When a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a small town’s public square, barely anyone expected this act to lead to a revolution in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and the Arab world. The fall of the three dictatorships initiated a new phase in a worldwide democratic wave that has been remaking the world since 1989.  

Commentators of the “Arab Awakening” are tempted to draw a parallel between recent events in the Middle East and Northern Africa and those in Central and Eastern Europe of twenty years ago. The integration of the latter to two of the most democratically recognized international organizations–NATO and the EU–have led Western decision makers to believe they know the “recipe” for successful transition. However, the mechanic “copy-paste” of ideas and solutions should be approached with caution.

Back in 1990, the European Union responded to the young democracies by opening up and offering the prospect of membership to all who came in from the cold. This was the driving force for changes in Central and Eastern Europe over the next 20 years. Back then this happened because of visionary European leaders.

For many reasons, mainly immigration waves and the rise of xenophobic parties, the international community lacks the magnitude of such vision today. The danger of falling in weightlessness is real. The countries in transition need visionary leaders to be inspired to continue with the changes to achieve prosperity.

Seven crucial steps can assist in reaching this.

First, there should be a close association with the European Union. The EU should provide enhanced association status of all countries that subscribe to its values, linking this to easier movement of goods (tough but not impossible), institution building and extended cooperation between universities/students. This will create an attractive package for the ever-growing young Arab constituency.

Second, Central and Eastern Europe has much to offer. It has learnt the lessons of transition, of do’s and don’ts, of moving from dictatorship to democracy. How to deal with transitional justice? How to handle constitutional reform? What comes first – political or economic reform? How to fight corruption? How to establish civilian control over the armed forces? This resource should not be wasted.

Third, Arab countries should remind themselves of their common roots, rather than pointing out differences. Europe is a great example of integration. The Arab world should likewise kick start the process of an Arab-League-that-turns-to-Arab-Union. That would certainly be bold, but is worth exploring. Surely such a Union should be based on an integrated market, but also on shared values of a representative democracy and human rights.

Fourth, the role of European political leaders has to be reconsidered. They should reach out to religious parties in the region and not cringe from them. Yes, these groups are all very different. It is nevertheless important to be engaged and to work with those who are more moderate.

Fifth, the EU should finally set up a “European Endowment for Democracy”. The project can work at arms-length from governments and help build both sustainable political parties and civil society across democratically aspiring Middle Eastern countries.

Sixth, the Council of Europe should have a proactive approach vis-à-vis these countries. It should not only sign agreements, but should instead offer a form of membership to those countries in the Middle East and North Africa, willing to subscribe to the common values of the Council of Europe. The organization has high legal standards and criteria, offering protection of human rights, minorities, and media freedom. The countries that join the Council are to provide the same set of rights to their citizens.

Seventh, NATO can have an important role by sharing its experience in developing civilian security and defense expertise. Arab countries coming out of dictatorships lack such experts and knowledge. In the long run if they don’t work on civil-military relations and civilian control over the armed forces, they are in for many problems. And so are we.

It is in our collective interest to be out there driving the debate and putting the assistance programs together today, not when it is too late.  

Nickolay E. Mladenov is the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria. 

Hristiana Grozdanova is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group.