The ‘Brexit’ handicap

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By Raya Al-Jadir

Leaving the EU could be catastrophic for disabled Britons, yet little attention has been given to their needs or their voices.

Brexit disabled

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Britain leaving the European Union would have “harmful” and “dire” consequences for disabled people, according to two of the first leading disabled figures to speak out on June’s referendum.

The UK will decide whether to leave the EU in a referendum on 23 June, but very little has been said publicly, especially by the government, about the potential impact of this vote on disabled people.

Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, criticised the campaigns both for and against Brexit for failing to spell out “what the impact of Brexit would be on disabled people”.

She said: “We need to know the effects on our income – for example, if the economy took a nosedive, would we be facing yet more cuts?”

“Would there be a rush to also withdraw from the European Convention [on Human Rights] as well?” she added. “There are many unanswered questions.”

Another disabled campaigner who has spoken out is Miro Griffiths, a former government advisor and project officer for the European Network on Independent Living, and now a lecturer, researcher and teacher.

He said he believed that Britain’s exit from the EU “would have dire consequences for disabled people”.

Griffiths said the EU could be criticised on many issues, such as its failure to implement strategies to protect refugees who enter Europe, but “disabled people’s life chances would certainly not improve if we were to leave”.

By remaining, he said, disabled people can continue to use existing EU frameworks and directives to “continually challenge our state and the power it exerts”.

He suggested that “sustained grassroots pressure” and “diplomatic dialogue” could lead to the EU challenging the damage caused by the UK government’s cuts to disabled people’s support.

Griffiths also said he feared that the “fetishism” of some Brexit supporters on the issue of UK “sovereignty” would lead to a post-Brexit UK government “imposing a concept of justice that reinforces and validates their actions, which will continue to oppress many groups”.

This could lead, he said, to disabled people becoming “voiceless – with reduced support from our European neighbours”.

Griffiths, a member of the British Council’s advisory panel on disability issues, said: “Many will argue that the EU is complacent in tackling the social injustice within many member states and I would agree with their analysis.”

But he added: “If we are isolated from our supporters in Europe, then our resistance towards the state is merely interpreted as disobedience.”

Another prominent disabled figure who has spoken out in favour of staying in the EU is the crossbench peer Lord Colin Low, who said: “I have no doubt that leaving the EU would be harmful to disabled people’s interests.”

“There have been many occasions when European legislation has been ahead of the UK’s or what the UK was prepared to deliver,” he noted.

Many disabled people’s organisations have not had the time or resources to prepare a position on Brexit, although Disability Rights UK has promised to release a statement before June’s referendum.

There has not been a disabled campaigner or user-led organisation in favour of Brexit, but two of the mainstream organisations campaigning to leave the EU commented briefly this week, although neither argued that there were benefits of Brexit that would solely apply to disabled people.

Jack Montgomery, a spokesman for Leave.EU, said: “We think that Brexit will be good for everyone in the UK.”

Edward Spalton, president of the Campaign for an Independent Britain, said: “Our view is that the UK’s own position on disability rights and practical support for disabled people is ahead of many EU countries. Of course, more can and will be done.”

“The EU has a policy with similar aims to that of the UK legislation but in many countries its implementation [is] less advanced in practice than in the UK,” he elaborated. “So the position for people with disabilities with regard to EU membership is broadly the same as for the whole population.”

But this is actually inaccurate. Due to our greater vulnerability than the general population, the consequences of a Brexit would be more serious. What would the impact be on assistants and carers recruited from other EU countries? How easy would be to travel abroad for health-related appointments? And many other unresolved question hang in the air.
The recent years of austerity have undermined the rights of people with disabilities. With the current government regarded by many disabled people as one that punishes the poor and vulnerable while helping the rich get richer, it is clear that whatever happens on 23 June, Britain’s disabled population’s battle with the Tories is set to escalate, and without the backing of the EU, we will be left alone to fight our corner.


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Arab spring and Turkish autumn?

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By Andrew Eatwell

Is Turkey truly a role model for the Arab Spring or is it actually a secular democracy in its autumn years?

