Building Open Societies: Transforming Europe’s Partnership with North Africa

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg discussed the EU's position on events in North Africa.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Nick Clegg

It is clear, as I stand here today, that we are witnessing potentially the biggest geopolitical events of the last decade.

It is a moment of huge significance for the people of North Africa and the people of Europe.

Just a few hundreds miles to the south, in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, people are seeking greater rights, fairer distribution of wealth and demanding more open political systems.

I intend to talk today about Europe’s response.

That has been the focus of my meetings today with Council President Van Rompuy, Commission President Barroso and Commissioners Ashton and Fule.

I would like to very warmly welcome President Barroso’s call this morning for a “pact for democracy and shared prosperity”.

I especially welcome his insistence that we must have greater conditionality in our approach and much greater political and economic openness towards North Africa.

Like other European governments, our immediate focus is on helping the remaining British nationals in Libya leave.

And doing whatever we can to ensure that the Libyan people are free from Colonel Qadhafi’s malign rule as soon as possible.

We have seen today that Qadhafi is still waging war on his own people.

His continued brutality has now created a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

The UK is playing its part by flying in shelter, blankets and water, delivering aid today by ship to Benghazi and air-lifting six thousand refugees home from the Tunisian border.

I also welcome the increase in EU humanitarian aid announced earlier today by President Barroso.

This is a region vital to UK and EU interests.

If people in the UK ask why, I would point at the efforts in recent weeks to rescue British nationals caught up in the turbulent events, at the level of human migration from North Africa to Europe, at the level of trade and investment between Europe and North Africa, and its importance to us in terms of energy, the environment and counter-terrorism.

North Africa is just 14 miles from Europe at its closest point, what happens to our near neighbours affects us deeply. In the past, Europe has sought to build a partnership with North Africa, but failings on both sides have held us back.

Now that we have witnessed the immense courage of unarmed protestors raising their voices in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli, we Europeans need to respond quickly and boldly to their bravery.

They have created an unexpected and game-changing turn of events in Europe’s neighbourhood: we must provide a game-changing response too.

Our response must be guided by the nature of the changes that we are witnessing.

Although Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are very different countries, the root causes of these uprisings and demands for change elsewhere in the region are similar:

First, a lack of economic opportunity. The region as a whole underperforms economically. The benefits of globalisation are passing these people by. Economic growth per head was just 6.4% between 1980 and 2004 - that’s less than 0.5% annually.

Second, the presence of youthful populations without a voice or a job: 60% of the population is under 25 and youth unemployment is high.

Third, an increasing sense of frustration at the closed and unjust nature of these societies. No North African country is assessed as “Free” by Freedom House’s most recent survey. Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya are all judged as “Not Free”.

Fourth, they have been effective precisely because the protests came from directions the regimes least expected - from people whom the regimes assumed had resigned themselves to the status quo.

Fifth, high food prices, the spark that lit the bonfire.

For some of us, there is a strong historical parallel here.

A similar movement of change swept across central and eastern Europe in the 1990s. The European Community responded to that opportunity in magnificent fashion. By offering a path to re-joining the European family, the European community ensured the entrenchment of liberal democracy across a swathe of our continent.

When it comes to North Africa, there is no certainty about the outcome. Transitions take decades and they don’t always turn out for the best. Our own example, in Europe, tells us that from the rubble of war we can create a Union of prosperity, democracy and the rule of law.

But this is not always guaranteed.

Change can be for the worse, as well as the better. The hunger of those living on the other side of the Mediterranean for freedom and opportunity is clear.

Our European model can help inspire them. And that is precisely why Europe must play its part. It is unquestionably in the EU’s interests to uphold its liberal values - the right to peaceful protest, freedom of speech and of assembly, and the rule of law. These values are sometimes referred to as ‘Western values’ - but only by people who do not know their history.

While much of Europe had still to emerge from the Dark Ages, the Baghdad of Haroun al-Rashid saw a flowering of free religious debate and openness to learning from non-Muslim sources.

The truth is that these liberal ideals of equality, law and self-determination cannot be claimed by any nation, or hemisphere. They are global values with global force. The strategic context for Europe also compels us to be bold in our thinking.

