Jan Zahradil opens AECR Tunis Summit

On the eve of the Conservatives and Reformists Summit being held in Tunis on the 13th and 14th of November, AECR President, Jan Zahradil MEP, gave the keynote speech below explaining why Tunisia and its Muslim neighbours should not be viewed with scepticism or fear, but with an open mind, accompanied by a keen desire to learn from each other and a strong will to help – a sure path towards increased security and prosperity.


We politicians sometimes have a feeling that what we do matters a little and makes a little sense. Sometimes we come with great ideas and then we gradually melt them down in an endless process of concessions, compromises and everyday routines and political perpetuity, too many exhausting details, and we lose a great picture in those details. And we get disappointed and frustrated, I am sure you know that. But sometimes, on the contrary, we turn around and feel differently. Sometimes, sometimes we have that much different feeling, almost certainty that what we do matters and matters much. Suddenly we come to the conclusion that what we do is a real deal, big thing, some kind of a breakthrough.

Myself, I had that feeling about three times in my lifetime.

First time was almost 25 years ago, beginning of the 90s when communist regime in my country collapsed. And we started to build new democratic institutions, new political parties were forming, market economy, normal society… I was deeply involved in that, and it was very exciting for me and I really felt that I was doing a big thing.

Second time, it was ten years ago, when we once again started to build something new, with then the leader of the opposition, now the UK PM, David Cameron, something that four years later resulted into the AECR and the ECR Group in the European Parliament. In fact, we started the reformist movement on the European ground in the EU that wanted to promote a different idea of the EU, different European cooperation than the traditional mainstream European federalism – more flexible, less bureaucratic, looser, more fitting for the 21st century… and we turned it into a real something. We built something from nothing. And we became the fastest growing political movement in Europe, we are the third largest Group in the EP, as Syed Kamall always reminds us. We have parties in the government with very successful results – the Conservative party in the UK this year, the Law and Justice party in Poland, AKP in Turkey and other parties around Europe and beyond the borders of the EU as well. So this was my second big political exciting moment.

And I am beginning to have the same feeling here and now for the third time. I think that what we are planning to start at this conference will be as much remarkable as my two previous experiences. That it will be a new window of opportunity, a new window of cooperation in this region.

As I told you already, I have lived almost half of my life in a communist regime. And I remember very well all these dictators and authoritarian leaders from the middle East and North Africa at that time who were skillfully manoeuvring between the East and West, in the bipolar world divided by the iron curtain, one day playing with the US, other day with the Soviet Union. It was their world, they were used to that, and well, they were quite effective in that. And they were to a large extent the products of that. But that world disappeared, it is no longer here, the iron curtain fell, and those dictators therefore were sooner or later determined to disappear as well.

That happened during the so-called Arab spring when popular discontent and resistance against oppression, corruption, nepotism gave birth to uprising that swept away old regimes. This was no kind of the conspiracy of the West or misengagement of the West as we can hear sometimes. We can even hear some people say, look, those dictators were bad guys, but at least they kept their countries stable.Wasn’t it better then?

And I say no, it was not. I strongly disagree with that. Even if the West hasn’t intervened, those guys would have been gone anyway. And definitely Tunisia is the best example that what happened here was done without any external interference. And if someone dreams of the former stability during those dictatorship years, I just want to ask, what kind of stability are you talking about? This was stability with a heavy price, a price of oppression, of limited freedom or no freedom at all! Things have changed, and unfortunately, in some cases it happened that the equilibrium has moved completely to the other side, from one extreme to another. From a secular dictator who curbed human rights and persecuted people to religious fundamentalist who also wants to curb freedom and persecute people.

Our task today is to help avoid these extremes, to find a new equilibrium, to find a political way that on one hand fully respects cultural and religious traditions of the countries of this region, on the other hand promotes freedom, democracy, political plurality, and subsequently brings stability and prosperity. That is the aim of this conference, and that is why we have chosen Tunis to have it here, because Tunis is the bright example of success and a role model for many countries in the region and we know that.

Some may ask, why conservatives? Why not christian democrats? Why not socialists? Why not liberals? Why just the conservatives are trying to do this? It is natural. I am expert neither on the region nor on the religion, no sociologist, but I would dare to say that Arab societies, to my best knowledge, are different than the European ones and are somehow naturally conservative – more traditional, more religious, unlike secular societies of Europe, and that has to be respected and we should be here to help, to find an appropriate model for those societies. We conservatives think that because of that, we can have many partners here for that particular mission. Another reason for that is, we conservatives care about our neighbors. We want them to be safe, prosperous, stabilized in their own countries, not having to run around the world to seek refuge somewhere, and we know that we all are de facto seeking similar things – a good life, a better life for our families and our children.

I was told that there was a report already by Al Jazeera about our conference today, and it was reported that some Tunisian politician from the left have already denounced this conference having said, that we are here to just lecture people on what they should do. This is completely off the point, we are not here to lecture, we are not here to master, we are not here to order anything to anyone… we are here to listen, to learn, to exchange views and experiences,  we are here to help, to assist, and I believe that we are only at the beginning of a maybe long, but I hope, a very successful journey.

Enjoy the conference. Thank you!