The European Union has long claimed the moral high ground in the Middle East, but for many years it has misrepresented its post-modern "soft power" foreign policy as a morally superior alternative to the United States in the Arab world.
The popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East are exposing the hypocritical ambiguities that underpin European foreign policy. At the same time they are drawing attention to Europe's own democratic deficit.
As Egyptians were rising up against their government in early February, for instance, the European Union's "Foreign Minister," Baroness Catherine Ashton, penned an article in the London-based Guardian newspaper saying she wanted to see "deep democracy" take root in Egypt. Ashton warned that Egypt should not become a "surface democracy" with votes and elections, but that it should be a "deep democracy," which involves "respect for the rule of law, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary and impartial administration." Ashton also said the Egyptian government "must respond to the wishes of their people."
The irony of Ashton's cheek in lecturing other countries on democracy is that she was elevated to her current position neither through "surface democracy," nor through "deep democracy," but through backroom wheeling-and-dealing in the European Union's unelected Narcissocracy, which is notorious for ignoring the wishes of European citizens.
Although Egyptian President's Hosni Mubarak's 30-year reign was propped up by phony elections that were rigged time and time again, arguably he had more democratic legitimacy than Ashton, who has never faced the scrutiny of a ballot box (okay, in 1982 she was elected to become the Treasurer of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at a time when it was receiving financial support from the Soviet Union), but she and has never once campaigned to win over the hearts and minds of the European masses she claims to represent.
Moreover, Ashton's current position, formally known as "The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy," was established by the European Union's controversial Lisbon Treaty. Also known as the Reform Treaty, the Lisbon Treaty is nearly identical to the European Constitution, a document that was soundly rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005. Likened to a "slow-moving coup d'état," the 250-plus page Lisbon Treaty is all about the centralization of political power by an unelected ruling clique in Brussels. The treaty not only establishes a permanent EU president, foreign minister and a European Union diplomatic service; it also obligates European nations to surrender, in many areas, their sovereignty to centralized decision-making.
Given the European Union's own lack of democratic legitimacy, it is not surprising that Ashton's calls for more democracy in the Arab world have come across as patronizing and hypocritical.. It also goes a long way in explaining why Europe's "value-based" foreign policy has been unable to formulate a coherent response to the momentous changes taking place in the Middle East.
Consider the EU's much-vaunted European Neighborhood Policy, a scheme that involves providing aid and trade to countries in North Africa and the Middle East in return for progress on democracy and human rights. Over the past decade, Arab autocrats have received billions of euros in financial handouts, even as Europeans have turned a blind eye to lack of democratic reforms in the region.
While Europeans talk a good game about democracy promotion, in practice they have been far more interested in pursing realpolitik, largely in order to protect their business interests in North Africa and the Middle East, and to ensure regional stability to keep a lid on illegal immigration.
One example involves Tunisia. The autocratic government of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali secured more than €3.6 billion ($ 4.9 billion) from European taxpayers since 1995, largely at the behest of France. In the midst of the Jasmine Revolution (as the political upheaval in Tunisia is being called), the European Union continued to insist that Ben Ali's government was a success story.
During the early days of fighting in Tunisia, French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie was vacationing in the seaside town of Tabarka using a jet owned by a Tunisian businessman linked to Ben Ali. She was accompanied on the December trip by her partner Patrick Ollier, also a minister within the French government.
According to the French newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné, Alliot-Marie's parents bought shares in a property company owned by an associate of Ben Ali while protests were going on in Tunisia. Just three days before Ben Ali was removed from office, Alliot-Marie offered the "know how" of France's security forces to help quell the fighting in Tunisia.
Alliot-Marie resigned from her post on February 27; French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that his ministers should stick to France for their holidays to avoid gaffes, after it emerged that Prime Minister François Fillon had accepted a free holiday from ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Another example involves Libya. The European Union, which receives over 85% of Libya's crude oil exports, has been split over how to react to the violence engulfing the country. A few northern European countries have called for immediate sanctions on the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. But they have been opposed by southern European countries like Italy and Spain, which have significant oil and gas and interests in Libya, and which also fear a "biblical exodus" of refugees.
Libya exports natural gas to Italy by way of an underwater pipeline, and to Spain in the form of liquefied natural gas. Libya accounts for some 13% of Italy's total gas imports, and just over 1.5% of total Spanish gas imports. But many more European countries receive crude oil from Libya. Austria receives 21.2% of its crude oil imports from Libya, France 15.7%, Germany 7.7%, Greece 14.6%, Ireland 23.3%, Italy 22.0%, the Netherlands 2.3%, Portugal 11.1%, Spain 12.1%, and the United Kingdom 8.5%, according to the International Energy Agency.
Britain has long been accused of pandering to Libyan autocrats. In August 2009, the Labour government was involved in releasing from prison the bomber of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people. British commentators have speculated that the release of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, who had served only eight years of a life sentence, was motivated by lucrative Libyan oil deals as well as anti-Americanism.
Germany, Switzerland and Austria, all of which have important business interests in Iran, have long resisted more vigorous sanctions to contain Tehran's nuclear program.
In Spain, where the Socialist government never misses an opportunity to criticize Israel, the only real democracy in the Middle East, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has been pleading with the autocrats in Qatar to invest €3 billion in Spain's ailing banking sector.
But European bureaucrats are skilful players of the double game, and will respond with more moral posturing. It's all part of the act.