Wednesday 8 June 2011

In the midst of the Arab Spring, Turkey is being looked to as a role model for post-revolutionary Arab states: a large, mostly Muslim country that has moved from military domination to civilian rule, led by a popular democratically elected government. Surely, conventional thinking goes, the so-called ‘Turkish model’ is a template for countries like Tunisia, Egypt and a post-Gaddafi Libya or a post-Saleh Yemen.

But as people in many Arab countries look forward to a new democratic dawn, many Turks are wondering if their secular democracy is not moving into its autumn years.

In recent months, as Tunisians and Egyptians celebrated the overthrow of their authoritarian regimes, Turks watched as police rounded up journalists, bloggers and military officers. As Arab revolutionaries coordinated anti-government protests over the internet, the Turkish government announced new internet regulations that critics say will increase censorship and restrict freedom of expression.

Many secular Turks worry that opposition to years of authoritarian rule in the Arab world is running parallel to rising authoritarianism at home. And they fear what will be next if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wins the upcoming general election on June 12, as is widely expected.

Since coming to power in 2002, Erdoğan has sought to curtail the power of the meddlesome military – long the guardian of Turkish secularism – and the country’s militantly secular judges. A former radical Islamist who was once jailed for inciting religious hatred and whose party was previously banned, Erdoğan has reincarnated himself and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), publicly espousing a moderate, democratic brand of political Islam. As such, he has framed his efforts to trim the influence of the secular military as a step toward full-blooded Western-style democracy rather than a step away from secularism.

Outside Turkey, Erdoğan, in his new incarnation, has been widely applauded. A constitutional reform package that was approved in a referendum last September won praise from Western officials and the European Union, which Turkey is trying to join (though obstacles on both sides have recently cast shadows over the membership process). The reforms, which Erdoğan will seek to implement should he win the 12 June election, allow for previously untouchable army officers to be tried in civilian courts – in line with EU norms – and put an end to the legal immunity of top military officials implicated in a 1980 coup. It also increases the number of judges on the Constitutional Court – Turkey’s highest – and on the powerful Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.

Inside Turkey, Erdoğan, who grew up in a poor Istanbul neighbourhood, became a semi-professional football player and went on to serve as mayor of the city in the 1990s, remains popular in low-income urban areas and in the country’s conservative rural Anatolian heartland. He is credited with bringing jobs and economic growth, taming formerly rampant inflation and doing more than any previous leader to move Turkey along the road to EU membership.

But in fast-modernising areas of major cities and coastal towns, many secular Turks question his aims.
They see the army, which has had a hand in the overthrow of four governments in the last 50 years, not as a threat to democracy per se but rather as the guardian of Turkey’s secular political order, a role it has played since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, himself a senior army commander, established the modern republic in 1923 following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

For them, Erdoğan’s efforts to curtail the military’s power risks opening the door to Islamisation. And they worry that the independence of the courts, which have strictly upheld the secular Constitution, will be undermined by the increase in the number of judges, more of whom will be appointed by the president and parliament, currently under the control of Erdoğan’s AKP.

Opinion polls suggest the AKP will easily win the 12 June election, picking up around 45% of the votes, a similar percentage to in the last election in 2007. The main opposition centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) with its new leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, is on track to garner around 30% of votes, 10 percentage points more than in 2007. Despite that, the AKP stands a chance to increase its strength considerably and win an absolute majority in the 550-seat parliament if the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) drops below the 10% threshold needed to enter the chamber. Hit by a series of sex scandals – made public in videotapes distributed over the internet that have so far led to the resignation of four party members – the MHP currently looks likely to win 13% of votes, opinion polls suggest.

If the MHP fails to maintain sufficient support to enter parliament come election day, the AKP will all but certainly pick up enough seats to push its constitutional reform package – and many other laws – through parliament unchallenged. That has put secularists on edge in light of the events that have followed the constitutional referendum.

