Given the close proximity of the Middle East to Europe, there should be a multitude of reasons to foster interdependence in many fields. It is, therefore, only to be expected that the European Union should have an interest to play an important role in helping the countries of the region overcome the crises and festering problems that have held back the region for so long.
Regrettably, the EU has in the past focused its attention on short-term rather than strategic interests. This has been largely due to domestic political reasons. The only exception is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but even that is in jeopardy since the withdrawal of the US. Europe’s policies have largely given precedence to the issues of combatting terrorism, managing refugee inflows, and securing access to energy. This took precedence over efforts at resolution of conflicts that are the underlying causes of instability. Europe merely contented itself with a policy of containment. Even when it comes to energy, Europe emphasised securing access to oil and gas, without offering any help in creating a comprehensive framework of interdependence, which would include, among other matters, the issue of migration.
The European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR) has said in a report that “it (EU) has been unable to influence major shifts that have taken place in the region” and “essentially is nowhere to be seen on the series of interlinked regional crises that have a powerful impact on their interests”. It goes on to suggest how the EU can play a better role in securing its long-term interests. It is without question that Europe possess the political and diplomatic tools as well as the economic and financial resources that make it possible to play a role and help dealing with root causes of instability in the region.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), on the other hand, recommended that the newly appointed High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, focus the European Council’s attention on conflict prevention. But there are raging conflicts that deserve the urgent attention of Europe. They cannot be ignored. Four out of the seven priority areas designated by the ICG include: Sudan, Libya, Iran, and Syria.
I have no doubt that the professionals, both at the EU, as well as in the foreign policy institutions in the various European countries, will respond positively to these recommendations. The question is whether European politicians will act on the them. It is here where disappointments may well lie.
After a series of interactions with European political and business elites, I have come to the conclusion that it is highly doubtful that Europe will take any serious and sustainable initiative towards resolution of conflicts in the Middle East in the near future. There are a number reasons that lead me to this conclusion.
First, Europe is suffering from a crisis in leadership. The German-French axis that has provided leadership in Europe is in abeyance for the time being. With Chancellor Angela Merkel, practically a lame duck, French President Emmanuel Macron on his own cannot provide the kind of leadership to address the threats and challenges Europe is facing.
Second, there is also a crisis in European institutions: with Brexit around the corner, the EU needs to concentrate on how to adapt to this new reality, and also needs to deal with what appears to be an impending breakdown of the international trading system.
Third, there are divisions among EU members on a variety of issues, both on the Middle East and beyond. On the Middle East, there are divergent views on Libya, Iran and Syria. Fourth, the EU is still incapable of decoupling from the US, especially when it comes to military matters. That is clear when it comes to Syria, but also on salvaging the JCPOA.
Fifth, at this point of time, and given the transition of the global international system, Europe is focused on what it believes are existential – security and economic – threats emanating primarily from Russia and China. European political elites are now focused on how to protect the political system from interference in elections and, maintain economic competitiveness by ensuring that they do not lag behind in artificial intelligence and 5G technology.
Sixth, decision-making is further complicated by the fluidity in a political system resulting from the rise of nationalistic populist parties that are reshaping the political scene and may well lead to undermining the very foundations of liberal democracy in Europe. This is a direct consequence of the phenomena of migration and terrorism. Seventh, interestingly, what further complicates Europe’s reaction to such threats and challenges is the divergent positions taken by the political and economic elites. The former sees a direct threat from China, whereas the latter take the position that they cannot afford to not cooperate with China if they want to maintain their future competitiveness.
In short, there are many reasons that curtail Europe’s ability to take, and then pursue, any serious or meaningful initiative in the Middle East for some time to come. This, however, does not mean Europe is incapable of contributing to resolving or preventing conflicts in the region. The question then is: from where does this initiative come? I believe that initiative needs to come from within the region itself. Whether that is on Libya, Syria, or Yemen.
Arab countries need to agree on their common priorities, and present initiatives that can attract interest by major international players.
-Asharq Al Awsat
Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy is former Egyptian Ambassador and senior UN official