EU support in Maghreb considered crucial

Unrest also continued in Egypt yesterday and the EU has urged the Egyptian authorities to listen to their people, deal with their problems and respect their right to demonstrate.

Arnold Cassola, Alternattiva Demokratika’s (AD) spokesperson for EU and International Affairs, told this newspaper yesterday that the EU’s wrong policies vis-à-vis dictatorial regimes in the Maghreb area now risk bringing about dramatic and bloody consequences not only in Tunisia, but also in Egypt and Algeria.

Green MEP Malika Benarab-Attou, on her part, noted that the US reacted faster than the EU was able to cope with the Tunisian question.

This newspaper also spoke to Foreign Affairs Minister Tonio Borg, who said Malta within the EU, and also bilaterally with Tunisia, should strive for stability in the country.

“The EU can assist through monitoring and assistance in the holding of new elections whether presidential or legislative, as well as in helping the new government chosen by the people to develop democracy in the country.”

Associated Press (AP) reported yesterday that Tunisia’s justice minister said the country has issued an international arrest warrant for ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The minister, Lazhar Karoui Chebbi, says charges against Ben Ali include taking money out of the country illegally.

The minister also said that more than 11,000 prisoners escaped from the North African nation’s prisons during the unrest that overthrew Ben Ali. That is about a third of the country’s prison population. About 1,500 prisoners have returned behind bars.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on 14 January after 23 years in power, pushed out by weeks of deadly protests driven by anger over joblessness, corruption and repression.

Commenting on the situation during his visit to Malta earlier this week, EP president Jerzy Buzek said: “We are all following the recent Jasmine revolution in Tunisia with great concern, but also with hope. We need to find practical ways to help Tunisia develop a strong and stable democracy.

The EU has offered immediate assistance with respect to preparations for the elections, an aid package to address economic and social issues and to consolidate the rule of law.

“Malta is Tunisia’s next door neighbour and we need your advice on what else the EU can and should do.

“A successful transition to democracy in Tunisia will have far-reaching implications for Malta, for Europe, and for the whole of North Africa and the Middle East. Together we need to get this right.”

EU should not play ‘big brother’

In response, George Vella, Labour’s spokesperson for foreign affairs, said that when it comes to its political relations with third countries, the EU should find the courage to underline the vital importance of respect for human rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and condemnation of all types of repression, corruption, nepotism, and the trampling of citizens’ rights.

“In our dealings with our neighbouring Muslim countries, including Tunisia, we have to be careful not to play the ‘big brother’ and preach that unless they adopt our ‘democracy’ lock, stock and barrel, they will not thrive.”

MEP David Casa, on his part, stressed that the next few weeks and months will be crucial in determining what lies ahead for Tunisia.

“The Tunisian people have triumphed over oppression. The transition to democracy will not be an easy process. In Europe we enjoy a long history of tangible democracy that works in practice.

“We must be able to share these best practices and help the Tunisians develop a democratic framework that is tailored to their needs and reinforced by drawing from the experiences of the west.”

This could best be accomplished through diplomatic dialogue with the Tunisians and a readiness to provide them with the expertise they may need so as to enhance the efficacy of their decisions concerning the best way forward, said Mr Casa.

AD’s Arnold Cassola went into more detail, saying that what the EU must insist on now is the diversion of funds away from the old clique surrounding the dictatorship towards the truly democratic opposition forces.

Tunisia needs truly democratic elections as soon as possible. In this respect, Prof. Cassola said the EU should insist that the interim government that prepares these elections should be made up of members of all opposition parties and should not include any members of the Ben Ali regime. This is also a clear will of the Tunisian people.

Any dilly-dallying on this issue risks creating a political vacuum in the country and the risk of the army taking over becomes greater, with all the serious consequences that this will bring for true democracy in the country, said Prof. Cassola.

He noted that the EU has had a great responsibility in propping up the Ben Ali dictatorship, with funding agreements that were really benefiting only the oligarchy surrounding Ben Ali and his wife rather than the common people. Prof. Cassola said the Greens have consistently denounced this in the past.

Dr Vella, for the Labour Party, said “We have to show them the utmost respect for their religion and their culture, and help them distil their own home-grown version of ‘democracy’, where one can read at least the basic fundamentals of freedoms, rights, and fair representation… at least to start off with.”

Tunisia does not need the interference of the EU to put its books in order, said Dr Vella, adding that what the Tunisian people expect from the EU is more moral support, and the assurance that it will give due recognition to any government which is freely chosen by the Tunisians themselves.

They do not want to be dictated to. They do not need to have someone from ‘the west’ to go there and play the kingmaker.

Tunisians only want support, and expect to find a helping hand if, and when, they feel they have to ask for solidarity, help or advice. Tunisia has excellent prospects if the situation is handled well.

“Let not the EU and the western world forget the wrong decisions they took way back when they did not want to recognise an Islamic majority government in Algeria, and again more recently in Palestine.

“One led to a bloodbath over years of civil war, and the other to Hamas taking over Gaza, and dividing the Palestinian movement.”

Dr Vella said there does not seem to be the possibility of anything similar happening in Tunisia, but one cannot exclude this happening in any other country which could be hit by the domino effect of what is happening in Tunisia.

The EU should extend a helping hand to the Tunisians, he said, especially if asked to monitor eventual elections – possibly with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (and the United Nations), but should refrain from meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign country.

US reacted faster than EU was able to cope with Tunisian question – MEP

Green MEP Malika Benarab-Attou has spoken about the EU’s important role in the Maghreb region and she noted that the US reacted faster than the EU was able to cope with the Tunisian question.

“If the EU does nothing in the Maghreb region, others will take over a leadership role as the US is already doing so,” said Mrs Benarab-Attou.

MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri (Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats), the head of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the Maghreb countries and the Arab Maghreb Union, said that perhaps the EU had looked more to the east than the south because of enlargement issues.

“The EU supported those governments if they in return cooperated in combating terrorism and fundamentalism and helped control the migration process,” he said, adding that this kind of compromise shouldn’t be done in the future.

Mrs Benarab-Attou observed that some EU instruments are already in place to support Tunisia’s democratic transition. These include the European Neighbourhood Policy and the Union for the Mediterranean.

The Italian MEP, on his part, said that the Union for the Mediterranean “is simply a reality written on paper”.

“We must try to bring these instruments back to life. We have to make them capable of establishing the right policies needed towards the Maghreb and all North African countries. We have to get rid of those late-colonial policies that some countries still maintained.”

On Monday, in a speech in parliament during the EP president’s visit, Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat also brought up the Union for the Mediterranean project, which he said still needs to be properly established.

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