Middle East

William Hague's 'hand of friendship' for Arab world

montage of Arab Spring images Image copyright Other

British Foreign Secretary William Hague sees the Arab Spring as an opportunity to create a free-trade zone embracing Europe and the Arab world - but can he persuade other countries to share his vision?

During his time out of office, William Hague established a reputation as a successful historian, with weighty biographies of William Pitt the Younger and the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce to his name. So when he describes the Arab Spring as "the main event we have experienced so far in this century", he deserves to be taken seriously.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The foreign secretary feels the importance of the Arab uprisings cannot be overstated

Mr Hague argues that the process of change which began with the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt will have a greater long-term impact than either the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11 or the financial crisis of 2008.

The premise for his analysis - which he first laid out in a set-piece speech at the Mansion House in the City of London last month, and developed further in an extended BBC interview - is that the Arab Spring is about universal values and not just about power.

Uncertain process

That naturally invites comparisons with the revolutions of 1989, which brought down the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe.

There is one obvious difference between what happened in Poland and Hungary two decades ago and what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East today. The anti-communist revolutions were - mostly - peaceful and succeeded very quickly, but the bitter and violent struggles in Syria, Libya and Yemen point to a much rougher and more uncertain process.

Mr Hague conceeds that it will take "a generation" to work through, and that "some countries are bound to go through several convulsions on this journey".

Charles Tripp, professor of Middle Eastern politics at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), suggests another distinction between the two sets of revolutions which could turn out to be equally significant.

The protesters who brought down Soviet client-regimes in 1989 were fired by enthusiasm for free and open markets as well as the desire for free and open politics. The contrast between the pinched lives so many of them lived under communism and the prosperity of Western Europeans was all too apparent.

But Egyptians and Tunisians have already experienced a version of free-market economics, and instead of delivering prosperity it has deepened inequalities and led to corruption and crony capitalism.

"The key difference between what you've seen in the Arab world and in Europe in 1989," says Prof Tripp, "is in some ways this is a revolt against what privatisation and economic liberalisation have done to these economies over the last 20 years, which has been terrible."

Significant shift

But Mr Hague insists that free-market economics hold the key to the future of North Africa and the Middle East. In his Mansion House speech, he floated the idea of a free-trade area embracing Europe and the Arab world, "leading eventually to a customs union".

"We believe," he said, "it is time for our generation to offer its own hand of friendship to the people of the countries on the southern borders of Europe."

The proposal represents a significant shift in Mr Hague's thinking and a real challenge to the European Union.

Mr Hague served as leader of the Conservative Party for four years after its defeat by Tony Blair's New Labour Party in 1997.

It was a period of bitter in-fighting among the Tories, much of it over Britain's relationship with the European Union, and Mr Hague was on the Eurosceptic side of the debate.

He fought (and lost) the 2001 General Election on a pledge to protect the pound.

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Image caption Revolutions in the Middle East are running on longer than those in Europe in 1989

There was a hint of that Eurosceptic past when he laid out a new strategy for British foreign policy this time last year, in a big speech he gave on the eve of his first visit to Asia as foreign secretary.

Mr Hague argued that Britain should look beyond Europe and concentrate on building bilateral relations with emerging powers like India and Brazil. He also suggested that in some areas of the world - notably Asia and Africa - the links forged during Britain's imperial past gave it a competitive edge.

The Arab Spring seems to have changed all that. The foreign secretary's focus has moved closer to home - to the Middle East and North Africa rather than Asia and Latin America - and the main institutional lever he discussed in his Mansion House speech was the EU.

Continuing crisis

There is a sound historical reason for this.

The European Union's response to the revolutions of 1989 has been one of its greatest success stories. The political and economic changes required by the accession process for new members have transformed the lives of millions of people from the Baltic to the Balkans.

But there are two reasons to be sceptical about whether the same political alchemy will work this time.

The first is that emerging Arab democracies are most emphatically not being offered EU membership.

The free movement of goods is one thing, but when I suggested to the foreign secretary that his idea for a new partnership with the Arab world might be extended to allow the free movement of peoples, he bridled.

"I think that would be deeply destabilising," he said.

The second is that the European Union is nothing like as confident about itself as it was in 1989.

The prolonged wrangling over political reform which has dominated its internal debates for much of the last decade and the continuing crisis in the Eurozone have sapped its energies.

There must be a real question mark over whether Mr Hague can generate the sort of political enthusiasm in Europe that his ambitious project demands.

The foreign secretary is very conscious of the obstacles he faces, but in his interview for the BBC's Analysis programme he laid down a clear marker that he sees the customs union proposal as a British priority.

"We have to really make that argument," he said. "This is one of the jobs of the British government over the coming weeks and months - to sustain that pressure within Europe."

That suggests a very different agenda for British foreign policy from the one he spelt out a year ago.

Analysis is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 20 June at 2030 BST and repeated on Sunday 26 June at 2130 BST. Listen again via the BBC iPlayeror download the podcast.

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