Feb 7, 2011

The Substantial Union: Recasting the EU’s Middle East Policies

If the EU exhorts high normative values in its foreign policy, suggests Timo Behr, this is often because it is easier for the 27 to agree on these than on their real interests and priorities. The EU has the capacity for a credible value-based foreign policy but to achieve this it will have to take a sober look at itself and the world around it.

The EU does not have the strength of its own convictions. Nowhere is this clearer than in its policies towards the Middle East. On the face of it, these conform to the highest normative standards – promoting economic development, political freedom and regional cooperation. In reality, they represent the lowest common denominator. Rather than defining its own strategic vision and meaningful priorities for the region, the EU has allowed its policies to be captured by narrow national interests and caveats, while subjecting its broader strategic disposition to the shifting tides of US politics. As a result, the EU’s approach towards the region has been fragmented and contradictory and tends to focus on short-term security concerns. The creation of the European External Action Service (EEAS) provides the EU with a new tool to conduct strategic planning. The EU needs to use this tool to define a more coherent vision and strategy for the Middle East – one befitting its long-term strategic interests. To do so, the Union will need to break with some long-standing taboos and adjust its policies to the new realities in the region.

Dysfunctional European principles

Ever since the end of the Cold War, the European Union’s relations with the Middle East have been based on a relatively clear set of principles.

The first and most prominent of these has been the EU’s firm support for a negotiated solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Inspired by the optimism that resulted from the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the EU constructed many of its policies for the entire region around its support for a two-state solution. While making the two-state solution its key strategic priority, the EU limited its engagement on this question to supporting US-led negotiations – preferring the role of a ‘payer’ to that of a ‘player’. This strategy proved successful as long as negotiations moved forward, but provided the EU with little control once the peace process began to falter.

A second cornerstone of the EU’s policies has been its commitment to a project of region-building that joins the EU with the other countries of the Mediterranean littoral. Starting with the European Community’s Global Mediterranean Policy of 1972, this project has come in different shapes, from the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership to the Union for the Mediterranean. However, throughout these various guises, the underlying purpose of the Euro-Mediterranean project has remained the same: opening the countries of North Africa and the Levant to European trade, investment and ideas. While the Mediterranean project was welcomed by regional elites, it regularly fell foul of regional realities and failed to generate broad popular support.

Another determining feature of EU policies has been throughout the region an emphasis on short-term regime stability over democracy. Intimidated by the experience of the Iranian Revolution and the Algerian Civil War, the EU has adopted a ‘reform through interdependence’ approach: it accepts the narrative of autocratic Arab rulers which argues that an overdose of reforms would threaten the fragile blossoms of Arab democracy and would empower Islamic radicals. The purpose of this strategy is to lock autocratic Arab regimes into close bilateral relations and encourage them to gradually pursue top-down reforms in the misplaced hope that these will help to gradually ‘grow’ democratic constituencies.

A final feature has been the firm support the Union has given to the United States as balancer and security provider in the wider Middle East. Assuming a commonality of interests in a ‘stable’ and open Middle East, the EU has been willing to defer to Washington on most strategic questions concerning the region. This strategic dependence has meant that the EU has largely abstained from taking unilateral initiatives and has been willing to compromise its views for the sake of transatlantic harmony. The US-led invasion of Iraq for the first time demonstrated the limitations of this alliance.
While throughout the 1990s these principles provided a workable formula for EU action, in the post-9/11 climate they appear more and more dysfunctional: time for a two-state solution is running out; the EU’s new Union for the Mediterranean has proven an abject failure; the strategy of interdependence has failed to deliver reforms; and the Iraq War has demonstrated a deepening strategic divide with the US. The deep-seated political changes occurring in the Middle East demand a new approach. But they also provide a chance for the EU to redefine its regional role.

The Middle East as a global crossroads

In the Middle East and North Africa, the regional balance of power has been transformed over the last decade. Despite the EU’s best attempts, the Mediterranean is no longer a ‘Euro-Mediterranean lake’. On the contrary, it is now widely accepted that the Mediterranean has become a ‘global crossroads’, where European money and ideas no longer rule supreme. The Middle East has also become more multipolar, and the region’s cultural and political centre of gravity is shifting towards the more conservative countries in the Gulf. While the US-led invasion of Iraq has unbound an Iranian juggernaut, radical non-governmental actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah are playing a central role, the oil-rich and economically dynamic countries of the Gulf have gained in influence and a rising Turkey is claiming a leadership position.

This more multipolar international order has meant that the US and the EU are no longer the only game in town. Ironically, while the US’s military commitment to the region has grown immensely over the last two decades, the limits of American power are now becoming painfully evident. Whether it concerns Iraq, Iran or the Middle East peace process, US power alone is no longer sufficient to bring about sustainable long-term solutions. The EU for its part is forced to compete with Chinese, Gulf Cooperation Council and even Latin American investors in its own Mediterranean backyard, while a more self-confident and independent-minded Turkey has not been shy to turn its back on EU policies and positions when it sees its interests at stake.

Middle Eastern politics are also about to be transformed by a string of political successions. In the coming years, a number of key countries such as Egypt and Tunisia will go through a process of political transition as their ageing autocratic rulers retire from political life. While most are expected to directly bestow political power on their heirs, this transition is loaded with new risks and uncertainties and the possibility of major calamities can no longer be excluded. In preparation, most of these countries are now closing the space for political contestation and reversing hard-won democratic and political reforms, further worsening the domestic situation.

