EUREN Brief 13
Inclusivity and cooperative security over containment and exclusivity: guidelines for EU policy in the Middle East

As the new European Commission begins work in Brussels, Europe's proverbial "neighbourhood" remains as complex and convoluted as ever. Profound disagreements with the US Trump administration, mounting concern about China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and incessant animosities vis-à-vis Russian policies and interferences dominate the day, reflecting a deep crisis of multilateralism as the international system readjusts to a new era of great power competition and conflictual multipolarity.

Against this backdrop, the European Union (EU) and its member states (MS) are struggling to position themselves within this new international environment, seeking to balance internal and external challenges in an effort to acquire legitimacy, direction and reassurance as a "global actor" on the world stage. Faced with successive wake-up calls from traditional allies and adversaries alike, Europe is striving to enhance its strategic autonomy, increasing its capabilities in the military, political and economic domains to hedge against this mutating international environment and an increasingly erratic Trump administration. [1]

Such processes will take time, and the US will remain the EU's most important ally for years to come, but the growing realization in many European capitals about the need for increased autonomy is unlikely to subside. Nowhere is this feeling as pronounced as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where calls for increased "daylight" between EU and US policy have reached new heights since the election of US President Donald Trump. [2] The US's targeted killing of Iranian Quds Force Commander General Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), is only the latest unilateral move taken by a US administration that has demonstrated a growing disregard for European interests and concerns. Taken without appropriate coordination with European allies also deployed in Iraq, and largely based on short-sighted and dangerous domestic political calculations at home, this action has (again) pushed the region to the brink of war, the implications of which would be devastating for the region, European interests and the wider international system at large.

Andrea Dessì

Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), Rome
January 2020

The EU in the MENA region – Decoupling from Washington

The highly convoluted MENA region may appear as an inhospitable environment to test the EU's ambition for strategic autonomy. EU policymakers and MS have witnessed a considerable erosion of their influence and leverage over Middle Eastern developments. Yet, Europe does not have the luxury of retrenching from the region. Geography dictates that Europe will always be more exposed to MENA instability than Washington, meaning that Europe has little option but to remain engaged in this region. Instability, terrorism and migration – not to mention the threat of further conflict or state collapse – are perceived as nightmare scenarios by European governments, which by and large are motivated by the goal of stabilization and de-escalation in the region.

Yet, beyond statements, economic trade and technical advice, EU institutions and MS have little to show for in terms of concrete proposals and engagements to support these goals in the region. Instead, and with few exceptions, Europe has for decades aligned its policy to that of the United States in the MENA. Largely explained by Europe's asymmetrical power relationship with Washington, such alignment has made EU MS complacent with the status quo and reluctant to advance innovative proposals or promote "out of the box" thinking on the region's many overlapping challenges. Whether it be Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Syria or Libya, the default position of many member states is to take their cues from Washington on how best to "manage" these challenges, but rarely have European states proactively engaged, questioned or reframed policy prescriptions that are meant to address the underlining causes of these conflicts or ruptures in the region.

Such alignments have consigned EU MS to being little more than a junior partner to the US in the Middle East. This has undermined European credibility, and ultimately has consolidated Europe's role as a payer rather than a player in the region. While the EU's economic weight and technical expertise remains extensive, this generally uncritical alignment with Washington has constrained Europe's manoeuvrability, weakening its neutrality and therefore ability to balance and influence the policies of other regional and extra-regional actors in the Middle East. In a nutshell, European states and institutions seem to have forgotten the difficult skills of diplomacy, including the need to cultivate leverage and working relations with friends and foe alike and to think in a strategic and long-term manner about present challenges and their potential evolution.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the context of the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and Iran, where exclusivity towards Israel and the containment of Iran have traditionally dominated Western approaches, despite the fact they have little to show for in terms of stabilization and reconciliation in the region. Europe's engagement with Iran, beginning in the late 1990s, proved to be the exception to the rule. Europe worked to counter the US policy of exclusion, engaging Tehran in a process that ultimately helped lay the groundwork for the landmark Iranian nuclear deal. And yet, to deliver the nuclear agreement, Europe had to wait for the Obama administration. Since the Trump administration's withdrawal from (or violation of) the deal in May 2018, Europe's inability to preserve the agreement in the face of US pressure has been plainly (and painfully) visible to all. This has caused significant damage to the EU's credibility. [3] Meanwhile, Trump's return to the traditional US policies of containment and sanctions vis-à-vis Iran have dangerously exacerbated regional tensions. The present military escalations in Iraq are a direct result of Trump's short-sighted decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal without any planning for what came next.

