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Syria: a good European neighbour?

Article by Chris Phillips

August 25, 2009

The move is part of a wider western strategy to tempt Syria away from Iran and continue its co-operation in Iraq and Lebanon, but are we witnessing another example of human rights and democracy being sacrificed for political expediency?

The ENP aims to build relationships with Europe’s neighbours based “upon a mutual commitment to common values (democracy and human rights, rule of law, good governance, market economy principles and sustainable development)”.

Ostensibly, Syria has not made any such commitment since talks about joining the ENP were frozen in 2005. Human rights violations continue and the ruling regime has shown no serious moves towards democratisation. Similarly, there has been no renunciation of chemical weapons – a demand that Britain had previously made during negotiations in 2004 and has now dropped.

Those in favour of a Syrian association agreement argue that the long term political benefits for the EU outweigh this oversight of principle. Syria expert Joshua Landis argues that US sanctions and international isolation have not worked, so a new approach should be tried. The proposed EU agreement, he suggests, would tie Syria into the global economy and discourage it from siding with those that undermine the global order, notably Iran. Similarly, the economic benefits of such a pact would help develop a larger Syrian middle class who would, in turn, promote greater international co-operation, as has happened in China.

Some supporters go further and argue that there is no compromise of principle as this pact could aid internal liberalisation. Syrian reformers suggest that economic openness could prompt greater social liberalism, as seen in the Asian tiger economies. This view is clearly shared by Britain and France, who claim a clause in the treaty will facilitate greater dialogue on issues such as human rights.

Yet both proposals fall short on closer inspection. The human rights argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when considering the other members of the ENP. Several of Syria’s neighbours – Jordan, Israel and Egypt – signed EU association agreements between 2000 and 2006, yet numerous human rights abuses continue. Similarly, while some Asian tiger economies have liberalised internally in the wake of economic opening-up, China has provided Arab states with a model in which western investment need not coincide with moves towards human rights or democratisation.

Similarly, Landis’s analysis implies that by joining the ENP, Syria will automatically see widespread positive economic development. Yet the country is still subject to crippling public and private monopolies that economists admit will need to be reformed for the economy to truly flourish, with or without the ENP. Furthermore, though Syria’s economy is currently growing, it is already showing the same signs of disproportionate wealth distribution seen in Egypt where development has remained lopsided since it joined the ENP. The gap between rich and poor has continued to grow in Egypt, spurring greater instability from the urban poor, who do not perceive any benefit from the ENP. In Syria, with the rich-poor gap also growing, the ENP could further exacerbate the situation rather than promoting the middle class stability that Landis predicts.

That said, Landis is right to highlight how limited the west’s policy of isolation has been in affecting Syria’s behaviour in the past four years. Moreover, the reasons to exclude Syria are tenuous. Past precedents for inviting countries into the ENP suggest political and economic rather than conscientious motives. Ever since the policy’s foundation, Brussels’ criteria for accession have been riddled with inconsistencies. Syria was denied entry in 2004 for not renouncing its WMD, while Israel acceded in 2000 with no mention of its undeclared nuclear arsenal. Likewise, Egypt continues to receive huge sums of development money from the ENP despite failing to live up to its commitments on human rights, good governance and democracy.

A Syrian-EU treaty would therefore be consistent with the ENP’s past subordination of its founding principles to the political priorities of the day. European attempts to woo Syria from Iran and minimise its influence in Lebanon are the primary motives for this treaty, not promoting good governance, human rights or democracy. Rather than making Syria an example of how the EU can promote its lofty principles, leaders should take this opportunity to reflect on the failings of the ENP in its current guise. Despite being the major trade partner with Middle Eastern states, the EU has been unable to promote the kind of domestic liberal political reforms so swiftly adopted in eastern Europe after 1989. It’s time to work out a better way to turn that economic clout into leverage.

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