LONDON — The pro-democracy risings shaking the Middle East may have a greater impact than the recent recession or the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Britain's Foreign Secretary said Wednesday.
Speaking to a white-tie audience at an Easter banquet in London's luxurious Mansion House, William Hague said that 2011 had seen a confluence of events that would change the course of history.
"The eruption of democracy movements across the Middle East and North Africa is, even in its early stages, the most important development of the early 21st century, with potential consequences, in my view, greater than either 9/11 or the global financial crisis in 2008," Hague said.
Hague predicted that the forces which led to what he called "the Arab Spring" would sweep across the globe — comparing it to the collapse of the Iron Curtain and saying that, if successful, it would lead to "the greatest advance for human rights and freedom since the end of the Cold War."
But he said that challenges remained, and argued for strong action to help support Arabs trying to emerge from under the shadow of authoritarian rule.
In particular, Hague called for the more aggressive use of economic incentives to nudge countries in the Middle East and North Africa toward more open government, saying that Europe should be ready to rope the region into a free-trade area, or even a customs union, in return for political progress.
He said the policy would have at its heart a simple proposal: "That the European Union will share its prosperity and open up markets in return for real progress on political and economic reform."
Britain has taken a lead role in shaping Europe's to the Arab uprisings — David Cameron was the first European leader to visit Egypt after the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak and he was among the strongest backers of a NATO no-fly zone over Libya — and Hague said his country would apply increasing pressure to Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
He also said that Britain was mustering international diplomatic action to push President Bashar Assad to stop killing demonstrators and take what he called "the path of genuine reform."
Hague said Britain's diplomats at the United Nations were seeking a condemnation of the situation in Syria, and that London was working with its European partners on sanctions against "those responsible for the violence."