The US will remain the EU's most important ally for years to come, but the growing realization in many European capitals about the need for increased autonomy is unlikely to subside. Nowhere is this feeling as pronounced as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where calls for increased "daylight" between EU and US policy have reached new heights since the election of US President Donald Trump

As a result, there is today a growing realization in Brussels that EU interests can no longer be preserved by outsourcing elements of its Middle Eastern policy to Washington. Changing US priorities at the global stage, a revisionist approach to international law and multilateralism and Washington's consistent effort to diminish engagements in the Middle East are trends that predate the Trump administration. [4] Europe must muster the strategic foresight and political courage to begin an incremental process to decouple its Middle East policy from that of Washington. This long-term goal would benefit not only the region and EU interests and credibility, but also and more fundamentally help to rebalance and ultimately revive the transatlantic relationship itself.

Drivers of Instability: Regional and International Ruptures in the MENA, Implications for EU Policy

To support such a process, EU policy should seek to mitigate the growing trends of conflictual multipolarity that are present at international, regional and local levels with reference to the MENA. At the macro-international level, Europe needs to more effectively contain (and even "roll back") some of the most disruptive impulses of the US Trump administration vis-à-vis Iran and the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also needs to become more adept at managing Europe's difficult relationship with a key strategic neighbour, Turkey, and seek to proactively engage Russia (and China) in new multilateral frameworks while, at the same time, remaining firm on Moscow's (and Beijing's) most problematic actions in other domains.

At the micro and meso-levels of regional stability and internal governance, Europe should maximise its limited leverage in those contexts where it can truly make a difference, beginning from Israel-Palestine to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Tunisia and Libya. Here, EU MS and institutions should promote targeted and micro-level developmental interventions that provide immediate and sustainable returns to local populations who are suffering from conflict, poverty and a lack of basic services. Most importantly, the EU needs to strive for complementarity between these actions, ensuring that policies in one domain help to foster improvements in others, particularly regarding the broader macro-regional and international priorities outlined above.

Focusing on three fundamental ruptures in the wider MENA region is one way to begin adding direction to EU policy. These include: (a) the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, which remain a fundamental fault line within this region and between MENA and the outside world; (b) the ongoing rivalry and competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has exacerbated tensions in the Persian Gulf, Yemen, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon; and (c) the often overlooked rivalry between Turkey and Qatar on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and al-Sisi's Egypt on the other. This rupture has undermined the internal cohesion of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and exacerbated ongoing proxy conflicts in Libya and Syria, while also increasing Turkey's isolation in the Eastern Mediterranean.

If left unchecked, any one of these ruptures could explore and entrap the EU in a vicious cycle of escalation. Reactive policies will prove insufficient, not only in terms of the material costs involved by also and more fundamentally due to the fact that emergency situations will preclude the more long-term diplomatic action that is needed to address these challenges. The time for proactive action is now, before any one of these ruptures can explode into a full-blown conflict or crisis, the reverberations of which would have a more direct impact on Europe (and Russia) than on Washington. The recent military strikes in Iraq are precisely the kind of illegal and unilateral US action that risks enflaming such a cycle of escalation, entrapping the EU and its MS in a process over which it has limited manoeuvrability other than falling back in line with Washington.

Europe must muster the strategic foresight and political courage to begin an incremental process to decouple its Middle East policy from that of Washington

On points (a) and (b) above, a majority of EU MS are closer to Russia (and even China) than to the US Trump administration when it comes to the strategic framings of these ruptures and the root causes and policy prescriptions that are meant to address them (see EUREN Brief no. 12 by Maxim A. Suchkov). On Israel-Palestine, a great majority of European member states share with Russia and China the concern about the weakening of the two-state formula and have condemned the US's recent unilateral policies vis-à-vis Jerusalem, the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights and Israel's settlement enterprise. A core group of Western European states – including France, Spain, Italy, the UK and even Germany, among others – should cooperate with Russia, China and others in developing new multilateral frameworks beyond the US-dominated Middle East Quartet. [5] Together, these actors should review existing policy prescriptions and develop a new toolkit of incentives and disincentives that target both Israel and the Palestinians. Engagement – as opposed to exclusion – with Hamas also needs to be considered, as Palestinian reconciliation will be an indispensable stepping stone towards progress. More proactive action on this dossier would have positive reverberations on EU-Turkey relations and could even potentially help to de-escalate mounting tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, where similar policies of exclusion and containment of Turkey in the energy domain are being promoted by Washington and its regional allies and have already led to multiple unilateral and worrying counter-actions by Ankara.

Brussels, Beijing and Moscow also share many similarities in their reading of the root causes of the ongoing Saudi-Iranian rivalry and the framing of the most recent uptake in military attacks and reprisals in the region since the US withdrew from (or violated) the Iran nuclear deal. Here, EU institutions and key European states – France, Germany, the UK and Italy, amongst others – are united with China and Russia in terms of the need to engage Iran, opposing the US-championed policies of containment and exclusion while seeking to salvage what remains of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Stabilizing the Middle East will be impossible without the active engagement and buy-in of Iran. Therefore, Europe, Russia and China should redouble their diplomatic efforts to ensure that material returns are provided to Iran in exchange for its continued compliance with the agreement.

