Judy Asks: Is Europe Powerless in the Middle East?

A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.

JUDY DEMPSEY — WEDNESDAY, APRIL 05, 2017

Perry Cammack — Fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program

No, but European power will be most effective when it works at the margins.

There remain important roles for the European Union and individual European states in the Middle East, such as encouraging Saudi-Iranian de-escalation, supporting Tunisia’s economic transition, providing humanitarian assistance for displaced people, and promoting better governance.

European institutions were designed for an ordered and interdependent world. In the Middle East, however, disorder reigns. To resist the strong prevailing headwinds of conflict, corruption, and authoritarianism, European efforts will need to be targeted and well conceived. For the foreseeable future, power in the Middle East will ultimately rest in the hands of those willing to wage war.

Silvia Colombo — Senior fellow for the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the Italian Institute for International Affairs

Middle Eastern crises, with their profound implications for Europe’s stability, are closely tied to the EU’s difficulties in living up to its own expectations. Europe’s crisis, meanwhile, manifests itself through withdrawal and defensive attitudes, which are particularly daunting when it comes to the manifold challenges posed by Europe’s immediate neighborhood. Europeans tend to look at the Middle East exclusively as the hotbed of Islamic terrorism and the cradle of the unprecedented migrant and refugee crisis that began in 2015.

The EU has not played a proactive foreign policy role in the Middle East

With few exceptions, the EU has not played a proactive foreign policy role in the Middle East, whether in the Libyan, Syrian, Yemeni, or Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The result has been a series of reactive responses driven by other players, such as Turkey and Russia, or outright powerlessness.

An alternative reading underlines the strong political message embedded in the humanitarian interventions at the core of the EU’s response to Middle Eastern crises. This course of action is in line with the guiding principles and actions laid out in the June 2016 EU global strategy, which aims to endow the states and societies of the region with the necessary instruments and reforms to withstand instability and crisis.

Koert Debeuf — Director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Europe

Not at all. But Europe hardly uses the power it has. Right now, it looks like the EU is absent everywhere. In Libya, it is Egypt and Algeria that are negotiating. In the Syrian conflict, Russia, Iran, and Turkey have replaced the EU and the United States. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides on new settlements in Palestine without any serious resistance. And in Iraq, there seems to be no EU at all.

However, Europe has more power than it thinks. But to use this power properly, the union should stop trying to fix migration challenges with short-term solutions. The EU is by far the largest donor of aid in the world. It should use this leverage politically. One good example is the EU’s reaction to the sudden U.S. support for Bashar al-Assad. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini reacted by saying that with the Syrian president in power, there would be no peace in Syria and no aid from the EU.

Europe underestimates its power. It should use all the tools it has to make sure Tunisia is a successful democracy, to press Egypt to stop its brutal repression of civil society, to help get Libya back on track, and to stop Iran’s takeover of Iraq. The United States of President Donald Trump has become a liability. The EU is now the only force that can help the Middle East become more stable and more democratic. It’s time to take up that role.

Florence Gaub — Senior analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies

For those who confuse power with military might, Europe might indeed appear powerless. But if one accepts the definition of power as the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events, Europe fares rather well. In fact, it is a bit like the tortoise in The Tortoise and the Hare: it seems to run more slowly than the others, but it has ideas and ideals that last.

It is time to stop seeing the Middle East as a stage for diplomatic puppeteers.

After all, Europe’s vision for the Middle East is progressively coming true. The two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now widely considered the most reasonable one, but when Europe first popularized it in 1980, it was seen as shocking. The values Arab citizens demonstrated for in 2011 weren’t populist or dictatorial but very much echoed those Europe has promoted consistently. And Europe understands that to solve a conflict sustainably, as in Lebanon in 1990, only politics will do the trick, not guns.

No other outside power can say that its ideas for the region have gained as much traction as Europe’s — even though several claim to be more powerful. But more importantly, the region’s powers themselves are rising as the most influential players. It is time to stop seeing the Middle East as a stage for diplomatic puppeteers.

