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The Arab Springtime of Nations: challenge for the EU and Poland

Published on September 8, 2011 by: in: Society

The Arab Springtime of Nations provoked a change in the policy of neighbourhood of the EU towards the South from the paradigm of stabilization to democracy.

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Unfortunately, there is a considerable risk that this change will remain – to the great extent – on paper only, since weak condition of Europe (an economic crisis, the increase of xenophobia and anti- immigrant feelings, a strong workers’ lobby) does not create favourable conditions for a necessary and robust receptiveness to the South. The awakening of the Arab world is of great significance not only for Europe, but also for Poland. Our strategic priority should be the creation of our own policy towards Muslim countries.

One bridge too far?

Jasmine revolution in Tunisia activated a process which brought to collapse the former policy of the European Union towards the South, based on the principle: “First of all: Stabilization”. European Union’s support for stabilization in the Arab world was loosely connected with fear of freedom, that is its possible democratization perceived – among others – as a potential threat. Free elections would lead to power the anti-western Islamists, considered as an almost uniform mass of radicals. However, the revolution in Tunisia revealed that the stabilization on the South is ostensible and – in the long run – impossible to retain. Moreover, its opposition to democratization is erroneous.  In reality the latter is an indispensable condition for stabilization. The most important lesson resulting from recent events is the collapse of the authoritarian modernization in the Arab world. Despite certain successes in the long run it is inefficient, because it does not solve the structural problems of the Arab countries. What is more, it can produce the opposite results. In fact, authoritarian regimes destroy the opposition that is  not ingrained in Islam, radicalize the Islamists and deepen the frustration of dissatisfied social masses. Unquestionably, the extension of the range of freedom will strengthen legitimization of power, create the safety valve for social discontent and soften radicals up by having them involved in the political process. However, it is worth remembering that the devil is in the detail. Europe’s fear of the appropriation of democracy by radical, totalitarian Islamists is not totally groundless. Therefore it is crucial for the success of democratization to create simultaneously favourable social, economic and political conditions, which means – simplifying – successful modernization. This programme, combining democratization and modernization, should take into consideration specificity of the Arab world and every Arab country. Without such a programme taking hold of any form of democracy in the Arab world will be extremely difficult. Obviously, the European Union is faced with one fundamental challenge of finding “a stick and a carrot”, which would stimulate reforms in the Arab countries. Definitely, so far the most effective tool of the EU was the accession process, which is out of the question in the case of southern neighbourhood. The most important manifestation of the change of attitude of the EU to the southern neighbour is the announcement of the European Commission “A new answer to the changing neighbourhood”, presented on the 25th of May. This strategy assumes – to a considerable degree – transferring to the South the model of Eastern Partnership. The cornerstone of EU’s  policy toward the entire neighborhood should be the principle of political conditionality dependent on the scale of cooperation with neighbours and their reformative achievements (principle more for more). A clear emphasis has been placed on the need for supporting by EU the civil society and the freedom of media in the neighbouring countries. The committee has offered creation of the European Fund for Democracy and a support instrument for civil society – Civil Society Facility. The Union also announced a greater participation in resolving conflicts in the neighbourhood. As far as the economy is concerned, the commission proposed rewarding the top-reformers by bringing the rule of 3M into effect (more money, more market access, more mobility, that is more developmental aid, more access to the European market and more mobility – the liberalization of visa system). The new answer is certainly a clear step forward, however, it does not mean a radical redefinition of European approach to the Southern neighbourhood. For example, the increase in funding provided by the Commission is insufficient in comparison with the needs of the Southern countries. The Copernican turning point would be a suggestion to create in a long term the Mediterranean Economic Area, that is the equivalent of the European Economic Area (EEA) which encompasses the EU, Norway, Island and Lichtenstein. EEA is based on four freedoms of the EU: the movement of goods, people, services and capital. The three countries are part of the EU common market. They adopted a large part of the European legislation. Certainly, the membership in this type of commonwealth created for Mediterranean Sea would be an attractive carrot for the Southern countries and could – to a large extent – play a role similar to the perspective of  membership in the Central Europe, since Arab countries are not interested in accession. Unfortunately, even the realization of a much less ambitious plan of a “New Answer” hangs in the balance due to the lack of preparation of Europe for the challenges with which it has been faced. The economic crisis and simultaneously growing unemployment have strengthened the introvert character of Europe. Budget cuts seriously hinder the increase of the expenditure on developmental aid. A hysterical reaction on 25.000 of Tunisian immigrants, who arrived at the island Lampedusa, sharply demonstrates how strong are anti-immigrant feelings in the EU. Anti- immigrant and anti- Islamic parties win a record-breaking support (15-25 %) in certain countries. Right- wing politicians of the main party attempt at being “more papal than the Pope”, adopting the rhetoric of the radicals. In some countries (Holland, Denmark) rule of the past few years has belonged to the extreme right wing; what is more, they can be joined soon by other states. The economic crisis has very painfully hit Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, that is the countries, where for many years the agricultural lobby has been obstructing the opening of the market  for agricultural products from the South. Their readiness to change their stance on this issue is smaller than ever.

