Europe and the Arab Spring

French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France, who in the 1950’s withdrew his country from Vietnam and Tunisia, famously said that governing is choosing. Europe’s choice now is clear: mobilize to help its North African neighbors open up their economies and societies, or start beefing up its coastguards and manning the patrol boats.

PARIS – In 1989, the wall separating the two halves of Europe suddenly collapsed. Within the space of a few months, a hitherto seemingly immutable order gave way to commotion and impatience. At first, the old countries of Europe were paralyzed with fear of the unknown and anxiety about immigration – and then they seized with both hands the opportunity that history had offered to them.

Europe implemented financial assistance and technical assistance programs, opened trade talks, and promised an eastward enlargement of the European Union, which eventually led to the free movement of workers across the former Iron curtain. Two decades later, these efforts have proven to be a spectacular success. The economic and political transition of ex-communist Eastern Europe has been swift and deep. Moreover, with the dramatic exception of Yugoslavia, it was carried out peacefully, which contributed to strong economic performance.

Could a similar (obviously not identical) story unfold for the southern rim of the Mediterranean? This is the key economic question posed by today’s Arab Spring.