4th Feb 2023


The EU must accept democratically elected opponents in the Middle East

  • "The time for double standards is up; Europe must accept the results of democratic elections no matter who wins at the ballot box" (Photo: Tobias Gräs)

With Beirut burning and Haifa hit by Hezbollah rockets, the EU's so-called Barcelona Process looks like a failure.

At the 1995 Barcelona conference, the EU and 12 Mediterranean countries – including Israel and Lebanon – expressed their "conviction that the peace, stability and security of the Mediterranean region are a common asset which they pledge to promote and strengthen by all means at their disposal."

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Outright war was hardly the sort of inter-state and inter-cultural dialogue the EU and its southern Mediterranean neighbours envisaged.

The war between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, as well as the intensifying Israeli-Palestinian conflict come as a fresh challenge to the Barcelona process, which has already been subject to constant criticism for its inability to deliver on Mediterranean high politics of peace and security ever since it was launched.

Persistent attempts to agree on a Mediterranean Charter for Peace and Stability have failed, preventing the political and security dialogue taking place within the so-called "first basket" of the Barcelona Process from moving forward.

While the word "democratisation" itself has been used increasingly in official Barcelona documents, figures from the NGO Freedom House indicate that the EU's Mediterranean partners have not improved their democratic record relative to countries outside the process, such as the Arab Gulf states.

Democracy and peace

However, apart from exposing the limited results of the Barcelona Process, the current violence in Lebanon and Israel also challenges the democratic peace theory.

At universities across the western world, this theory, which claims that democratic states do not fight one another, has arguably been the one and only empirically verified theory in studies of International Relations.

Until now, it has been challenged only by weak claims that World War I was a war among democracies by historians stressing the importance of the Reichstag in Imperial Germany.

Yet the war in Lebanon now questions this idea of a universal democratic peace, already challenged by the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Indeed, neither Lebanon nor Palestine are functioning pluralistic democracies in a western sense. However, few people question the democratic election processes that brought Hamas to power in the occupied territories, and made Hezbollah a political force whose governmental participation is necessary to establish a working parliamentary majority in Beirut.

US retreat

Suddenly the democratic peace theory finds itself as troubled as the Barcelona Process. Both now face common challenges of war and despair.

So should we abandon both the vision of spreading democracy in the Middle East, and the Barcelona Process?

After all, democracy is likely to bring anti-western or Islamist forces to power throughout the region, and the results of 10 years of the Barcelona Process are limited at best. The US seems to have abandoned its recent democratic idealism for a more classic realist approach.

While the Egyptian regime has been tightening its suppression of its opposition in recent months, US support for the regime has grown, according to upcoming studies by the Euro Mediterranean study commission, EuroMeSCo.

US foreign secretary Rice has praised Cairo for its commitment to the pursuit of peace and stability in the region.

Old winds blow again, and it seems Ms Rice's words about a new US foreign policy paradigm featuring democracy rather than stability have gone with them.

So should the EU follow the US on this retreat, and abandon the goal of a Euro-Mediterranean community of democratic states that figures prominently in the Barcelona Declaration?

Challenge the status quo

It should not. It should rather do the opposite. The time for double standards is up; Europe must accept the results of democratic elections no matter who wins at the ballot box.

As much as both Hezbollah and Hamas can be linked to terrorism, they currently hold democratic legitimacy gained through multi-party elections. Hence Lebanon and Palestine ought to be treated within the rules governing the game among democratic states.

Democratic peace might no longer be universal, but it remains an ideal which should be pursued proactively by the EU in its external relations policies.

The Barcelona Process should not be abandoned, nor should it be allowed to continue on its current low key scale.

Barcelona, the only forum outside the UN where Israel participates alongside its Arab neighbours, should be reinvigorated and made a forum for dialogue on high politics of war and peace in the region.

The decoupling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Barcelona Process should be ended, and the forum should be used as a means to agree upon concrete action plans for democratic transition in countries lacking civil liberties.

A mechanism of conditionality, based upon the so-called "essential elements" clauses that are present in bilateral Euro-Mediterranean agreements, should be finally implemented.

The "essential elements" clauses provide a means to reward and sanction countries according to their democratic credentials - however, they have yet to be enforced.

Authoritarian suppression of legal political movements should have consequences for Mediterranean regimes – even if the political actors they oppress are opposed to Europe, democracy or modernity in general.

Europe must lead in a renewed attempt to progressively challenge the status quo in the Middle East, pressing totalitarian Arab regimes like Egypt to pursue reforms - even at the expense of a possible raise to power of democratically elected Islamists – while convincing Israel to modify its policy of disproportionate military response to terrorism.

The author, a substitute social democrat member of the Danish parliament, specialised in EU Mediterranean Policies at the University of Copenhagen and the College of Europe. He is working with a group of Euro-Mediterranean researchers under the auspices of the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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