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To create a real “ring of friends” in Europe’s neighbourhood, the EU should stop dithering and act quickly to help meet peoples’ aspirations in North Africa and the Middle East.

Lecturing Gaddafi on human rights or fretting over immigration from the region – as EU foreign ministers did earlier this week – is not good enough. As his long rant on Libyan TV illustrated, Muammar Gaddafi is not listening. The EU’s focus should be on urgent, bold international action to stop the massacre in Libya. Innocent lives depend on it – and so does the EU’s much-damaged credibility in the region.

It’s not too late: Europeans can throw their weight behind existing initiatives such as appeals by Libya’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim al-Dabashi, for international intervention in the country, including the establishment of a no-fly zone to help stop “a real genocide”. Former British foreign secretary David Owen wants a UN Charter Chapter 7 intervention – meaning the authorisation of both military and non-military means to “restore international peace and security” – to be enforced by NATO air forces. UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon has warned, meanwhile, that the killing of civilians is “a serious violation of international humanitarian law”, opening the way for action in the International Criminal Court.

European countries, having supplied Libya with weapons that are now being used for internal repression, have a special responsibility to make sure the killing stops. It is also a question of acting on the “right to protect” principle espoused by Europe.

Elsewhere in the volatile region, visits to Tunisia and Egypt by senior EU and national policymakers are useful in establishing contact with both countries’ transitional authorities. Consultation with the US, World Bank and others is also helpful in forging a coordinated new international blueprint for the region.

But actions speak louder than words. Moaning about the danger of increased immigration flows, the threat of extremists on Europe’s borders and other recent comments made, among others, by Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, reinforce the increasing perception worldwide that Europe is inward-looking and fearful of change. They also reveal a striking lack of understanding of events in the region.

To start off, the EU should ditch the discredited “Mediterranean Union” dreamed up by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The blueprint is timid, technical and out-dated. The EU focus should now be on further opening up its market to southern Mediterranean exports, including farm products, making job-generating investments in the region and unleashing the potential and energy of the much-trammeled private sector. Among other things, such schemes will help stop the desperate human tide into southern Spain and Italy.

The outlines of a new strategy – minus any reference to bigger trade benefits or increased aid for the region – are included in the statement released by foreign ministers on February 21. However, the focus needs to move from the backing of personalities and the military to the building of institutions, ensuring the rule of law, and strengthening the judicial system. Support for civil society, which Middle East governments have always opposed, should be reinforced and the fight against corruption emphasized. The EU can also share its experience in regional integration.

Many of these ideas have been tried in the past – and failed because of lack of support from wary governments in the region. Hopefully, the changing landscape in North Africa and the Middle East means Europe will soon be able to engage with more credible and accountable state authorities as well as entrepreneurs and civil society representatives who are ready to embrace change.

The EU has experience in promoting economic and political reform in eastern Europe – it should now be ready to give similar support and advice to its neighbours in the south.