Europe can show it cares about democracy by helping Tunisia | European Union

Barely two months after US President Joe Biden called a “democracy summit” to rally the world’s democracies against rising authoritarianism, authoritarian Russia invaded democratic Ukraine.

Since then, talk of a new cold war has become ubiquitous. Many claim that a new global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is underway and demand that everyone take sides. Such talk is dangerous – the scale of the planetary challenges facing humanity do not afford us the luxury of such ideological fanaticism.

And yet, for all those who believe that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried, as Churchill so aptly put it, the question remains: how can we sustain democracy? in the world ?

The answer may be hidden in a small country far from Ukraine’s battlefields: Tunisia.

In December 2010, Tunisian activist Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in an act of resistance and sparked a movement later known as the Arab Spring. Within months, not only in Tunisia, but also in Libya, Egypt and Syria, people revolted against the authoritarian regimes of their countries. Protests across the Arab world have also inspired the Indignados and Occupy movements in the West, and promised a global democratic awakening stretching from the Middle East to North America.

Fast forward a decade, and the situation is dire. Egypt has a military regime, Syria – after a decade of civil war – is still ruled by al-Assad, Libya has swapped Gaddafi’s petrodollar administration for two corrupt and competing governments at war with one another. other. Only the country that sparked the Arab Spring, Tunisia, which toppled dictator Ben Ali backed by France and Italy in 2011, remains a democracy to this day. And that’s only narrowly – it’s also undergoing a slow-motion democratic collapse.

Last summer, following accusations of economic mismanagement, President Kais Saied suspended Tunisia’s parliament and assumed emergency powers. Last month he completely dissolved parliament and is now considering banning his political opponents from running in the next election.

It was not at all unpredictable. Democracy is based on free and fair elections, freedom of expression, respect for the rights of women, minorities and organized labour. On all these points, Tunisia had made uneven but steady progress. But democracies are also built on shared economic prosperity and a belief in better prospects. In this regard, Tunisia’s achievements have been much less evident. The Tunisian economy, which remained in a state of chronic crisis for decades due to corruption, clientelism and the absence of any form of strategic planning, finally entered a complete collapse after the COVID-19 pandemic. 19. As unemployment reaches unprecedented levels and hundreds of thousands of Tunisians find themselves struggling to survive below the poverty line, the democratic promises of the 2011 revolution have begun to lose their appeal.

The European Union, which has acted with surprising speed and integrity in defense of Ukrainian democracy, could easily have helped its close North African neighbor at this time of dire need. But, unfortunately, he chose to do nothing to help Tunisia anchor its democracy and build a prosperous and open society.

Indeed, European capitals did not offer any opportunity or support to Tunisians in difficulty.

On the contrary, the EU has maintained severe visa restrictions and closed the labor market and European universities to Tunisian youth. He passed on a few remaining COVID-19 vaccine doses but didn’t even think to include this fragile young democracy in his post-pandemic economic recovery strategy.

However, there is still time for Europe to reach out to Tunisia and show that it can contribute to democratic development not only with tanks and bombs, but also with investments and visas.

And there are plenty of reasons for Europe and the wider West to change course and prioritize their soft power capabilities in their efforts to protect democracies. In the last century, democracy took root in Europe with precisely such soft power after the Second World War. Through the Marshall Plan, the United States helped war winners and losers rebuild their economies. It was more than American generosity: it was clear that only a prosperous Europe would be a democratic Europe, and a democratic Europe was in America’s best interests. The EU itself then set up a similar dynamic for the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, such as Poland or Romania, which helped to strengthen their young democracies.

At a time when so many seem convinced that we are witnessing a final confrontation between the democratic and authoritarian powers of the world, it seems obvious that the West should use its immense soft power to help Tunisia – as well as all other nascent and fragile democracies.

Surprisingly, today only authoritarian China uses its soft power so ambitiously. His Belt and Road Initiative, expected to cost more than $1 trillion, aims to weave together a patchwork of friendly states and make the world safe for Chinese authoritarianism. Why is there no similar will to support fragile democracies?

Tunisia needs political and economic support now. And yet the ambition should be to move beyond old models of development aid – too often shamefully used to prop up Western-friendly dictators – and institute new structures of prosperity. shared.

The EU already has a plan for this. The Union, for example, raised funds for post-pandemic recovery and distributed them evenly among all its members, from wealthy Germany to impoverished Greece. It is a unique model of co-investment that is a far cry from the traditional donor-recipient relationship.

This framework of solidarity can extend beyond the borders of the EU. Imagine a special international institution bringing together rich and poor democracies. Such an institution could take advantage of the credit standing of wealthy countries to raise funds more cheaply in international markets, just as the EU has done with its pandemic bonds. These funds could be used to support economic development and ecological transformation in countries that respect the democratic and social rights of their citizens. Such an arrangement could allow struggling or fragile democracies to participate in joint investments with wealthier countries, not collapse during emergencies such as a pandemic and, above all, to enjoy the benefits of visa-free travel. to other prosperous and democratic countries participating in the programme.

Such a program could be piloted in Europe’s neighbourhood, from the Western Balkans to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

And Tunisia, a small democracy linked to Europe by geography, history and colonial responsibility, is in a privileged position to be the test case for such a policy. If Europe can now act to help Tunisia and save its democracy, not with tanks or sermons but through genuine economic solidarity, it can show that it is serious in its support for the democratic values ​​it proudly claims represent. It would also send the message to the world that democracy is always synonymous with collective fulfillment and mutual respect.

If Europe and its allies really want to support democracy in the world, they should put their money where they say it should.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

About Madeline Dennis

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