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Friends of Europe Calls for New Relations with Arab World

  • Selah Hennessy

LONDON - Ways for Europe to support countries in the wake of the Arab Spring, was the topic of Thursday's Friends of Europe meeting in Brussels.

Shada Islam, policy chief of the non-profit group, told VOA that Europe needs to break with the past.

"The European Union was really behind some very unpleasant regimes in the region in the name of stability," Islam said. "The European Union was backing dictatorships, we have to call a spade a spade. And the changes that are taking place in the Arab World at the moment, the rise of the civil society, the young people, women and also Islamists in the region requires the European Union to change tack."

The Brussels summit drew several speakers, including the leader of the Egyptian National Coalition of Change, Mohamed El-Baradei, and EU Commissioner for Trade Karel De Gucht.

The conference aimed to highlight the interdependence of Europe and the Arab world. Europe should be working towards closer ties and encouraging stability in Arab nations by first providing financial support, and second encouraging trade, said Islam. She added migration is also key.

"The third thing, which I think is very crucial is to be open in terms of immigration as well. Europe at the moment is aging. Europe has a big demographic deficit if you like, it is an aging society. It needs skilled and unskilled labor from the South."

One of the barriers toward closer ties with Arab nations is European distrust of Islamist parties, which she said is a prejudice that has to change.

"We automatically in Europe, and I think to a large extent in America as well, think Islam equals extremism. Well that is nonsense, it does not. We cannot proceed as partners of the Arab world if we continue to have this inherent suspicion of Islam."

The EU's close trade relations means it has significant influence in the Arab world, said Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty International's European Institutions Office in Brussels.

"There is a lot of political interaction, there is the European Neighborhood Policy," he said. "So it is one of the regions where we think that you have quite considerable leverage. And we need to make sure that in the future it does not repeat the mistakes it has for decades before, where we only looked at our interests and never cared about the human rights situation and people's freedom."

The one-day summit was titled "Europe and the Arab Spring: Responding to the Changing Arab Order."