For example a free, prosperous and stable North Africa can help in reassuring Israel that it can live in peace with neighbouring open societies and give Palestinians their rights.

For those of us concerned by Iran’s activities in the region, a free North Africa will help isolate rather than entrench Iran’s influence.

Recent events highlight the importance of other neighbours too, especially Turkey.

As a Muslim majority country, a NATO member and a country firmly committed to the path to EU membership, and a state with a vibrant multi-party democracy, it provides a valuable example for other societies.

Turkey’s warm relations in the region offer benefits in terms of achieving the openness and respect for human rights that we all support. Another tangible recent example of the help Turkey can offer is their readiness to represent the UK’s interests in Libya when our Embassy was forced to suspend its operations, and I wish to warmly thank Turkey for that assistance.

Turkey has not just been helping us. In total Turkey has evacuated over 3300 foreigners from at least fifty-two different countries, many of them European. They are now sending significant aid to relieve the growing humanitarian crisis.

What, then, is Europe’s recent record in building a partnership with North Africa?

Mixed at best.

We do have polices such as the European Neighbourhood Policy aimed at countries which, unlike Turkey, do not have a cast iron case for EU membership. But our hopes for our southern neighbourhood policy and our approach towards North Africa as a whole have not been fulfilled.


Not because of policies, processes or money, but because of a lack of will, we have allowed autocratic regimes to get away with only making a pretence of reforming. We have imposed minimal conditionality and then failed to insist even on those low standards.

We have failed because we did not express our belief in the values of open societies.

We have supported the important goals of economic opening and reform.

But the EU has done nothing like enough to use its weight to support open, plural societies more broadly.

We have also got our starting point wrong:

Rather than building a genuine partnership with North Africa, we have focused narrowly on certain areas of cooperation without engaging meaningfully on political reform.

This has given the impression that we seek to keep North Africa stable but distant.

The events of the past few weeks have demonstrated the short-sightedness of this approach.

Of course, the lack of will was reciprocated on the other side.

We were working predominantly with governments that paid lip service at best to our values and ideals.

But those governments have been swept away.

We now have a chance to work with partners who want our help, share our values and want a genuine partnership.

As we radically re-shape our approach to North Africa, the EU has to develop a strong, enticing offer that lies between warm words and blank cheques at one extreme and full EU membership at the other.

The UK will argue unashamedly for a full and engaging offer to be made.

This is not about imposing Western democratic models and prescribing outcomes, but about supporting those in the region who want a more open society.

We know that reform must be a home-grown process and leadership must come from within countries.

Yet the international community, especially the EU, can act as a powerful support and inspiration to those countries who want open, plural societies.

As Prime Minister David Cameron has said, you cannot impose democracy from 30,000 feet.

But you can support democracy from across borders.

Being adherents of the international rule of law does not mean being neutral about the kind of world we want to see and the kind of nations we want to deal with: open, free, democratic societies.

We should never hold back from advocating our belief that freedom and the rule of law are the best guarantees of human progress and economic success.

If we agree on the need for a full and engaging offer, what sorts of actions should we take?

In the UK we see three main areas for action:

First, values. EU policy should be guided by clear principles linking values - the values shown in Tahrir Square - to engagement: but this must come with conditionality.

We must never again accept paper thin commitments that are not pressed home.

But let me be clear that this is a conditionality based on the values the protestors in Tahrir Square and elsewhere have demonstrated their passion for: values they cherish and we want to support.

The EU should provide a more ambitious offer to those governments which work towards the values their people are insisting on, linked with tougher conditionality for those that ignore them.

So we must raise our ambitions for the European Neighbourhood Policy.

Second, a broad and inclusive economic offer that draws on the EU’s position as a global economic superpower and supports a process of economic opening to complement and reinforce greater political openness.

There are many models of greater economic integration with countries that neighbour the EU - from Turkey and the Balkan states on a membership path to the east and to our northern EEA partners.

We should be looking at these models for inspiration when it comes to North Africa.