Dalia Ghanem Yazbeck — El-Erian fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center

The EU is not capable of having a substantive influence in the Middle East, due to several factors.

First, the EU lacks a common vision for the region. The EU’s discourse and foreign policy toward the Middle East are unclear and dubious, which harms both the union’s visibility and its credibility in the region. In 2003, Europeans were divided on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. More recently, they have been completely incoherent with regard to the war in Syria. The lack of integration among EU member states hinders a complementary approach that would allow for the adoption of a common discourse, position, and direction.

Second, the EU’s policies are outdated and inadequate. The European Neighborhood Policy is not only obstructing the emergence of a regional approach but is also ineffective as it has excluded entire parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Third, the EU is not a military power, and its idealist-liberalist discourse is inadequate. Humanitarian aid is not enough for countries torn apart by violent conflicts.

For all these reasons, the EU is and will probably remain only a donor entity that lacks the political courage to change the situation in the MENA region.

Kristina Kausch — Senior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

No — but power is clearly slipping out of Europe’s hands, due to competition, complacency, and disunity.

Taking advantage of U.S. and EU hesitation, geopolitical competitors have been filling political and security voids in the Middle East. Russia’s intervention in Syria was a success for Moscow in upgrading its weight on the world stage through the Middle Eastern back door. Russia’s engagement in Libya suggests Moscow may be seeking to extend a winning strategy to other parts of the Arab world. Europeans need to become quicker in anticipating and acting on power vacuums, or they will be outpaced by global and regional disruptors such as China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey.

Disunity, both in the EU and across the Atlantic, undermines Western influence in the Middle East

Rather than filling voids, the U.S. administration is likely to create new ones. President Donald Trump shares Moscow’s preference for anti-Islamist strongmen and is keen on refocusing U.S. Middle East policy on countering terrorism, away from inclusive nation building. The EU, struggling with disintegration and a make-or-break election year, is not up to major forays Southward. Even where European leverage remains unrivaled, such as in Morocco, EU member states’ vested interests turn the bloc into an unprincipled geopolitical dwarf. Disunity, both in the EU and across the Atlantic, undermines Western influence in the Middle East — at Europe’s peril.

Lina Khatib — Head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House

European powerlessness in the Middle East is largely self-inflicted, because there is a lack of political will to play a more leading role in the region.

Europe’s involvement in the Middle East has greatly reduced in recent years, and this applies to positive and negative developments alike. The Arab uprisings that began in 2010 did not trigger increased European engagement with the region. Tunisia, the only Arab country that made democratic progress after political transition in 2011, is relatively low on the European radar: it receives European funding for education but still covets significant economic support.

The Syrian conflict, despite having a direct impact on Europe in the form of refugees as well as terrorist attacks, has also failed to spark significant European interest beyond humanitarian aid and planned reconstruction support. Europe’s role in the coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State remains secondary to that of the United States.

European countries seem too consumed with domestic and regional issues to pay attention to their Southern neighbors. The rise in nationalist politics in places such as the UK and France is making foreign policy toward countries outside states’ own borders appear like a distraction. This means that the Middle East is not a priority for Europe.

Nora Müller — Head of the International Affairs Department at the Körber Foundation

Increasingly, Europe’s security is affected by multiple crises in the Middle East. However, as Europeans have their hands full putting their own house in order, they lack the means (and often the political will and unity) to act as an Ordnungsmacht, a stabilizing power, in their fragmenting Southern neighborhood. Ironically, it was the Syrian intervention, undertaken by an assertive yet essentially weak Russia, that put the spotlight on the limitations of Western — and, particularly, European — clout in the region.

Nevertheless, limited capabilities are not tantamount to powerlessness. The agenda laid out in the EU’s June 2016 global strategy — supporting the resilience of Middle Eastern states and societies, strengthening cooperative regional order(s), and fostering dialogue over conflicts — plays to Europe’s strengths.

