Europe’s growing ties with the Arab world
A number of new bilateral forums have been created, including the EU-Arab Summit of political and business leaders, last held in Greece in November, which focused on looking for opportunities for economic and political partnership. These new conventions have built on existing ones, such as the EU-Gulf Cooperation Council Energy Expert Group established in 2010.
A key reason for the growing cooperation agenda is the remarkable political and economic tumult in both Europe and the Arab world in the past few years, which has highlighted the interdependence of the two. For instance, the migration crisis in Europe emanated in large part from political instability across the Middle East following recent conflicts.
In terms of the political and economic stress in both geographies, most attention has focused on the so-called Arab Spring, but Europe has also gone through significant instability since the 2008 financial crisis. Millions have taken to the streets and administrations in more than half of the 28 EU states fell or were voted out of office from spring 2010 to 2012 alone, partly because of economic downturns and/or austerity measures. Within the core euro zone, 11 of 14 governments collapsed or lost elections during those same two years.
More eye-catching still, however, has been the remarkable wave of political activity, starting in Tunisia, which has fanned out across North Africa and the Middle East. This includes revolutionary changes of power in Egypt and Libya; transfer of power in Yemen; and demonstrations and uprisings in other countries.
The word “Spring,” with its allusions to the 1848 revolutions in Europe and the Prague Spring of 1968, was widely used initially as a positive reference to potentially major movement toward self-determination and opportunity in the Arab world. However, that initial hope has been dashed in many states.
The two regions shared many challenges in 2017, and will seek similar solutions in the coming year.
Indeed, some now use the term Arab Winter instead, which refers to the instability and violence in much of the region. This includes the menace of Daesh and the conflict in Syria, which continues to drive population displacement and migration.
This disparate range of international political protest and disruption, which of course has also been prevalent in some other areas of the world, has been described as “a revolutionary wave, like 1848” by Sir Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for MI6, the UK Secret Intelligence Service. Others have compared the situation to 1914, 1968 and 1989.
Whatever the validity of these historical analogies, it is clear that there are some genuinely new factors to the post-2008 period, including the role of social media and other technologies. Moreover, this so-called “wave” of political instability has diverse origins with economic issues not the only driver.
Unrest in the Arab world has often stemmed from deep-seated political and socio-economic discontent that pre-dates the financial crisis. Post-2008, however, factors such as liquidity crunches, increased food prices and unemployment spikes exacerbated these longer-standing grievances.
In the EU, the role of the economic downturn and austerity has been central to unrest in numerous countries, especially those most affected by the euro zone crisis, such as Greece. Even here, though, unrest has tapped into existing disquiet with established political parties and systems, hence the meteoric rise of new parties such as the now-governing Syriza.
A key question for the EU-Arab cooperation agenda is whether political instability will now tail off, especially if economic growth sustains itself in much of the world in coming years. While this is possible, there are at least two sets of factors that will continue to fuel protest and uprising in some countries.
Firstly, there are drivers unrelated to the financial crisis that have been common to much of the political unrest, and will endure. They include the disruptive role of social media.
There remains debate about how instrumental social media has been in fomenting political instability. However, whether one sees it as an essential component that translated discontent into concrete action, or accentuated what was already inevitable, indisputably it has played an enabling, mobilizing role that may only grow as technology advances and proliferates.
Secondly, even if the worst of the financial crisis has now passed, its consequences endure, especially for the young. People aged 15-24 constitute less than 20 percent of the global population, but about double the percentage of the unemployed. This puts many at risk of long-term damage to their earnings potential and job prospects, fueling discontent.
Youth unemployment in numerous countries in the Arab world is above 50 percent. In the Middle East, the problem is acute because it has the world’s biggest youth bulge of increasing educated people.
Moreover, over 5 million people in the EU aged 15-24 are unable to find work — over 20 percent — despite the improving euro zone economy, as career opportunity structures have been swept away for too many. This has given rise to concern, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel among others, about a “lost generation,” especially in Greece and Spain where youth unemployment has been over 50 percent.
It is in this context that Europe-Arab dialogue and the cooperation agenda is likely to continue to grow in 2018, given the growing importance of both geographies to each other, and the possibility of further political unrest. While circumstances will vary from country to country, instability could be fueled not just by the legacy of the financial crisis such as high youth unemployment, but also longer-standing political and socio-economic discontent to which social media technologies are giving fresh impetus.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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