Europe and the Arab Spring

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.

The EU’s 500 million citizens have 170 million neighbors between Agadir (Morocco) in the west of North Africa and Port Said (Egypt) in the east. These millions sit on Europe’s doorstep, eyeing with longing its prosperity and democracy. In Tunisia and Egypt, they have demonstrated their resolve by overturning regimes which many in the West saw as guarantors of stability. They are now asking nothing more than to be able to invest their energies in bringing about their countries’ recovery. But, unless they have reason to believe that improvement is coming, today’s transforming dynamism will become the dynamism of despair – with all the risks that this implies.