For our freedom and yours

Poland has an ambivalent attitude towards the Arab Springtime. On one hand, Poland – not unreasonably – is afraid of the fact that the problems of the southern countries will dominate (at the expense of important for us issues of the East) the policy of the EU. On the other hand, the necessity to combine democratization with modernity and seek sources of inspiration by Arab reformers create a great opportunity for Poland, which boasts about a successful recent political and economic transformation. Such a know- how do not involve Western Europe’s countries. An example of valuing our potential can be Barack Obama’s last visit to Poland, during which the U.S. president emphasized the need to share our experience with the Arab world. However, the crucial meaning for the success of Polish involvement on the South will have its scale, which will depend on realizing – in the country on the Vistula – how important is this region for polish national interests. After the jasmine revolution, Poland – in the name of supporting the policy of sharing our experience with Arab reformers – has stimulated itself in the southern neighbourhood on an unprecedented scale until now. We have focused above all on Tunisia, which has already been or will be visited by numerous polish delegations (a visit of a team NGO and MFA, Lech Wałęsa, Bogdan Borusewicz, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Radosław Sikorski). MFA in collaboration with NGO workers are concluding works on projects which are to be realized on the local level in Tunisia. It is worth remembering that minister Sikorski was the first Minister of Foreign Affairs of the EU’s country who visited Benghazi. Poland was also a member of the contact group concerning Libya. Under an agreement with Qatar, the most important Arab television is going to shoot a documentary in Arabic and English about Polish transformation. Poland was the originator of creating by the EU the European Fund for Democracy. Warsaw can be particularly proud that the proposed reform of neighbourhood, especially the southern, presented by the Commission, treats as a model the Eastern Partnership, created by Poland and Sweden. Polish level of activity in the Arab world, however, requires from us to make an audit of strengths and weaknesses, and particularly answer to the fundamental question: what is the importance of the South for Poland? Are we there only altruistically, or do we have significant interests in this part of the world? Unquestionably, the East will always be more crucial for Poland than the South. Nevertheless, we must admit that the latter direction is underestimated in our country.

The South: Europe’s soft abdomen

Poland is a country which – if it wants to become one of the main European players – has to think in terms of the whole EU. And for the Union – whether we like it or not – the more important is the Mediterranean Area than the East. Firstly – because of the demographic and economic reasons. According to the UN the population of the Middle East, Northern Africa and Turkey has now 460 million, and in the year 2050 will reach 700 million. Around 2040 Egypt will have more inhabitants than Russia. According to Goldman Sachs and PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts the average economic growth rate in Egypt in the years 2010- 2050 will gain more than 7%, whereas in Russia and Ukraine – 3-4%. Around 2050 a purchasing power of Turkey will probably be slightly smaller than the Russian or German.

