EU in the Middle East: Punching Below the Weight

Plenary room of European Parliament (Alexandros Michailidis via Shutterstock)

by Eldar Mamedov

At the end of May, citizens across the European Union will elect a new European Parliament for the next five years. The outcome of these elections will determine the future direction of the EU. By the end of 2019, a new European Commission, a new president of the Council, and a new high representative for the Union’s foreign and security policy will be in place. It is thus an appropriate time to look back at the EU’s record in the Middle East over the last five years.

Measured against the ability of the EU to effectively pursue its values and interests, that record is, for the most part, disappointing. It both reflects the general difficulty of forging a common EU foreign policy, traditionally a preserve of nation-states, and specific challenges in doing so in a region where some powerful EU countries, such as Great Britain, France, Italy, and Spain, have their own, sometimes divergent, strategic and diplomatic agendas. This results in frequent divisions within the EU. Add to this the unanimity rule for foreign policy decisions and what the EU governments are able to agree on reflects, more often than not, the lowest common denominator.

Take the Israel-Palestine conflict. The longstanding position of the EU is to support the two-state solution, which would allow for the co-existence of Israel and a Palestinian state side by side in peace and security. The EU is a formal side in the Middle East peace quartet and has a special representative for the Middle East Peace Process. However, the EU seems to be mostly reduced to waiting for the ever elusive “Kushner peace plan” to materialize. Given the extremely close ties between this American administration and the Israeli government of Benyamin Netanyahu, that plan is unlikely to satisfy the minimal requirements of a viable two-state solution. Moreover, Netanyahu got re-elected partly on a promise to annex parts of the West Bank. There is also the growing tendency of American and Israeli officials to de-legitimize the very idea of two states. The EU’s ability to strongly oppose these developments is hamstrung by the division between its eastern members, traditionally more favorable to Israeli policies, and the western ones who tend to be more critical.

In Syria, the EU is still wedded to the idea of political transition from the regime of Bashar al-Assad to a more representative form of government. That is a valid long-term goal. However, given the reality of Assad´s military victory in Syria´s devastating civil war, it is unlikely to materialize in the short term. The lack of a cautious, gradual, and conditional re-engagement with the regime augments the risks of individual EU member states going it solo and weakening the leverage the EU could have in nudging the Assad regime to improve, however modestly, the human rights of the Syrian people.

Libya is another example of what Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, calls “self-marginalizing European divisions.” This time, to the dismay of fellow member states, France blocked the EU statement calling on Khalifa Haftar, accused of war crimes, to halt his offensive on Tripoli.

On Saudi Arabia, following the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist, some momentum gathered to push the EU to distance itself from Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman´s despotic regime. However, some EU states are quietly reverting to business as usual with the kingdom. They unanimously blocked, under heavy Saudi, American, and British pressure, a plan by the European Commission to place Saudi Arabia on the list of countries with a high risk of money laundering and terrorism financing. Not only didn’t other EU members follow Germany´s lead in halting arms exports to Saudi Arabia, but Germany itself succumbed to pressures from Britain and France to reverse its decision. This will further contribute to the misery of the Yemenis pummeled by the Saudi-led coalition.

Also undermining the EU’s leverage in the Middle East is an erosion of Europe’s soft power. This is, in particular, a consequence of an obscene lack of solidarity among the member states in tackling the migration crisis in 2015-2016 and the re-emergence of a toxic Islamophobic discourse in its wake.

There are a few bright spots in this otherwise depressing picture. Iran is one of them. The EU resisted, so far, U.S. pressure to violate the UN Security Council-endorsed nuclear deal with Iran. Instead, it established a special trading mechanism known as INSTEX to bypass the U.S. sanctions to trade with Iran. Even if INSTEX falls far short of Iran’s expectations (and of many in the EU itself), it is at least a symbolic challenge to Washington. The EU, as embodied by High Representative Federica Mogherini, also engaged Iran on regional issues. This brought tangible results: the EU acknowledged Iran’s contribution in securing Houthi rebels’ endorsement of the UN-sponsored Stockholm agreement on Yemen in December 2018.

Another positive development is the EU’s continued engagement with Lebanon and Iraq. Both countries held reasonably free and fair elections in 2018, with the assistance of the EU. Where the United States tends to approach both countries through the lens of its campaign to isolate Iran, the EU is well aware of the destabilizing effects of such efforts for the fragile inter-sectarian and political peace. This is why the EU resisted calls from United States and Israel to blacklist the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah in its entirety and continued to hold dialogue with its political wing. In Iraq, EU diplomats continue to talk to the forces that have ties with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, despite the latter’s terrorist designation by the United States.

Among the different EU institutions, the European Parliament significantly enhanced its profile on MENA issues over the last five years. It focused on the role of EU governments in the “forgotten war” in Yemen, through arms sales to Saudi Arabia, in violation of the EU’s own code of conduct. In February 2016, it called for the first time for an arms embargo of Saudi Arabia. It later extended this call to the United Arab Emirates.

The Parliament subjected the human rights situation in authoritarian Middle East and Persian Gulf regimes to an unprecedented degree of scrutiny. It adopted numerous resolutions condemning abuses in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Egypt. Its sub-committee on human rights held high-profile hearings with first-hand witnesses to these abuses in Yemen and the Gulf monarchies.

Wrapping up this legislature, the Parliament adopted a report taking stock of the post-Arab Spring developments in the Middle East. In contrast to the EU governments, Euro MPs repudiated the concept of the “authoritarian stability” and strongly criticised the recrudescence of repression in countries like Egypt. Even if these resolutions are not binding, they send important political messages of disapproval to both the governments of the region and the EU’s own. MPs can become national ministers and European commissioners, and bring their expertise and views to the executive level. And Saudi and Emirati authorities certainly consider these moves important enough to spend fortunes on lobbyists trying to derail them.

Divisions within the EU ensured that the bloc punched well below its weight when it came to Middle East policies. The next five years will be a test of whether the EU can overcome these debilitating divisions and become a relevant actor in its immediate geographical neighborhood.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.

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