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The Foreign Policy Committee of the Danish Parliament
Landstingssalen, Christiansborg, Wednesday 25 May 2011
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for inviting me to this highly topical debate on the Arab Spring.
Democracy is a universal good. Democracy responds to the universal aspirations of participation, justice and dignity.
For many years, autocrats have sneered at our support for democracy and human rights and asked us not to meddle in their internal affairs. They have argued that democracy is not the right model for their region or their culture.
However, it now turns out that the populations in North Africa and the Middle East actually strive for this model. They strive for freedom. They strive for democracy. They strive for playing their role in shaping their own country’s destiny. Democracy is not a concept made only for Western societies. The recent events in North Africa and the Middle East certainly confirm this.
Since the beginning of this year, we have witnessed dramatic changes in North Africa and the Middle East. Changes that are truly historic. Changes that nobody could have predicted just a few months ago. The brave people demonstrating against repressive regimes have surprised international observers, their own governments – and perhaps even themselves! The call for change has affected every country in the region. Governments have had to react to the demands of their own people, and to react to dramatic events in neighbouring countries. No Arab country has been left untouched by the so-called Arab Spring. This is a truly historic development that cannot and will not be rolled back.
In the region, reactions to the protests have been very diverse. In my opinion we see two main roads unfolding in the region. Firstly, a road marked by repression or extremism. Secondly, a road marked by a transition towards democracy.
The first road is dark. In Libya, we have seen Gaddafi’s forces using a frightening level of violence against protesters and oppositional forces. I am therefore very pleased that the Danish Parliament was able to obtain a consensus across the political spectrum to join the international engagement in Libya. The aim is to end violence against civilians and to ensure access to humanitarian aid. At the same time, we support the Libyan people’s right to self-determination and a development that can lead to a sustainable, peaceful, undivided and democratic future for Libya.
In Syria, Yemen and Bahrain protests and demonstrations were also met with violence. In Bahrain a Danish citizen, Abdullah Al-Khawaja, has been imprisoned for weeks. There have been reports that he has been tortured, which must be condemned. Therefore, the Danish government has been actively engaged in his case.
Regardless of how the situation evolves in all of these countries, it is clear that repression does not solve the problems. It simply postpones the eventual need to deal with the underlying political and social issues raised by the protesters. I therefore call on the leaders in these countries to see through the necessary reforms.
The second road is that of democracy: In Tunisia and Egypt, the presidents stepped down, paving the way for transitions.
Denmark and the EU must seize this enormous chance and fully support the transition processes – also to minimise the risk of set-backs.
The massive protests in North Africa and the Middle East were inspired by universal aspirations. But there is no doubt they were also triggered by the widespread socio-economic discontent. First and foremost, the Arab Spring is a call for democracy and freedom. But it is also very much a call for jobs and a better life.
Economic growth is key to a peaceful transition to democracy.
At the World Economic Forum earlier this year I had the chance to discuss the economic perspective of the Middle East with a number of distinguished business representatives. Indeed, the markets of the Middle East seem to have overcome the global financial crisis better than many others. We must make the most of this positive economic development, which is clearly in the mutual interest of Europe and the countries in the region.
Yet, we must also be realistic: The widespread demonstrations have exacerbated the social and economic problems that characterise many of the countries in the region. Revolutions are not necessarily free of charge: We could very well end up in a situation, where protests could aggravate the very problems that triggered these protests in the first place.
Where does this leave our relationship with the Southern Neighbours?
Europe has always believed that well-developed neighbours are good neighbours. In the case of the Arab world, we have given priority to supporting reform and progress. And we intend to step up our efforts: The EU should promote easier market access for agricultural produce. The private sector should be a vehicle for stimulating economic development and creating new jobs.
As a general principle, we must make sure that our cooperation with the countries in the region is designed to encourage democracy and reform. It should be based on merit. This is a strong Danish priority.
Allow me to also make a couple of remarks on the Middle East peace process. I strongly believe that solving the conflict between Israel and Arabs would have a very positive influence on the region. It would open up vast new opportunities in the Middle East and for the Middle East - and for Europe herself – politically and economically.
I welcome president Obama’s recent statement on the Israeli-Arab peace process, including that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. This has also been the EU’s policy, and in my view it constitutes a solid point of departure for the two parties’ peace negotiations.
Recent developments in the Middle East indicate that democratic forces are strengthened by political and economic integration. Civil societies in our part of the world cooperate with like-minded civil societies of the Arab world. Globalization has to a great extent expanded exchanges across borders and regions.
No one can argue that these aspirations for democracy, social justice and human dignity are not universal. Today, it is more difficult for autocrats to maintain the make-belief that their particular situation does not lend itself to democracy.
Yet, it is clear that democracy cannot be imported from the outside, it has to grow from within to be sustainable.
One of the cornerstones of my government’s dealing with the Arab World is the Partnership for Dialogue and Reform Programme. It aims to build partnerships and promote trust, understanding and reform through dialogue.
More than 220 Danish civil society organisations and public institutions and 400 Arab partners have been engaged in these professional partnerships. As a matter of fact, a number of our Arab partners have bravely spearheaded the demonstrations we have witnessed lately. These are young people, representatives from human rights organizations, academics, journalists and many others.
Moreover, earlier this year, a Freedom Initiative was launched by my government, supporting the freedom movements in the Arab World. We work closely with partners to support good governance, human rights, growth and employment as well as the strengthening of civil society.
A transition process leading to democracy is not necessarily smooth sailing. Some countries will embark on a clear process towards democracy. Some will enter a more prolonged process, where they will only slowly progress from authoritarian rule. And some, unfortunately, will experience set-backs.
I firmly believe that by promoting people’s rights to organize, to express views and to formulate demands to governments and authorities, we are helping to build democracy.
Denmark and the EU stand ready to support the forces of democracy and reform. If these do not prevail, I fear that more radical forces will gain influence. That would, in effect, be replacing one repressive regime by another.
The road towards democracy may be bumpy, but I am convinced that the people in the region that have chosen this road have made the right choice.
Thank you for your attention.