The EU must focus on human insecurity in the Arab World

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Human insecurity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) arises from the intersection of diverse threats, including environmental problems, food and water scarcity, and ethnic and cultural conflicts. If the European Union is to pursue comprehensive security in the MENA, it must learn from its past mistakes of endorsing authoritarian regimes and develop a new approach in its relations with the polities and societies emerging from the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, writes POLSIS’s Michelle Pace.

This post is part of the Security Studies research agenda series.

The formulation and development of a new paradigm in Brussels – one that is people-based with a focus on human security – is much called for if the EU is to pursue comprehensive security in the European-Mediterranean/MENA region. In the past, the EU has placed its emphasis on conventional understandings of security, namely stability, the protection of its borders, management of migration flows and its economic interests vis-à-vis its southern neighbours. It also claimed to be a democracy promoter in the region. Will the EU take a step back and become a facilitator of the drastic political changes taking place in the MENA rather than promoting its own conceptions of order and society? The processes underway in the MENA are all to do with the development of a new relationship and social contract between citizens(hip) and the state based on the people’s calls (during the protests of 2011/2012) for dignity, justice, freedoms, social rights and the rule of law. Will the EU listen more closely to the emerging voices from the south and enter into a dialogue about their own home grown conceptions of freedom and democracy?

One of the things that the so called ‘Arab Spring’ has taught us is that we need to recognise that there are new and multiple dimensions of human security as well as the compounded impact of all the new threats to populations. How do environmental problems, food problems, water problems, ethnic problems, cultural problemsaffect populations, as a whole, at a given time and place? We are dealing here with a vast region, which has gone through very complex and different processes of state-building since decolonization and so far different revolutionary processes towards their path to democracy. We have to recognise not just the great diversity of the Arab States but also their great creativity.

The Arab Human Development Report of 2009 stipulated that water shortages, a lack of representative government, security and rising hunger and malnutrition were key threats to human security in the Arab world. It noted, “In the Arab region, human insecurity – pervasive, often intense and with consequences affecting large numbers of people – inhibits human development.” According to the UN, Arab countries will be populated by approximately 395 million people by 2015, 60 per cent of which will be under 25 years of age.

The European Commission has also been promoting human security explicitly. In her speeches, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who served as European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy from 2004 to 2009, often invoked the concept to carve out an EU normative position and a broad view of security emphasising freedom from want and freedom from fear. World Bank data shows that the economies of Arab nations are very vulnerable. The oil wealth of Arab countries has not been distributed equally and fairly amongst populations but held by the very privileged few. The real economic situation of the majority of the peoples of many Arab states is one of structural weaknesses and resulting insecurities of countries and citizens alike. No wonder many unemployed young people felt disillusioned and took to the streets of Cairo, Tunis, etc during 2011/12 – they want and demand a future and a sense of security.

So if any lessons must be learnt by external actors like the EU, their support must be directed at supporting Arab nations moving from a state of dependence on oil to a more diversified, knowledge-based economy that creates employment opportunities especially for the young. The tendency in the EU and the US has been to think of security in the MENA region only in hard, military or state security terms. But the security of Arab peoples themselves has been threatened not just by conflict and civil unrest, but also by environmental degradation, discrimination, unemployment, poverty, lack of freedoms and of social and civil rights and hunger.  So EU support should be directed at stepping up efforts to end hunger, expanding access to affordable, quality education and health care, changing laws and attitudes that discriminate against minorities and women, enforcing laws that protect the environment, etc. It is to the EU’s credit that some new resources have been allocated for these purposes in the midst of its own economic crisis. The EU should continue with its efforts at supporting demand-driven political change in the MENA.

Michelle Pace is Reader in Politics and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the POLSIS blog, the Department of Political Science and International Studies nor the University of Birmingham.

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