Increasingly, Europe’s security is affected by multiple crises in the Middle East.

Make no mistake: Europe’s capabilities may be limited; but if Europe plays its hand well, as in the case of the July 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, it can still provide a meaningful contribution to the stabilization of the region. Moreover, as the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump recalibrates U.S. policy toward the Middle East, it will fall on Europe to throw its weight behind the Iran deal to ensure that the agreement is not derailed, and to keep the channels of communication open with Tehran.

John Reed — Jerusalem bureau chief at the Financial Times

As regards Israel and the Palestinian territories: increasingly powerless, yes. With the arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump, Europe is no longer broadly aligned with Washington on its preferred policies for addressing the conflict. Trump’s new team talks of seeking the “ultimate” Israeli-Palestinian peace deal but sees Middle Eastern, not European, countries as its partners in achieving this.

In the EU, Britain — as it prepares to exit the bloc and angles for a free-trade agreement with the United States — has tilted its policy from an ostensibly even-handed one in line with EU principles to a more overtly, unapologetically pro-Israel line. Europe’s clout in the region was always limited to stern démarches and occasional use of economic levers, as when Brussels agreed on guidelines for labeling settlement-made products in 2015.

The EU is still Israel’s biggest trading partner, but its position is eroding as Israel finds new friends in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. With terrorism and security concerns on the rise globally, Israel’s new allies put a higher priority on staying in its good graces so they can access intelligence and homeland security technology to counter these threats than on pressing Israel to end the conflict. European countries increasingly do too.

Marc Pierini — Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

The question of whether the European Union as a bloc is an effective player in the Middle East has received different answers over time, often resulting in a light EU footprint consisting mostly of humanitarian and development assistance. Now, with the prospect of a political settlement in Syria, the EU has an opportunity to make its voice heard.

Traditionally, the UK and France didn’t want the EU to cast a shadow over their historical roles in the region. Only former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana managed to play a personal part in trying to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

With the prospect of a political settlement in Syria, the EU has an opportunity to make its voice heard.

The Syrian war has now reached a watershed. The UN has so far been unable to produce a peace agreement. The administration of former U.S. president Barack Obama acted as a reluctant warrior, abandoning America’s traditional security role in the region. EU member states were reduced to accessories to the United States. And Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have essentially pursued their own conflicting objectives. Only Russia has emerged since 2015 as a leading player, in coordination with Iran.

Now, starting with the April 4–5 ministerial conference on Syria, the EU for the first time has a chance to emerge as a key actor. Will the union remain confined to funding humanitarian and reconstruction assistance or play a wider role? The answer lies with the EU’s member governments, especially that of the outgoing UK.

Gianni Riotta — Member of the Council on Foreign Relations

Powerless, yes, but deluded enough to still project its values, interests, and strategies. While Europe talks, Russian President Vladimir Putin is implementing a brutal yet rational strategy of national interests, establishing bases in Syria and further destabilizing Libya. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has no clear focus in the Middle Eastern theater, limiting his views to offering a hapless free ticket to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

On April 4, civilians were once again hit by toxic gas in Syria. EU foreign policy representative Federica Mogherini squarely blamed Assad. Good point, but the strongmen in Damascus will not flinch at a press release. The union will keep doing a decent job in supporting various human rights and welfare issues in the Middle East and pursuing a comprehensive but totally groundless peace plan that is unfit to check a brutal new phase of history. The dominant European weltanschauung is fair, positive, compassionate, and oriented to a middle-class playground philosophy: all the moms and dads plead for their children to share, while the kids, Hobbesian style, fight in the sand over a toy.

A Game of Thrones brutality now rules the Middle East. Not exactly a European mind-set — unless the populists take over. Then, nobody knows what could happen.

Erika Solomon — Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times

Europe has economic influence to wield in the Middle East. Yet in countries like Syria, Europe seems to be its own worst enemy when it comes to bringing that weight to bear.