Successive UK Governments have been consistent advocates of dual economic and political liberalisations.

That may have many dimensions - and it is not for me at this stage to specify them.

However the UK is calling on the Commission and other Member States to look at bold alternatives to provide the people of North Africa with greater economic opportunity and prosperity.

We as Europeans also need to review urgently the institutions and instruments available to us or potentially available to us for working with the region, including the EIB, Union for the Mediterranean and ENPI funds.

All of need to reconsider how best they can support North Africa.

There are a number or proposals to do this.

We should act fast and not allow this to become the subject of familiar political wrangling.

We need real progress at the Special European Council on the eleventh of March.

Europe, together with other shareholders, should consider how best the EBRD’s expertise in transition and private sector development could be shared to the south.

Let me be very clear here on one specific point.

Citizens of these North African countries - and migrants making their way through them - are not going to stay put in North Africa if there are few economic opportunities there: they are going to make their way to Europe through one means or another.

Our task is to help North Africa offer prosperity to its own people, not act as a stepping off point to Europe.

The region overall does not lack capital - this is in many respects a resource-rich region. What we need is a radical change in the way we provide assistance to make it more effective and to help unlock the potential that already exists.

Third, the EU must also do more to cultivate the civil, political and democratic institutions that underpin successful open societies.

The EU has an enormous amount to offer in terms of know-how and institution-building, not least because of its earlier experiences with central and Eastern Europe.

The UK will seek to lead by example.

On top of the short term humanitarian relief that we are providing for the Libyan people and those who have fled to Tunisia and Egypt, we have already pledged an initial £5 million of UK funding to support reform projects across the region.

Including in Tunisia and Egypt, to help support access to justice, freedom of expression, democratic institutions and civil society. But this is just a start.

We will transform the role and capacity of organisations such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which can help to broaden political participation.

And as a Government we will make further resources available to further this work.

I have today written to all the leaders of the UK’s main political parties urging them to encourage their parliamentarians to support this initiative.

While I believe Europe must be the centrepiece of our response to North Africa, it must not act alone.

The G8 and G20 will want to play a role too.

The UK Government, through its Department for International Development, is also already working closely with organisations like the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Islamic Development Bank.

Of course the process of deepening political and economic freedom cannot be delivered by Governments alone.

That is why I am delighted that the Open Society Foundations, under the leadership of George Soros, are supporting major new initiatives with emerging civil society in the region.

They are working with experts from previous transitions; supporting transitional justice and legal empowerment of the poor; bringing together Arab constitutional experts and lawyers; and strengthening journalists in newly open democracies to be critical ‘watchdogs’ in the transition.

These are exactly the sort of ‘people to people’ initiatives that the region needs.

The EU has always been at its best when responding to changes in the world around it. That is at the heart of its creation.

So it was in tackling German reunification.

So it was in responding to the re-emergence of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. So it must be again in response to events in the North Africa.

The EU cannot take for granted its effectiveness and legitimacy. It operates in a world in which power is shifting fast, in which there is greater uncertainty and unpredictability.

This is a pivotal moment in shaping the EU’s long term purpose and role in the world.

And this is a precious moment of opportunity for the region.

Precious because it is the people, especially young people, who are speaking up, and they are doing so for the most part peacefully and with dignity.

They are showing that there is more to politics in the region than the choice between repression and extremism.

It is precious, but potentially fragile too.

There is no certainty about the outcome. This is why Europe must play its part.

Everyday on our television screens, we are witnessing the courage of ordinary people taking to the streets to demand greater freedom.

The countries of the European Union need to match their bravery and get behind this movement for change.

They are creating a new world.

We need a new response.

So: we need genuine partnership of values with conditionality, a bold new European economic offer and a step-change in our fostering of political pluralism and open societies.

What happens in North Africa impacts on every community in Europe.

This is happening in our back yard.

The EU, individual member states, businesses, and civil society - all of us need to step up to the plate.

2011 is certain to be a defining moment for North Africa and the region as a whole.

But it is a defining moment for Europe, too.

I hope together we can rise to the challenge.”

Updates to this page

Published 2 March 2011