Tribune publiée le 20 mai 2014 sur le blog « Free Arabs » ici.

On May 22-25, European citizens will be called to the ballot box to elect a brand new European Parliament for the next 5 years. What does that have to do with the Arab world? Much more than you think.

Plenary session in Strasbourg – Votes

Should the EU promote human rights in the Arab world or should it have business as usual with authoritarian regimes? The European Parliament has had hundreds of meetings – from grand speeches in plenary session to committee hearings in Brussels – trying to answer that very question. Truth is, some political parties want to uphold human rights in the Arab world regardless of business ties. The European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) has hence funded a myriad of independent human rights organizations. Women rights NGOs, environmental NGOs promoting recycling or better access to clean water, even NGOs that work for street children – the range of the EU aid is wide and often politically sensitive. Defending human rights is a political decision, while some believe EU-Arab relations should be business relations only.

Alarmingly, ahead of Sunday’s election results polls reveal far right parties could win a record 20% of the European Parliament’s seats. Their vision of the Arab world is clearly different, based on a reading grid that is at least indifferent and neocolonialist, at worst racist and xenophobic. For example, France’s far-right Front National is pro-Assad and has no readiness to promote human rights in the Arab world – or anywhere else for that matter. Aid programs for civil society would be cut. Forget about human rights defenders being invited to the European Parliament to receive the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which was rewarded to Syrian, Egyptian and Libyan human rights defenders in 2011 in full support of the Arab spring. On the other side of the spectrum, some parties in the far-left promote the views of Russia and China in the Arab world, which again have never been supporting independent journalism or anti-torture NGOs.

But wait – isn’t the Parliament powerless when it comes to foreign affairs? Not quite. Beyond speeches and aid programs, the European Parliament can veto international agreements between the EU and the Arab world since 2010. When EU states wanted to send « illegal » immigrants back to Libya, the Parliament sent a strong warning as Libya had not even ratified the Geneva Convention (on the protection of refugees). When it adopted the EU-Israel Agreement on a tax-free area for pharmaceutical industries, a huge part of the Parliament opposed – the left, the Greens and the center – urging Israel to end its occupation of the occupied Palestinian Territories first.

Away from human rights: millions of jobs in the Arab world depend on exports to the EU, whose $13 Trillion market is simply the world’s biggest. Arab exporters must hence adapt to new EU laws: higher energy-saving standards or stricter accounting rules for example. The Parliament can also promote carbon-free industries over polluting ones, as it controls the price of CO2 emissions in Europe’s carbon market. Lately the Parliament reformed the entire banking, insurance and financial market regulation in the EU following the historical meltdown of 2008. Arab companies trading in London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam or Paris are directly affected. Reversely, European giants working in the Arab world can be saved by controversial bailouts back home. Our world is more interconnected than ever before.

Actually, “it” is probably right in front of us: 85% of us use Google search. Well, guess what? The European Parliament voted this year to protect people’s privacy online, so last week the European Court of Justice ordered Google to delete a person’s info online. That will affect all users in the long run (including Arab ones) because Google won’t be able to argue that it cannot delete people’s personal information anymore. Thank you, Europe, for the legal precedent!

Beyond legislation, the Parliament is Europe’s most active political network. It is the place to be for any Arab leader who wants to convey a message to the whole of Europe. That is precisely where Syria’s top FSA General Salim Idriss urged Europe’s politicians to arm defectors in 2013 – sparking endless debates between EU politicians on whether or not to arm Syria’s struggling opposition. Forty heads of states have addressed the European Parliament since 2004, including Arab leaders like the emir of Qatar and the Presidents of Tunisia, Jordan or the Palestinian Authority. The Members of the Parliament speak openly and can question, praise or criticize anybody – which is why Barack Obama avoided the Parliament’s spotlights following the NSA spying scandal, by the way.

“If the European Parliament ends up with a large portion of fascist xenophobes, you can easily foresee the nature of the debates that will arise for the coming five years. Not less discrimination against Muslims but more. Not more aid to Arab civil society, but less.”

Speaking of spying: the software some Arab states use to track down internal dissent is often EU-made. But then again, the European Parliament has decided to control exports of surveillance technology to repressive regimes, although much remains to be done and a number of conservative politicians oppose restricting the business opportunities of European companies.

At the end of the day, this week’s election will determine part of the Arab world’s future, because we are so interlinked online, for our fight against climate change, the promotion of human rights or, simply put, the universal values we share. If the Parliament ends up with a large portion of fascist xenophobes, you can easily foresee the nature of the debates that will arise for the coming five years. Not less discrimination against Muslims, Roma or LGBT, but more. Not more aid to civil society in the Arab world, but less.

I have been campaigning for European elections – the world’s only elected international body – and the prospects look pretty dark, with rising distrust against all politicians, thus benefitting far-left and far-right voices in the midst of a deep economic and political crisis.

So if you have European friends ask them to VOTE on May 22-25 to give us a common future, not a separate, xenophobic one!


*  Schams El-Ghoneimi, a French-Egyptian national, is a former EU parliamentary assistant and a political analyst for NGOs in Egypt, where he worked on the protection of civilians in Syria. He now lives in Europe.