MENA & EU Toolbox: ‘We Can’t Impose Democracy’

Written by | Thursday, January 23rd, 2020

Exclusive Interview with Colin Scicluna, Head of Cabinet, EC

Mr. Colin Scicluna is currently Head of Cabinet in the team of Dubravka Šuica, the Vice-President (Democracy & Demography) of the European Commission. A senior Maltese diplomat, he was Director and Deputy Managing Director of Middle East & North Africa at European External Action Service (EEAS) from 2016-2019. Mr. Scicluna spoke with EUBulletin on the sidelines of the Brussels Summer School for Young Leaders program that was held at the Institut d’Études Européennes – Université libre de Bruxelles in Brussels in June 2019.

EUBulletin: Democratization is one of the main political challenges in the MENA region. The real or perceived resistance to democracy and the prevail of non-democratic regimes, remain a fertile ground for academics to examine this phenomenon as it continues to be an unsolved puzzle. As a senior EU diplomat with many years’ experience in this region, do you think democratic system of governance is sustainable in the MENA?

C.Scicluna: First of all, we need to define what we mean by democracy and what democratic model we are talking about. A number of countries in the MENA region would argue that they are in a democratic transition of some sorts and I think that would be accurate. If we look at each one individually, though, the results might be different. So, I think, at the one end of the spectrum, we have Tunisia, for instance, which has been going through quite an appreciable democratic transition that we can not only laud but it also gives us a lot of hope that this transition can be fruitful.
And we have other countries, like Iraq or Lebanon, which have democratic experiments, I would say, where there have been mixed results. And if you look closely at Iraq, we have an unique situation in the Arab world where a year and half ago the country’s prime minister insisted to have elections on time even though many kept asking him to postpone them. Now, he organized the elections on time knowing he would lose them and made the way for a transition to another prime minister, which is something that has never really happened in this part of the world.
Then you have countries like Morocco, for example, or Jordan, which also have a limited form of democracy within certain parameters where you still have a very strong monarchy, which will have a determining impact but where you still have certain alternations in the government. So, you know, it is tempting to say that democracy has failed in the Middle East and North Africa but in reality when we review the situation more closely, there are some examples that show that it can work to some extent and possibly in a manner, which is not directly comparable to the traditional Western democracy. Of course, with lots of conflict situations in the region, it may be difficult to imagine democracy to take root there.

EUBulletin: So basically what you are saying is that there are different paths or specific factors that can influence the democratization process in different countries within the MENA region. Does the EU aim to address the specific dynamics of democratic transitions in each of these countries?

C.Scicluna: I think one of the lessons we have learnt is that we can’t impose democracy. You can’t bring in democratic approach unless people want it, unless you have interlocutors with whom to work and I think our approach now is more that we have made ourselves available to accompany the process. So we have a number of ways of doing this by helping to build the institutions, by observing elections, for example, and by making sure that elections are held according to the right rules and the right principles. But we have to be very careful to do all this in a respectful way and also I think we have to be patient that things will not change overnight. You can’t have a country one day in a conflict and the next day being the example of democracy – it takes time.

EUBulletin: Does the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) then attempt to address these different paths to democracy that individual countries take?

C.Scicluna: In the last revision of the Neighborhood Policy, one of the novelties was actually the introduction of the principle of differentiation – before there was the differentiation between the south and the east, now we have even within the different regions, we have differentiation between the way we approach different countries according to their ambitions and wishes and according to our ambitions and wishes as well. But we are trying to find the way that is acceptable to both – the EU and each of the MENA countries.

EUBulletin: But the EU has long been accused for seeking to ensure stability in the region by supporting dictators and authoritarianism, such as in Tunisia, Libya or Egypt.

C.Scicluna: Of course, stability does not mean having a dictator in charge who will make sure that nothing goes wrong. Stability for us means something rather different. We have a state-building exercise with the Palestinians, for example, or we have programs for judicial reform with Tunisia and Morocco and judicial reform is not only about having better courts. Having independent and effective judiciary in turn helps attract investment because investors, if they know there is a stable and transparent system that will help them solve a problem, then they are more likely to engage in a certain country. Of course, human rights remain a fundamental part of our approach, but it should not be the only angle from which we approach reform.
Colin Scicluna is currently Head of Cabinet in the team of Dubravka Šuica, the Vice-President (Democracy & Demography) of the European Commission. He was Director and Deputy Managing Director of Middle East & North Africa at European External Action Service (EEAS) from 2016-2019. Mr. Scicluna was a Member of Cabinet of the Commissioner for the European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations. He is a senior Maltese diplomat who has also served as Member of Cabinet of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice President of the European Commission Catherine Ashton and as the Maltese bilateral ambassador to Vienna.

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