In February and again in April, dozens of military officers – among them 30 serving generals – were arrested for allegedly plotting a coup in the so-called Balyoz (Sledgehammer) case. And, over the same period, journalists were detained and blogs closed down for allegedly supporting another group of similarly likeminded coup-mongers in a separate case known as Ergenekon. Critics, among them law professors, political analysts and rights groups, say that the evidence in both cases looks flimsy and, in some instances, may have even been fabricated. Some have likened the investigations to a witch-hunt against opponents of the AKP.

“The Ergenekon investigation became a political witch-hunt tinged with obtuse paranoia in which a single, centrally coordinated – and manifestly fictional – clandestine organisation was accused of responsibility for every act of political violence in Turkey in the last 25 years,” writes Istanbul-based political analyst Gareth Jenkins. “Those who questioned the prosecutors’ claims – and the numerous breaches of due process, including the apparent fabrication of evidence – were subjected to public smear campaigns; in several cases they were arrested and charged with being members of Ergenekon themselves.”

Having already tamed the country’s largest media conglomerate, Doğan, with draconian fines for alleged tax fraud, the arrest of journalists, bloggers and the closure of an internet portal, Oda tv, which was critical of the AKP, are increasingly being seen as attempts to silence dissent and muzzle free speech.

With more than 50 journalists taken into custody in recent months, Turkey has imprisoned more journalists than any other country, ahead of China and Iran, according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
“Journalists and editors remained targets for prosecution. Legitimate news reporting on trials was deemed ‘attempting to influence a judicial process’ (and) reporting on criminal investigations was judged as ‘violating the secrecy of a criminal investigation’,” Human Rights Watch noted in its most recent World Report.

Members of the European Parliament pressed the issue in April when Erdoğan visited Brussels. Specifically, he defended the arrest of several journalists, a raid on the offices of leftist-liberal daily Radikal and the seizure of a book (banned by the government but widely circulated over the internet), all linked to the Ergenekon affair.

The book, titled The Imam’s Army and written by arrested investigative journalist Ahmet Şık, could be explosive, Erdoğan appeared to suggest: “It is a crime to use a bomb but it is also a crime to use materials from which a bomb is made. If informed that all materials needed to construct a bomb have been placed in a certain location, wouldn’t the security forces collect these materials?”

The government’s attacks on press freedom, combined with Erdoğan’s increasing hostility to Israel and warming relations with Iran, have undoubtedly tarnished relations between the NATO ally and Europe and the United States. Turkey’s chances of joining the EU anytime soon are looking increasingly slim and are likely to only get slimmer if the Erdoğan government continues down its current path.

Confiscating books, closing websites and blocking internet content is not new in Turkey: the government barred access to YouTube in 2008 over a video that was deemed to be insulting to Ataturk, a criminal offense under Turkish law. It lifted the ban two years later when the content was removed.

Previously, US officials had complained about the “absurd” trial of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk for writing about the death of up to one million Armenians in 1915, a deeply neuralgic issue in Turkey.  “It will take much work to convince the Turks that freedom should cover the right to criticise and open guarantees to protect that right,” wrote former US Ambassador Ross Wilson of the Pamuk affair in a 2005 cable made public last year by WikiLeaks.

In the latest – though not entirely surprising – twist, the Turkish government has refocused its attention on the internet, announcing plans to implement new regulations that will effectively give it even more control over what content Turkish surfers can see. Under a regulation entitled “Procedures and Principles Regarding the Safe Use of the Internet” that is due to go into effect on 22 August, internet users will be given four filtering options to choose from: “family,” “child,” “domestic” and “standard”, each of which will give them access to a certain set of websites. The government claims that it is taking the step in order to protect children from pornography and uphold “family values” but it has not made clear which websites will be blocked and the most open “standard” package is still expected to maintain the restrictions Turkey already imposes.

“There is no time in Turkey when we do not face new censures and pressures. There are many barriers put in front of the right of people to be informed in Turkey,” the main opposition CHP said in an online statement, comparing the internet restrictions to the censoring and imprisonment of journalists. “You close websites, we will open them,” the party said, promising the change if it wins the forthcoming election.

