Upon invitation by the President of Catalonia Artur Mas and ELDR's member party Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya, liberals from Europe and the Arab world gathered in Barcelona at the Headquarters of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) to take stock of the progress thus far and ways forward for the greater region.
Opening the conference together with the President of Catalonia Artur Mas, ALDE group leader Guy Verhofstadt MEP, Secretary General of the UfM Fathallah Sijilmassi, Liberal International President Hans van Baalen and the President of the Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy Wael Nawara, ELDR Party President Sir Graham Watson MEP stressed the importance of increasing cooperation across the Mediterranean, as well as seizing the opportunity that the Arab Spring has offered us.
"We need to re-think the Union for the Mediterranean and bring in additional elements, such as the EBRD and the Erasmus programmes, so that we foster growth and cooperation across the region - and Europe also needs to open its markets for e.g. agricultural produce to these emerging markets" stated Sir Graham, and reminded the audience about the need for vision and ambition as regards the Arab region: "look around you in Barcelona today: 50 years ago, the country was under authoritarian rule and seriously underdeveloped. Thanks to liberal policies, today safeguarded by President Mas and his party, they have managed to turn their fortunes around and build on their potential. Just imagine where the cities and countries of Northern Africa could be in 50 years with the right policies!".
In addition to its president, the ELDR was also represented through Vice-Presidents Marc Guerrero,Lousewies van der Laan and Astrid Thors MP.
The full speech of Sir Graham:
'ARAB SPRING, ONE YEAR ON'
LIBERAL DEMOCRAT CONFERENCE ON THE OCCASION OF THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF THE ARAB SPRING
Dates: 29-30 March 2012
Opening speech: Sir Graham Watson MEP, ELDR Party President
Friday, 30 March 2012, Venue: Palau de Pedralbes at 9:15-10:00
Fifty years ago, the people of this Iberian peninsula threw off the chains of autocratic and despotic rule. Look around you today at this magnificent city and the society they have built under a Liberal political order!
Today we are witnessing an Arab awakening and we see first progress on what may be a long road to a better future.
Revolutions or awakenings are no easy tasks. Fundamental change of political systems takes time. Even here in Catalonia, the reluctance of Spain to let its peoples develop freely is a remnant of a country clinging to the past.
Who can say what will be in Morocco or Yemen, in Bahrain or Egypt fifty years from now?
Will the current turmoil deliver what in Arabic would be called
Nahda - Renaissance? Naksa - set back? Naqba - catastrophe?
Or will it rather lead us to ... Najah - Success?
Look at how things stand: elections for the first time in generations in Libya, in Egypt, in Tunisia; democratically elected parliaments sitting in Cairo and in Tunis; plebiscites on constitutional change in Morocco and Jordan!
True, in Libya the quest for identity continues, with regional quarrels inside the country; in Syria, which first seemed beyond reform, a brutal civil war is raging; and in Saudi Arabia, struggles to overcome the suffocation of totalitarian rule are in their infancy. Much remains to be done to achieve human freedom in the Mediterranean region - not least in Cyprus, shortly to preside the European Union.
Collectively, we see northern Africa's young people - and two of every three Arabs are under thirty - in search of an identity. After decades of suppression and exclusion, they are looking for their role in the world and, most importantly, for dignity and justice.
And in the world outside we see Europe and North America no longer denying the democratic will of the people - as we did shamefully in Algeria or in Palestine - but embracing it.
A good measure of najah (success) would be legal systems and judiciaries providing for equal rights of all citizens. If laws are just and fairly applied, humankind can breathe.
The EU can help in the process of transition from autocracy to democracy. By opening our markets to agricultural produce. By easing the debt burden and offering technical assistance. And by liberalising the visa regimes which are too often today's barbed wire fences.
If we wish to help and influence we must not give in to those who seek, in the words of the poet Thomas Gray, to 'shut the gates of mercy on mankind'.
Here in Barcelona, home of the Barcelona process and the Union for the Mediterranean, we face our second major challenge in one generation. When western Europe saw the fall of communism in central and eastern Europe it offered its neighbours a helping hand. Twenty years later, not all those countries are state-of-the-art democracies. But without our political help and the opening of our markets, the process of change and transition would have been much less successful.
We must do the same today with the countries to our south to make the Mediterranean once more the mare nostrum of Roman times; a market place of trade and co-operation. The young democracy movements need our support.
We need to rethink the Union for the Mediterranean. To turn the EBRD into a euro-med development bank; to extend the Erasmus student exchange programme further to make it more available; to establish euro-med institutions of learning. Measures taken to bring the EU and Turkey closer together mustbbe replicated in the wider middle east.
The Arab Spring is a Liberal opportunity. Let us seize the occasion and work together to ensure, in the words of the Greek poet Georges Moustaki, that the Arab Spring, le printemps arabe, becomes 'un bel ete, qui ne craint pas l'automne, en Mediterranee'.