The media are not sure how to react to the turmoil in Tunisia and Egypt, but their default position is to be broadly supportive of crowds on the streets because they look vaguely “democratic”.
The markets, on the other hand, are nervous, and, as ever, it is the markets which represent brutal realism and practical experience, while the media represent wishful thinking.
Parallel with, and sometimes overlapping, the economic integration of the European Union, the nations around the Mediterranean have, in recent years, become more and more integrated with each other and with the global economy. Some of these nations, those which are culturally Christian, are EU members; others, those which are culturally Muslim or Jewish, are currently not full members, but some of them would like to be. Yet, irrespective of whether they are EU members or not, the business links between them are growing in importance.
So whatever happens in the Mediterranean Basin matters a lot to the EU, and would matter to EU nations even if the EU did not exist. You only have to glance at the map to see why. Italy, for example, is only a few miles across the water from Tunisia, and the two are close trading partners. In purely business terms they have more in common with each other than Italy does with some fellow EU members further north.
As both cause and effect of increasing prosperity, the Mediterranean Basin has enjoyed a longer period of relative peace and stability than at any time since the zenith of the Roman Empire. Compare the region with how it looked in the 1970s and the change is wondrous. Even problem countries like Libya and Lebanon are making real efforts to become part of the commercial mainstream. Free trade is indeed a powerful force for peace, but it cannot be taken for granted.
It is possible only because Muslim states around the Mediterranean have become increasingly pro-business and, if not exactly pro-Western, at least subtly open to Western influence. This is not always popular. Although all observe the constitutional niceties of democracy, the price of strong government sometimes involves turning a blind eye to democracy in the broader sense.
If – and it is a big “if” – greater democracy comes to Tunisia and Egypt as a result of the current unrest, there is no guarantee that those elected will continue the policies that have delivered such peace, stability, and prosperity as they currently enjoy. If this is the beginning of a return to the uncertainty of the 1970s, the impact on the global economy – and especially on the economic integration of Europe – could be catastrophic.