In 2009, the government stopped releasing figures on the number of blocked sites (most of which are restricted arbitrarily by government officials without court orders), but it is now believed to be in excess of 8,000. Most of them contain pornographic material, though websites linked to Kurdish rights groups, blogs critical of the government and even some foreign media sites are also blocked.

“Depending on the government, depending on the ministers, you can be put on the blacklist,” says Nadire Mater, the head of the Turkish human-rights website Bianet. “This is not a democracy.”

Under the new measures, attempting to access restricted sites – using proxy servers abroad, for example, as many Turks previously did to watch YouTube – could lead to arrest and hefty fines. Erdoğan’s government has tried to persuade Turks that the filtering system is similar to that offered in some European countries, while failing to point out that no Western democracy bans websites to the extent that Turkey already does.

Internet campaigners and human rights groups say the move will put Turkey on a par with China and is inconsistent with the provisions on freedom of expression in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which Turkey has signed.  “We will be behind censorship software just like in China. We will not have the chance to stay out of it,” warns Serdar Kuzuloğlu, an IT reporter for the Radikal daily.

The planned restrictions on the internet drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Turkish cities in protest on May 15. They carried banners warning that the new regulations portend the “death of the internet” in Turkey. Many may well worry that they are also witnessing the death throes of their secular democracy.

©Andrew Eatwell. All rights reserved. Published here with the author’s consent.

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Malta’s mash of civilisations

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By Khaled Diab

Malta’s complex heritage is living proof that cultures mash more than civilisations clash.

4 August 2010

Mdina, Malta's one-time capital

Mdina, Malta's one-time capital. ©Khaled Diab

A fifth the size of Greater London, Malta is the smallest country in the European Union and one of the smallest in the world. Given its tiny proportions, it is no big surprise that Malta, which is actually geologically in Africa and less than 300 km away from Tunisia, does not register high in the consciousness of most Europeans, some of whom actually believe that Maltesers come from there.

After having spent a week on the island, I can reliably report that no aged Maltese artisans work with their young apprentices in little chocolatiers patiently passing down the secret of how to get the crunchy bit inside the chocolate ball.

Although the island is no Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wonderland, it is nonetheless a fascinating place where so many cultures have mixed and mashed that Malta has created its own rather original flavour.

Take the language. Maltese, an official language of the EU and the only Semitic language to be written in Latin script, sounds almost as if it is a dialect of Arabic, with Italian and English vocabulary thrown in. In fact, to my ears, it sometimes sounded more comprehensible than the Algerian dialect!

Given that the Arabs only ruled Malta for less than two centuries and the island is overwhelmingly Catholic, it is somewhat surprising that Arabic provides Maltese with its basic structure and an estimated 40% of its vocabulary. This is all the more impressive when you consider that Maltese is derived from Siculo-Arabic, a language that has died out in neighbouring Sicily.

Although the architecture of Malta, which has a strong Baroque character, has less of an Islamic feel about it than Sicily‘s, the evidence of the Arab presence lives on in a large number of place names, from the old capital, Mdina and its suburb, Rabat, to all the Marsa-this and the Marsa-that (“Marsa” means port in Arabic).

The Arab influence also survives in the cuisine and culture, including some forms of traditional Maltese music. For example, the improvised singing duels of traditional Maltese għana (derived from the Arabic for “song” and “wealth”) bear a striking resemblance to the witty exchanges of poetic fire involved in traditional zajal.

This not only indicates an Arab influence but, more profoundly, reflects – as do many aspects of daily life, ancient superstitions and beliefs in the region – an underlying Mediterranean heritage predating both Christianity and Islam. In fact, given their long centuries of shared history, it could be argued that many Mediterranean countries have more in common with each other than with their coreligionists in, say, northern Europe or Arabia.

Despite Malta’s obvious cultural mash, many will argue that the island is essentially European, and that the Arab and Islamic influence are the accidental leftovers of an unwelcome conquest. But this raises the tricky and thorny question of what exactly is ‘European’.

If, by European, we mean Christian, then Malta probably qualifies more than most. It is not only home to one of the world’s earliest Christian communities, it was also the base of the Knights Hospitaller. The knights, drawn as they were from all over Europe, have been described as the “first embryonic council of Europe”, and their successful repulsion of a far larger invading Ottoman force in 1565 is the stuff of legend.