Secondly – because of the political reasons. In order to gain the position of a global player Europe has to stabilize its neighbourhood, but the South is much more problematic than the East. For Poland, which focuses on European defence politics and energy security, the countries of MENA (Middle East and North Africa) are of enormous importance. Europe thinks of using on a great scale the solar energy form the Northern Africa. Poland wants to reduce its dependency on the Russian gas, and the alternative can be gas from the Middle East. The processes in the EU also cannot be ignored – in the immediate decades Germany – orientated towards Russia – will probably lose its position of the most populous country of the EU. There will be also a reduction in the number of inhabitants of the new union’s countries, that is the countries most interested in the eastern neighbourhood. However, in the countries particularly Islam- oriented – France, Spain, Great Britain – there will take place an increase in the number of the Muslim inhabitants. In several decades they will constitute 20% of France’s dwellers. These processes concern also Poland – it is said that by 2050 our population will have shrunk by 6 million. The society will become much more older, there will be lack of manpower. Even a very good family-oriented, economic and social policy will not solve the problems caused by these factors. We will have to count on immigrants. Nowadays we consider Ukraine and Belarus as our traditional base of migration, but the demographic forecasts of these countries are worse than ours. We have to be prepared for a situation in which – whether we like it or not – a significant part of the new Polish citizens might be Muslims. A problem of the South is not restricted to the Mediterranean Area. Europe has to look at it in the context of relations with the Islamic world, especially with the Great Middle East, stretching away from Spain, to China and India. Also on the East there will be more and more of South in the future, that is on the Crimea, in Georgia, Russia and Central Asia. Even nowadays near 15% of the Russian citizens are Muslims, and in few decades they will constitute 30% of the society. The largest increase will occur in the Northern Caucasus, which is Russia’s Achilles’ heel. Demographically and economically dynamic Turkey has even currently a significant influence on a post- Soviet area. It will become much more stronger in the future, while Russia will be growing weaker. Another “emerging” Muslim regional superpower operating in the post- soviet area  can be Iran, especially if there takes place a liberalization of its political system. Its huge gas reserves can become – form the perspective of Poland – a basic alternative for the Russian gas.

Strengths and weaknesses of Poland

Poland does not have a colonial luggage and a tradition of a long-term confrontation with Muslims. What is more, in the recent years, due to our minimal presence in the region, we have not compromised ourselves with cordial relations with the local dictators. Poland bordered with the Ottoman Empire for four centuries. However, only for a quarter of century (with intermittent) fought battles with the country, which were much less bloody than other conflicts of the time. France likes to highlight that it was the first country that have signed in 1535 an unprecedented treaty of friendship with Ottomans, but, in reality, Poland did it two years earlier. The connections with Islam were clearly visible especially in Sarmatism[1] –  an original and exceptional current in Polish culture. Poland has a unique in Europe tradition of an unbroken coexistence with a Muslim minority (Tatar community that has been living in Poland for centuries). Spain invokes Al-Andalus, the heritage of Muslim government from the years 711- 1492. It had been drowned in a sea of blood by extremely catholic Spanish kings, but even though Spain still reckons that nowadays the Muslims can play a role of an important Turkey’s  partner as a part of Alliance of Civilization – a forum of dialogue created by the UN. Should not this position be occupied by Poland? The Poles have also played a significant role in the modernization of Turkish people (Tatars, Turks, Azeris) in the 19th and in the beginning of the 20th centuries, frequently after converting to Islam. Another strong point of Poland is – paradoxically – the heritage of communism. With all the major cultural differences there can be found important similarities of historical experiences between Poland and numerous Muslim countries, governed by Soviet or pro-communist regimes (authoritarianism, role of the army, control over the economy). Particularly important Poland’s contribution to the democratization of the Muslim world could be the ideas of violence rejections by the democratic opposition and the conception of the round table, which means the evolutionary transformation based on a dialogue and inclusion of former enemies in the political life. The essential meaning of “Solidarity” in the Polish revolution is also our asset – e.g. in Tunisia trade unions have played an important role in toppling Ben Aliego’s regime. Our experiences concerning creation of the free media and non- governmental organizations in the beginning of the 90s can be inspiring for the Arabs. Many Muslim countries need not only democracy, but also radical economic reforms. Arab leaders should study the birth of capitalism in the era of Balcerowicz, who used the experiences of others, theoretically exotic countries (Chile). The experience of the Polish NGO workers can be also useful in supporting transformation in the post-soviet countries. Last but not least, the role of the Catholic Church during Polish transformation can also be an interesting subject for Muslim societies, which has to define place of the religion in the new political order. Polish Church, strongly present in the Mediterranean region and associated with John Paul II, who was wellliked by the Muslims mostly for the idea of similarities of Abraham’s religion, is unquestionably an interesting partner for dialogue for the moderate Muslims. This dialogue would also be favoured by  greater – in comparison with the Western Europe – conservatism and religiousness of the Polish society, which makes Poles more tolerant towards the presence of religious symbols in the public space (e.g. wearing shawls by female students) than the Frenchmen. Apart from that, Poles are more similar to the Muslims than to Swedes as far as the issues connected with philosophy of life are concerned (homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia). A significant issue for the modernization and democratization of Arab countries will be the shape of relation Turkey- the EU and the internal situation of the first one. Nowadays Turkey is very popular in the Arab world and considered a source of inspiration as a moderately successful Islam, democracy (although with defects) and free market marriage. In this situation a very good Polish- Turkish relations, which have recently undergone intensification, can be regarded as another Polish asset.

