to the fall of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak and gave people courage elsewhere in the region to resist their kleptocratic rulers. In both eastern Europe and northern Africa, the revolutions were led by young people.
But the differences have been as profound as the similarities. For though the upheavals in the Middle East are about the quest for political freedoms, they are also about a lot more. They are about the search for justice and equity. Because societies in which millions of young men and women have no jobs – and millions live on less than two dollars a day – crave the fulfilment of justice and the prospect of employment as much as the right to vote. If they do not see change, they will leave in their thousands, setting sail for Europe’s shores.
"And that has," to quote Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken, "made all the difference." In the final analysis, 1989 was seen by Europe’s leaders as a challenge of democracy – helping post-communist states to consolidate a different kind of rule.
Today, EU governments see the challenge primarily as one of demography. European governments may talk about democracy and practically every European leader has enjoyed a walk through the banner-clad Tahrir Square. But when they return home, shake the sand off their trousers and start thinking of their voters, their thoughts quickly turn to managing the flow of illegal immigrants who dream of a better life in Europe.
This is particularly true of the governments of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Malta, Cyprus and Spain. These "Club Med" states could, if they took advantage of their connections and understanding, be the driving force behind a constructive European policy towards the new north Africa. But in reality they have been driven by a fear of migrants and being outflanked politically on the right by their opponents (in France) or their partners (Italy). Back in the early 1990s, when the Balkans was ablaze, these countries were willing to take thousands of refugees. Today, France and Italy are locked in an argument about a much smaller numbers of Tunisians and threaten to tear down the Schengen agreement, which created Europe as a borderless area, in the process. This is against a backdrop of declining numbers of asylum applications across Europe over the past decade – in particular, UNHCR reports a drop of 33% in applications in southern EU member states between 2009 and 2010.
The concerns about migration that come with Club Med’s historical connections and geographical proximity to north Africa have prevented EU policy from advancing. There has, in fact, been little substantive debate within these nations about their policies ; Italy’s first concern has been the thousands of immigrants arriving on Lampedusa while Spain’s concerns include managing an already large Moroccan diaspora. The rest is rhetoric.
Meanwhile, criticism of the EU’s collective performance in the region, including internally from senior figures such as commissioner Štefan Füle, has absolved national capitals of the need to ask tough questions of their own policies towards North Africa. Spain is a good example. The EU’s Moroccan policy was in the past a convenient foil for Spanish interests. Successive Spanish governments took the greatest interest in the issue and did more to shape the policy than many other EU members. But now that the policy is being questioned, Spain is content to blame the EU rather than look inwards.
Europe has a chance to rethink its approach to north Africa. It has the means and the leverage to play an effective role – but only if it can abandon the thinking of the last 15 years. This will, above all, require more constructive engagement from Madrid, Paris, Rome, Athens, Valetta and Lisbon. That, in turn, depends on galvanising debate in these capitals about the advantages and disadvantages of the status quo.
What do the club Med countries really gain, and what do they lose, from their policies ? Is it realistic to both oppose the lifting of agricultural barriers – as most do – and to want to keep migrants out ? Comparing 1989 and 2011 suggests a desire by European leaders to be part of a seamless story of democracy’s advance. But the rafts floating across the Mediterranean ruin the narrative.