And it is this kind of standoff that people who believe in a monumental ‘clash of civilisations’ draw upon to justify their views. Two major failings of this theory, as I’ve argued before, are that it ignores the very real conflicts within individual civilisations, and it overlooks the fact that political alliances are multiple, shifting, and often cut across self-defined civilisational boundaries. This is because, although societies may sometimes come to blows over abstract principles, more often they clash over conflicting interests.

Malta’s own history demonstrates this. Along with Sicily, it fell into Arab hands following an appeal for Muslim support from its Byzantine ruler in his power struggle with the Byzantine emperor, Michael II.

In addition, the clash between Catholics and Protestants has often been far more bitter than the clash between Islam and Christianity (a similar situation exists between Sunni and Shia Muslims). In Malta, Napoleon’s occupation of the island was hugely unpopular because of its hostility towards Catholicism, not to mention its high taxes. Following British rule, Malta actually found common cause with other post-colonial states, such as Egypt, and became a member of the Non-Aligned Movement.

In an increasingly secular age, the suggestion that Europe is just a modern rehashing of what used to be known as ‘Christendom’ is not appealing or desirable to many, and they will argue that the EU is a union of values. And in terms of democracy and voter turnout, Malta is an exemplary member of the European club.

However, some traditional values that go against what we regard as fundamental freedoms in the modern age continue on the island. For example, divorce is still illegal in Malta, and the public controversy surrounding a bill to legalise it does not bode well. Abortion is also illegal in Malta, whereas, for instance, Albania has some of the most progressive abortion laws in the world.

Malta’s complex and mixed heritage, and its continuing cultural and economic ties with the southern Mediterranean, made the island the most reluctant of the new member states to join the EU. Union membership remains something of a contentious issue on the island, as demonstrated by former Labour prime minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici’s recent pronouncements on the subject.

I personally do not think that Malta should pull out of the EU. Rather, the prospect of future EU membership should be extended to other Mediterranean countries who manage to meet the necessary legal, political and economic criteria. This would not only finally lay to rest the notion that there is some kind of inherent ‘clash of civilisations’, it would also enable the EU and its Med neighbours to benefit from the region’s young population and (renewable) energy resources.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 26 July 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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Turkey’s eastern promise

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By Khaled Diab

The EU rose out of the ruins of war. Perhaps, with a little patience, a Middle Eastern union is not such a distant fantasy.

18 August 2009

Last week, Tariq Ramadan argued that Turkey was very much a part of Europe and deserved EU membership. “The arguments that locate Turkey outside European history and geography cannot withstand analysis. For more than four centuries the Ottoman empire shared and shaped the political and strategic future of the continent,” he wrote.

In my view, Turkey is both a part of and apart from Europe. This also accords with my ‘mash of civilisations’ theory – that the fault lines separating supposedly distinct societies belie the frequent alliances that cross them and the regular conflicts within them.

But even though Turkey is (at least partly) European, that does not mean it will join the European Union. And there are many reasons for this. One is pretty obvious: religion and the elusive issue of ‘culture’. The EU is seen by enough European leaders and citizens – either covertly or overtly – as a ‘Christian’ club, a secularised version of old Christendom.

That would explain how some countries with questionable records on minority rights, such as Lithuania, or with dodgy economic fundamentals and economies run by speculators and oligarchs, such as Latvia, managed to become members.

It might also shed light on why Greece – the ‘cradle’ of western civilisation – was let into the then EEC without pre-conditions or a lengthy pre-accession period, despite concerns over its “economic backwardness” and its ongoing conflict with Turkey, and how its lacklustre performance since has not raised eyebrows.

But it would be wrong to overstate the influence of Turkey’s Islamic identity. As in so many other instances, religion, civilisation or culture are the cloaks that conceal other more mundane clashes of interests.

First, there are the genuine concerns – despite the massive economic progress Turkey has made in recent years – over the impact the country’s large population of rural poor will have on the Union, not to mention the Kurdish question.

