The new partnership with the Arab world: a partial response by the EU for the region
The Joint Communication issued by the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on 8 March 2011, while offering short and long term policies for the attainment of ‘Democracy’ and ‘Economic Prosperity’, totally ignores the ‘religious aspect’.
Arab countries are demanding freedom and democracy. It is said that the fate of religious and ethnic minorities will be a barometer of progress. Nevertheless, in the above-mentioned Joint Communication there is no mention of ‘religious freedom’; no mention of ‘religious minorities’; no room for ‘interreligious diplomacy’!
The Communication gives credence to the events unfolding in the southern neighbourhood. It appears that the EU is now coming to realize and take the position that there can be no security in Europe unless there is also security in the Mediterranean.
A new rapprochement
The core of the Communication focuses and elaborates on three elements on which a partnership for democracy and shared prosperity should be built: first, democratic transformation and institution-building; second, a stronger partnership with the people; and third, sustainable and inclusive growth and economic development.
The concluding statement has two important elements. The onus is on individual Arab sovereign states to indicate the kind of help and assistance they need from their EU partners. Furthermore, the EU is determined not to impose solutions and models of democracy on the region. In all honesty, this new thinking is in itself a new rapprochement; and if it comes to fruition it could be instrumental in healing the past, both internally and externally. Internally, by getting rid of the totalitarian regimes; externally, by throwing into the bin of history not only the negative impact of colonialism, but also negative EU policies that until recently were implemented in the respective bilateral agreements that the EU had with individual Arab regimes.
The role of religion
Yet, these forces or elements are operating within a region in which religion occupies a vital, if not a determining, space in society. Ask how important religion is in the lives of people in Europe, and the answer is around 30-35 per cent. But in the Middle East it is 90-95 per cent. The role of religion, or better still “interreligious diplomacy”, is as important for internal as for external relations.
This is why this Joint Communication is in itself deficient, simply because it does not take the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue into perspective. Other documents of this kind, issued and circulated within the European corridors of power, speak of the importance of the Alliance of Civilizations and the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for Dialogue between Cultures, whereas we should start to speak about an Alliance of Faiths. An Alliance of Faiths fully dedicated to building bridges of understanding, friendship and cultural exchange, human and spiritual, with the Middle East and North Africa, between the people of all faiths, in order to sustain the culture of love and peace – “where the temporal” as stated by Louis Gardet (1904-1986) “remains charged with religious values” and to be seen to “participate in the same humanity”.
A plethora of questions
At this juncture, a plethora of questions have to be addressed. For instance: What could be the EU’s role in ensuring that the rights of all religious minorities are fully protected? What are the means the EU has at its disposal and what instruments could be created or improved for the attainment of this purpose? What assistance could the EU provide for supporting and sustaining a peaceful interaction between Muslim majorities and Christian minorities, together with other religious minorities, in the Middle East?
As there can be no security in Europe unless there is also security in the Mediterranean, likewise there can be no security in the Middle East and North Africa unless there is also security between the Muslim majorities and other religious minorities. The EU has got to take this on board. Indeed, “a closer inspection of the obvious can show us a way forward and help shape our approach to a given problem.” Getting to grips with this is vital in order to make progress towards a solution. “Seriously understanding the religious dimension of the public sphere is vital in many situations.”
Fr Joe Vella Gauci