20th Sep 2019


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."

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

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.

Dismiss Italy's Salvini at your peril

Matteo Salvini's recent gambit may have failed, but, in his own words: "From today you will find me even more pissed off and determined. I will go from town to town and we will take this country back."

Brexit raises questions for EU defence integration

Brussels' current vision for cooperation on defence, where third countries can contribute but have no say in decision-making and in the guidance of operations, is unlikely to be attractive to the UK.

Europe's refugee policy is test of its true 'way of life'

As ex-national leaders, we know it's not easy to withstand public pressures and put collective interests ahead of domestic concerns. But without strong institutional leadership, EU values themselves risk ringing hollow, not least to those seeking protection on Europe's shores.

A new Commission for the one percent

We are only baffled by how nakedly Ursula von der Leyen's commission represents the very crisis affecting the EU. These commission nominees can expect their toughest questioning yet, they must be held accountable to those they should be representing.

How EU trains discriminate against the disabled

EU law requires us to give two days' notice to get the assistance we need, even for our daily commutes. We can't travel like everyone else. It is frustrating, annoying and time-consuming. In short, it is unacceptable.


These are the crunch issues for the 2019-2024 EU commission

These developments will largely determine who will be running the world in the coming decades and perhaps generations. If the Europeans can't find an answer over the five years, they will be toast. And we haven't even mentioned climate change.

News in Brief

  1. UK Brexit minister to meet Barnier on Friday
  2. Russia-Ukraine gas deal talks show 'progress'
  3. Nobel economist: Ireland 'not good EU citizen' on taxes
  4. Germany takes carbon border tax on board
  5. Austria to veto EU trade deal with South America
  6. Brexit minister asks EU for 'flexibility' to secure a deal
  7. Kovesi has 'sufficient majority' for prosecutor post
  8. France, Finland give UK ultimatum for Brexit plan

Defending the defenders: ombudsmen need support

Ombudsmen are often coming under attack or facing different kinds of challenges. These can include threats, legal action, reprisals, budget cuts or a limitation of their mandate.


The benefits of being unpopular

Paradoxically, the lack of popularity may be part of the strength of the European project. Citizens may not be super-enthusiastic about the EU, but when emotions run too high in politics, hotheads may take over.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  2. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  6. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  8. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  9. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  10. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  11. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat

Latest News

  1. Nine EU 'commissioners' asked to clarify declarations
  2. Dismiss Italy's Salvini at your peril
  3. Malta PM accused of 'blackmail' over slain reporter
  4. Diplomats back Romania's Kovesi for EU top prosecutor
  5. Brexit raises questions for EU defence integration
  6. Low-carbon cities can unlock €21tn by 2050, report finds
  7. France, Italy want 'automatic' distribution of migrants
  8. Europe's refugee policy is test of its true 'way of life'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  4. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  5. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  8. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  2. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  4. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  6. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  7. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us