In addition, size does matter in the EU. Turkey’s demographic structure means that it would be one of the largest, if not the largest, member state by population, automatically giving it a top seat at the European table, upsetting the German-French axis and threatening the status of other large countries. For that reason, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Albania might become members of the club before Turkey. Similarly, size is partly why Ukraine, despite its keenness to join and its Christian identity, is being offered the consolation prize of closer ties.

Nevertheless, it is not surprising that Turks feel peeved and frustrated after more than half a century of queuing patiently outside the gates of the EU. But rather than wait forever, Turkey should seize the opportunity and capitalise on its recent efforts to strengthen its Middle Eastern ties.

Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk‘s creation of a modern secular Turkish republic, Turkey has effectively severed its centuries-old links with the Middle East.

For their part, the Arabs have also turned their backs on the Turks due to painful memories evoked by centuries of subservience and the intense Turko-centricism that marked the final decline of Ottoman rule, as well as the dream of full Arab independence.

But there are certain things the region lost in the process which are worth rebuilding in a modern, fairer vestige – relative stability, the rule of law, cross-border freedom of movement, and a dynamic multiethnic multi-religious melting pot.

Just as the EU is a voluntary grouping of a region only ever unified through the conquests of the likes of Charlemagne and Napoleon, why shouldn’t the Middle East become a voluntary union between the lands of the former Ottoman Empire and other neighbours willing to join, such as Iran and even Israel once it is at peace with the Palestinians?

Doubtlessly, the challenges involved in fulfilling such a vision are immense. The Middle East is not only one of the world’s most unstable regions, it is also incredibly diverse, politically, culturally and religiously.

The elusive question is what unifying ideal should the Middle East rally around. Language? While Arabic is the most widely spoken, using it as a unifier for the region would alienate the Turks, Kurds and other non-Arabs.

Religion? While Islam is the faith of the bulk of the region’ population, an overt clustering around it might well make life even more uncomfortable for the region’s religious minorities – Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, Druze and others. In addition, it could strengthen the hand of those who wish to impose a region-wide theocracy. Moreover, it is likely to be more divisive than unifying as competing interpretations of political Islam struggle for ascendancy.

Culture? This could work, but only in the broadest sense. After millennia of cross-fertilisation, the region’s peoples share many elements of a common cultural heritage – Judeo-Christian-Islamic, Greco-Roman, Persian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, etc. Another danger is that it could lead to a focus on the past rather than the future.

To my mind, the best unifier is pragmatism fuelled by a sense of common destiny constrained by common challenges: insecurity and conflict, poverty, the youth bulge, water shortages, foreign domination, etc.

Europe’s first pragmatic steps along the road to integration were taken when a core group of six countries set up the European Coal and Steel Community. Similarly, the Middle East could take the first tentative steps by grouping around resources that are vital to the region’s future, say oil and water.

Through this community, they would not only strike agreements on the sharing of cross-border water resources but would also set up a joint fund to develop and transfer affordable desalination technology. With only a few decades of oil supplies left, the region needs to make the most of what’s left and start preparing for the day when the tank reaches “empty”.

A substantial fund should be set up to channel more petrodollars into regional investment and development. A major region-wide R&D effort to perfect and apply affordable alternative-energy technologies, especially solar power, should be pursued aggressively.

Another crucial area in this volatile neighbourhood is security. A mutual defence and non-aggression pact between the region’s countries is a must for future stability – with or without a union. To underwrite human security, efforts should be made to establish an independent Middle Eastern human rights court.

If we take history as our guide, there is the risk that the emergence of such a bloc would be seen as a threat to ‘vital western interests’, and western soft and hard power could be deployed against it. But the presence of Turkey – militarily powerful in its own right, a staunch western ally and an almost EU partner – can help reduce such risks.

At present, a peaceful and integrated Middle East of this kind seems like something of a fantasy. But then who would’ve thought that Europe could rise peacefully from the ruins of two world wars and tear down an Iron Curtain?

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 16 August 2009. Read the related discussion.

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