In the Islamic world today, we are represented almost only by the soldiers and tourists. We often travel to Egypt, Tunisia. Almost all of our military missions after the 1989 have landed in the countries inhabited by the Muslims. But even the educated Pole knows about Islam less than a Westerner. Our prejudices towards Muslims, especially the Arabs, are larger than in certain western countries. The quality of Arabic or Turkish studies in Poland also leaves a lot to be desired. Our economic relations with Islamic world are weak, while with the countries of the Southern neighbourhood – minimal. Our political activity in the Mediterranean region has been – until recently – limited.  If Poland wants to come into being in the South, it has to discern the weaknesses of its involvement on the East (a small developmental aid, an insufficient number of scholarships, limited Polish investments and trade). Our greatest weakness is a discord between our modernization and democratic rhetoric and practical activities. Polish developmental aid is solely 0,08 % of our GDP. In the years 2007-2009 its main recipient was China, which received more money than the countries of Partnership taken together. A Polish developmental aid is almost four times smaller than of a slightly richer Portugal. The participation of foreign students in the academic community is minimal in Poland, it is the lowest in the whole Union.  In Poland studies only 300 students from the Middle East – which is 25 times less than in Ukraine. Poland’s problem is balancing its attitude towards Israel. We will be always connected by a unique ties of a common history and  democracy. However, a true friendship should not be based exclusively on an uncritical affirmation. It is difficult not to recognize as such the February visit of Polish government in Israel, during which we have defined ourselves as a philosemitic country. We did not have any reservations about strongly right- wing Israeli rule towards Palestine. After all, Hilary Clinton has recently acknowledged it as a threat for Israel’s future and the stabilization of the region.

Certainly, Poland will not substitute France as a main EU’s  player in the Northern Africa. However, we can find our niche making use of our strengths and overcoming the weaknesses. No one can be a champion in every field, especially with an average potential. That is why Polish resignation form involvement in the whole Arab world is a correct self- restriction. However, focusing solely on Tunisia would be an unnecessary lmitation, interpreted as a seasonal interest in the region. An optimal solution for Poland seems to be gaining in the Union the status of a “post- soviet expert on Islam, Turkey and Iran”, and focusing on one Arab region (Maghreb). Nonetheless, a realization of such ambitions demands improving the whole Polish foreign policy, significant increase in development assistance, educational and economic relations with the Muslim world. Otherwise our involvement will be superficial and not treated seriously by the Muslims.

* Fragments of this article had been recently published in the text “An Eagle and the Crescent”, which appeared in “Gazeta Wyborcza” in the beginning of May of this year.


[1] The culture of Polish nobility in the 17th and 18th centuries (przyp.tłum.)

Translation: Anna Brzezińska  

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About Adam Balcer

Graduate of the Eastern Europe Department (MA) and Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Warsaw. Between 2001 and 2008 he was an analyst concerning Balkan issues at the Centre for Eastern Studies, between 2005 and 2009 worked as leader of the project “Turkey after starting accession negotiations – foreign policy and internal situation” in CES. Since 2003 he teaches at the University of Warsaw, since 2005 he is PhD candidate. Author of numerous articles concerning Balkans, Turkey and region of Black Sea.

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