The closure of these regimes challenges basic principles of EU policy. Faced with a reversal of political reforms throughout the Arab world, the EU’s strategy of ‘reform through interdependence’ is in dire need of revision. Not only has this strategy proved to be ineffective in encouraging the kind of regional stability the EU craves, but it also places the EU on the side of Arab autocrats and against their people. And as opposition parties, especially of an Islamist orientation, see their political aspirations dashed, there is an increasing likelihood that some of them will re-radicalize and return to violence.

Recasting EU policies

For these reasons, the EU urgently needs to adopt a more activist and interest-driven policy that takes on the new regional and international realities. Failing to do so, the EU will at best be faced with growing irrelevance in Middle East affairs; at worst it risks being drawn into a new cycle of violence and instability in the region that is no longer likely to stop at the water’s edge but will affect its own domestic security. When adjusting the EU’s Middle East policies to regional realities, European policy-makers will have to start by asking themselves some difficult questions about what kind of future regional order they deem both desirable and feasible.

It has now become a cliché to argue that the EU above all desires a stable neighbourhood. But what kind of stability does the EU want? The stability of the police baton allowing a small western-oriented Arab elite to dominate the disenfranchised masses, or the kind of stability resulting from democratic structures and processes? It is true that the emergence of new regional players such as China with purportedly less interest in reforms has humbled the EU’s ability to pursue the latter. But does that mean that the EU should adopt a Chinese development model? This model neither fits the EU’s particular set of values, nor does it take into account the ever-closer connection between stability in the wider Middle East and Europe. The EU also has unique incentives to offer that China does not necessarily possess, including trade, regulatory frameworks, education and immigration.

Keeping this in mind, the EU needs to acknowledge that favouring interdependence over reform has carried few results beyond making the EU ever more dependent on a few ageing autocrats. Therefore, the EU should place reforms back at the centre of its regional approach. It should consider doing so by for example emphasizing the reform component of its advanced status agreements; creating a multilateral envelope within the European Neighbourhood Policy dealing with democracy and human rights; supporting human rights activists in the region; and engaging more systematically with moderate Islamist parties to prevent them from turning their back on what could become a more democratic process.

In the same vein, the EU should also revisit its region-building policy in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean is no longer the Europeans’ “mare nostrum”. Acknowledging this development does not imply dropping the EU’s region-building project altogether. But the Union should widen it to the countries in the Gulf. The growing integration of trade, energy and investment-links across the region means that a more comprehensive EU policy addressing the broader Middle East is now being called for. This implies adjusting the scope of the EU’s policies and a remodelling of the ENP and the Union for the Mediterranean to include a wider set of countries.

Finally, the EU needs to realize that US power and credibility in the Middle East is being severely tested. The Obama Administration faces two simultaneous stop watches – one on the Arab-Israeli peace process and another one on Iranian nuclear proliferation. If it fails on either, the US image in the region will be permanently tainted. It is in the EU’s clear interest to support the US administration’s efforts on both issues. However, the EU also needs to acknowledge that the current domestic situation in the US is hampering the administration’s ability to act. While this implies that for now the EU should do everything possible to support the efforts of the Obama Administration, it needs to start planning for a future beyond a US-mediated settlement. This might involve making the difficult decision of either unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian state based on the 1967-borders, or dropping the two-state solution from its agenda altogether. Similarly, the EU ought to think about the consequences of living with a nuclear Iran.

The EU also has to acknowledge that in the long run its interests in the region will diverge even further from those of the US on a variety of issues, including migration, climate and energy. As Washington’s attention shifts to the Pacific and US dependence on Middle Eastern oil declines, more significant differences will emerge including over the importance of political reforms and regional stability. While, for the US, the Middle East remains merely one geopolitical piece in the global jigsaw puzzle, for an ageing and demographically declining EU, the people of the Middle East have become an indelible part of itself. This means that in the long-run a US-dominated Middle East is neither a foregone conclusion nor necessarily a first-order interest for the EU.

Recasting EU policies along these lines will be no easy feat as it requires breaking some long-standing taboos buttressed by vested national interests and personal networks. This is why the newly created European External Action Service ought to take the lead by formulating a more comprehensive EU strategy for the region that is rooted in a shrewd understanding of the Union’s own long-term interests and a keen appreciation of the emerging realities of the Middle East. Given the considerable problems surrounding the creation of the EEAS this might seem unlikely. However, to secure for the EU a modicum of influence in the Middle East, a more independent and interest-driven European policy is really the only option.

Dr. Timo Behr is a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki.

For further reading:

Edward Burke, Ana Echagüe, Richard Youngs, Why the European Union needs a ‘broader Middle East’ policy, Fride Working Paper 93, February 2010

Alastair Crooke, The Shifting Sands of State Power in the Middle East, Washington Quarterly 33:3, June 2010

Susi Dennision & Anthony Dworkin, Towards an EU Human Rights Strategy for a Post-Western World, European Council on Foreign Relations, September 2010

Kristina Kausch, Managed Successions and Stability in the Arab Word, Fride Working Paper 104, November 2010