They might have removed their dictators, but countries affected by last year's Arab Spring now face the arduous process of transforming into free market democracies. The EU has pledged its support, but the question is how to go about it. Italian Liberal-Democrat Niccolò Rinaldi's report sets out a strategy for how the EU could help consolidate democracy and promote stability in Southern Mediterranean countries. MEPs approved the report in plenary on 10 May.
How can trade help to consolidate democracy and promote stability in the countries affected by the Arab Spring?
What is happening is of fundamental importance to the EU. It is really a test for the EU to see if it is able to make use of the new trade provisions in the Lisbon Treaty to create employment, investment and empowerment of SMEs to make a difference in these countries. We have all the instruments at our disposal; it is up to us if we are able to use them.
Trade is a wonderful opportunity to strengthen the very difficult democratic process. Today the impact of EU trade with South Mediterranean countries is limited compared to its potential. Trade has traditionally been between big companies and the wealth created has always been in the hands of a few families, a few clans.
We need to use the trade tool as a way to democratise the economic process in support of SMEs. We need to address this potential and create the best possible conditions so that many people can create their own projects and trade with the EU from their own countries.
How can we ensure commercial opportunities don't come at the cost of human rights? Will strengthening human rights clauses in free trade agreements be enough?
Human rights clauses have always been there, the problem is they have never been implemented, at least not fully. We had trade relations with Mubarak's Egypt and Ben Ali's Tunisia and the human rights clauses were there but never really used.
We will certainly continue to have human rights clauses in our trade agreements, but again the challenge is to design them in a way to make it possible for ordinary people to have the opportunity to enter the EU market; so really to liberalise the economic process in order to have many more actors in the picture and not just a few companies belonging to a restricted number of families. I think that would really be the added value in the development of human rights, to try to spread entrepreneurship among ordinary people in the South.
Some people are concerned that support for agriculture in Southern Mediterranean countries - e.g. through tariff reductions - could affect EU farmers. How do we strike the right balance?
It is difficult for European farmers to compete on price with large companies in the Southern Mediterranean countries. However, small farmers in the South should be empowered to have their own credit and trade with the EU. That is much less threatening to European farmers because we are talking about small scale businesses.
Our trade relations with Southern Mediterranean countries have focused on agriculture and European farmers have paid the price, which is not fair. We need to diversify our trade relationship by developing SMEs to allow much more product variety. This would lessen the burden on European farmers.