This commentary was published in The New York Times on 21/02/2011
It says something about the miserable European response to the Arab spring that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s personal contribution to North African affairs — his alleged liaison with a then-17-year-old Moroccan dancer — only just takes the prize for most abject performance.
His foreign minister, Franco Frattini, was not far behind with his response to the brave uprising of the Tunisian people that ousted the longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali: “Priority number one is the deterrence of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist cells.”
All manner of worthy things may be wished for Arabs just across the Mediterranean — and they were by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s fatuous brainchild, the 43-member Union for the Mediterranean — but of course democracy and freedom are not among them.
The Barcelona-based Union, which should be disbanded forthwith, preferred to concentrate on matters like the “de-pollution of the Mediterranean.” That, for Europeans, generally meant keeping Arabs away.
No wonder Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel-prize winning Turkish novelist, wrote an essay late last year called “The Fading Dream of Europe.” He noted the inward, small-minded, anti-immigrant turn of a European Continent that had once represented the summit of his own and many Turks’ aspirations. And that was penned before the latest European niggardliness.
In his own way the aging multibillionaire Berlusconi — with his too-black hair and his fawning entourage and his control of the media and his private villas and his debasement of the Italian state — has aped the manners of the very Arab despots the peoples of Egypt and Tunisia and Libya and Bahrain have risen to oust. Like them he has confused self and nation, entranced by the cult of his personality.
Or, and it hardly matters which, these Arab dictators and their business acolytes have aped Berlusconi, mimicking the worst of the West while bringing nothing of its political openness, creating a valueless simulacrum of moneyed European sophistication while their people languished without the most basic rights the European Union upholds.
Designer labels without freedom of speech or the rule of law constitute a virulent form of contemporary savagery.
Berlusconi epitomizes a long trans-Mediterranean connivance with Arab subjugation — a marriage of convenience that condemned Arabs to be supplicants (Moroccan dancers there to titillate). Men and women across North Africa have taken to the streets to overturn this dignity-denying status quo. They want to stand on their own two feet rather than forever being cast as peoples in decline.
A judge, Cristina Di Censo, has now indicted Berlusconi, 74, on charges that he paid for sex with a 17-year-old girl, Karima el-Mahroug, who has denied having sex with him. People power, Italian-style, brought a half-million protesters into the streets on Feb. 13.
I’d say this particular Italian soap has run long enough: A leader more consumed with his virility and Arab women one quarter his age than with governance does not serve Italy well.
Berlusconi’s is not the only European resignation in order. The French foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, has piled gaffe on gaffe since the Tunisian uprising began on Dec. 17.
It’s not enough that she offered the “know-how” of French security forces to Ben Ali. It’s not enough that she accepted a ride on a private jet from a Ben Ali business partner while on a Tunisian vacation during the protests. It’s not enough that her parents signed a property deal with this Ben Ali sidekick. It’s not enough that she was on the phone to Ben Ali although she earlier denied she had any “privileged contact.”
Yes, Madame Minister, it is enough.
True, Prime Minister François Fillon was also accepting flights and lodging from Hosni Mubarak at the time. But Egypt had not arisen then; and Fillon’s record is distinguished, unlike Alliot-Marie’s comedy of errors since becoming foreign minister.
The European Union must rethink its relations with the Muslim world at its doorstep, beginning with accepting Turkey, whose membership would help usher the Continent from the small-mindedness Pamuk describes. I’m not sure booming Turkey’s still interested; keep someone at the door long enough and that person will turn away. But a Union with Turkey in it would not have responded to the Arab awakening with such tiptoeing awkwardness.
A new European pact with democratizing Arab neighbors is also urgently needed. Cancel the funds for nice environmental projects and those Barcelona bureaucrats’ salaries. Put European money behind forming decent democratic societies across the water. This will be a generational project, but it’s the only way to stop the desperate human tide into southern Spain and Italy.
The first major international challenge for post-Lisbon Europe has revealed that the 2009 treaty did nothing to change the lowest-common-denominator approach that makes the E.U. such a foreign-policy pygmy. I guess that must be the way middling-power European nation states want it.
One shout-out is called for: to Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen for being first to say: “Mubarak is history. Mubarak must step down.” Contrast those declarative sentences with Brussels mumbo-jumbo. Danes, as World War II showed, sometimes stand apart from the crowd and do right.