The Arab Spring, little anticipated but much welcomed, brought with it the promise of change - towards modern democracies respectful of all and to open economies that will create jobs and wealth. Of course such drastic change never comes quickly or easily, it requires hard work and support.
The European Union is looking to play its part in easing the transition. This is about more than just being a good neighbour, because everything that happens there will cause ripples here. Prosperous Arab democracies could be valuable partners, creating opportunities for European companies and helping to keep a check on illegal immigration, while impoverished Arab dictatorships could fuel instability in the Mediterranean region.
The European Parliament will this week vote on a report setting out a strategy to support democratic reform and economic development in these fledgling democracies. Such a strategy merits thoughtful deliberation but luckily there is the past to draw inspiration from as this will not be the first time that the EU has helped countries to make the grade as free market democracies.
The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 quickly led to the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. This reshuffle of European politics came as unexpectedly as last year's Arab Spring so at first the EU was uncertain how to proceed. There were fears that Eastern European countries would battle it out over ancient disputes and that they would be ill-equipped to adapt their economies to new demands. After some hesitation, the EU offered these democracies in training the prospect of EU membership to encourage them to embark on the necessary reforms. This helped to spur on the future EU members as they recognised the benefits of EU membership.
The EU made clear what it was expecting when it drew up the Copenhagen criteria in 1993. Candidate countries needed to have stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; they were required to have a working market economy, capable of competing effectively on EU markets; and they were asked to be capable of accepting all the responsibilities of membership. For the former communist states this involved major economic change and much administrative work, including transposing all EU laws (some 3,000 directives). Along the way the EU was there to assist with expertise and financial support.
The strategy proved very successful. Not only did these countries transform into modern democracies capable of competing in a global economy, the common goal of EU membership also helped to stifle any potential regional difficulties or at least encouraged them to find peaceful means to tackle them. They also proved their value in the EU once they joined in 2004 and 2007. The EU is now trying to duplicate the strategy's results with the Balkan countries, where again it has led to a flurry of reforms.
Things are slightly different with Arab states. They cannot be promised EU membership as this possibility is only open to European countries; however there are other things that can be done. The example of Eastern European countries shows that democratic and economic reforms will need to go together as wealth and jobs will help to anchor the gains of a democratic society.
On Wednesday MEPs will debate a report setting out how the EU could help. They will vote Thursday on the report by Italian Liberal-Democrat Niccolò Rinaldi, which underlines the importance of trade and investment to support economic and social progress in Southern Mediterranean countries. It says the Parliament should focus on "spreading and promoting democratic reforms, fully-fledged freedom and the rule of law". One suggestion is to use deep and comprehensive free trade agreements while another is for the EU to facilitate the work of the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in the Mediterranean region.
MEPs will take a good look at these proposals but as many of them are from the new member states and have seen for themselves how reforms can help countries to blossom into free-market democracies, they should have insight into what will need to be done.
Photo: EU election observation mission in Tunisia