Despite EU threats to the contrary, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his powerful backers, Russia and Iran, still believe the EU will foot the bill for reconstruction to make war-torn cities livable again. They seem uninterested in yielding to European demands like a political transition deal. They know how wary Europe is of a new refugee flow — and that it has a budget it must spend every year.

Europe has economic influence to wield in the Middle East.

Many Middle Eastern countries are reliant or keen on investment from European businesses that is seen not only as a critical economic opportunity but also as a sign of legitimacy and stability. Europe could use such influence to put greater pressure on countries like Iraq by demanding real, not superficial, changes to devastating government corruption that observers worry could sink the country into instability again. European countries like Germany, which is offering a €500 million ($534 million) credit facility to Iraq to fund the rebuilding of infrastructure, will likely provide loans and could push for important reforms.

But for that power to be effective, Europe must prove it is willing to withhold its money if its demands are not met.

Shimon Stein — Senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University

If power means the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events, then the EU is neither capable nor able to influence the behavior of the internal, regional, or extraregional players involved in the numerous conflicts in the Middle East, let alone direct the course of events. That said, there is currently no single power on earth that is able and willing by itself to tackle the challenges facing the Middle East.

However, the EU’s state of powerlessness doesn’t have to result in helplessness or inaction, given the interdependence between Europe and the Middle East and the impact the tumultuous situation in the region has had and will continue to have on Europe’s security and stability. In addition to making its voice heard, the EU should take the lead as a concerned party in assisting countries in the region — which will have to own their problems — to resolve the root causes of current crises. That is a mammoth project that will involve huge resources and determination over a long period of time.

Tommy Steiner — Senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya

Europe has indeed become powerless in the Middle East, but this need not be the case. One remarkable example of European influence was the imposition in 2012 of debilitating sanctions that forced Iran to negotiate and restrain its nuclear activities. But this example appears an exception to Europe’s inability to project influence in its Southern neighborhood.

There are several explanations for Europe’s dismal performance. First, Europe has failed to define and follow a comprehensive set of strategic interests in the Middle East. Rather, Europe has preferred low-cost, high-profile, and uncontroversial policies, resulting in disproportionate and not very constructive attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seems easier for EU member states to agree to criticize Israel than to take real action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Europe has failed to define and follow a comprehensive set of strategic interests in the Middle East.

Second, for nearly a decade, Europe has deprioritized the Middle East as it faces a series of internal and external challenges including the financial crisis, the resurgence of Russia, homegrown terrorism, and, most recently, a troubled relationship with its key transatlantic partner.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the EU’s once self-proclaimed normative power has lost its high moral ground. The normative standards of too many European countries are questionable — be it the French obsession with Muslim swimwear or the Hungarian crackdown on academic freedom. With this baggage, Europe is destined to remain powerless in the Middle East.

Maha Yahya — Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center

Europe has considerable leverage in the Middle East but is not capitalizing on it. Political expediency and a lack of internal consensus on what Europe can collectively achieve have resulted in a wide gap between norms and interests and, therefore, between rhetoric and action.

The union’s strategic and economic interests have historically upended questions of human rights and democratic governance in Arab countries. More recently, EU policies have become more reactive in response to dramatic refugee inflows, intensifying conflicts, and terrorist activities. The result has been a blending of expanding humanitarian support with the securitization of politics. One striking example is the March 2016 €6 billion ($6.4 billion) Turkey-EU partnership agreement on refugees.

For the EU to regain its leverage, it needs to revisit its current instruments and think creatively about how they may be transformed. It can consider an Arab region compact or a broader EU-Arab partnership that would include both the public and private sectors and comprise clear mechanisms for addressing the socioeconomic inequalities and state capture that gave rise to the Arab uprisings.

Meanwhile, the EU can make future reconstruction an instrument for peace negotiations. This comes with the understanding that reconstructing Syria is not simply a technical matter and cannot be driven solely by infrastructure projects. Rather, it must bring about inclusive institutions that are essential for rebuilding social cohesion, trust, and legitimacy.

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