Following the killing of General Soleimani in early January 2020, Iran has gone ahead with a further scaling back of compliance with the JCPOA, a step that had been widely announced before the US's unilateral strikes in Iraq. Many observers feared this would lead to the complete unravelling of the agreement, with some even predicting an end to international inspections and a potential Iranian withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Thankfully, such a scenario has not materialized. [6] Indeed, while Iran has announced that it no longer considers the JCPOA a binding agreement, the steps taken thus far are reversible and thus the agreement remains in place. By announcing its further scaling back of compliance, Tehran explicitly renewed its calls on Europe and the other signatory parties to the JCPOA – Russia and China – to provide Iran with sanctions relief and oil imports to salvage the agreement.

There is much that Europe can do, should there be sufficient political will in Brussels and the capitals of the member states. However, the EU should coordinate its actions more closely with China and Russia, and seek the creative means to provide Iran with tangible proof of their continued commitment to preserve the JCPOA

There is much that Europe can do, should there be sufficient political will in Brussels and the capitals of the member states. However, the EU should coordinate its actions more closely with China and Russia, and seek the creative means to provide Iran with tangible proof of their continued commitment to preserve the JCPOA. A reported $5 billion Russian loan to Iran is one indication that Russia seeks to preserve engagement. Europe should match (and ideally supersede) such Russian offers. It could potentially even seek to pool initiatives with China, which has reportedly opened a $10 billion credit line for Iran and is considering a further $15 billion of investments. Further efforts should explore ways to resume limited oil imports, finally activate and operationalize INSTEX, a trade-facilitating mechanism that was devised by the Europeans, expand cultural diplomacy and higher-education exchanges, and consider visa liberalization policies for certain categories of individuals. Emergency humanitarian and technological trade, via special cargo flights or shipping, should also be encouraged. This, at the very least, would demonstrate public and political goodwill vis-à-vis Iranian citizens who are suffering the impact of US sanctions that deprive the country of life-saving medicines and equipment.

One area of urgent action relates to the Persian Gulf, where Europe should develop a clear and direct reaction to Iran's Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE) initiative and Russia's Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf. Both initiatives are well deserving of consideration by Brussels and should serve as the basis for a high-level diplomatic effort by the EU to develop a clearer understanding of the proposals while also expanding the discussion to include other states. India and China, for instance, have a vested interest in the stability of the area's maritime security and should be engaged in these efforts. Japan, meanwhile, has also announced its own naval mission to the area, and should be engaged by Europe in an effort to establish coordination between various missions, thus enhancing multilateral security cooperation in the process.

The announced French-led European naval mission to the Persian Gulf (EMASOH) is one indication that Europe is serious about remaining engaged in this region. The mission, which is headquartered in the French military base in the UAE – is reportedly backed by ten other EU member states and can serve to reassure allies in the Arabian Gulf while at the same time maintaining a degree of neutrality by not embracing the US-led, anti-Iranian International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) in the same area. Yet, more diplomatic action and strategic framing of this mission and its objectives are needed to avoid misinterpretations of it by regional actors in what is an already highly militarized waterway. EU states and France, in particular, need to create a more conducive diplomatic environment to ensure that this mission serves as a stepping stone for a broader multilateral initiative in the Persian Gulf, which will build upon the proposals above and help transform the shared ambition of an inclusive security framework based on mutual reassurances and confidence-building measures into reality.

The highly interlinked nature of ongoing conflicts and crisis in the MENA region, means that progress on initiatives linked to the Persian Gulf and Saudi-Iran competition could be strengthened by improvements on the Israeli-Palestinian track and vice-versa. Conversely, progress on either the Israeli-Palestinian or the Saudi-Iranian tracks could help dampen tensions between the Saudi-led axis and Turkey and Qatar, which could, in turn, carry over to improve developments in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in Libya, Lebanon and, eventually, Syria.

EU smart power

Ultimately, what Europe truly needs is "smart power" that would seek to maximise what remains of its influence on certain dossiers while also complementing its traditional strengths with creative and proactive diplomacy. Beginning with the regional ruptures mentioned above, EU MS should map their respective capabilities and leverage, and foster the establishment of core groups of MS that are willing and able to define more proactive engagement on these issues. [7] Participation should include those states that retain the most leverage and interest in each dossier and build on the positive example of the E4 (the UK, France, Germany and Italy), for instance, or brush up and further empower older sub-regional frameworks, such as the 5+5 Dialogue for the Mediterranean that involves five Northern (Spain, France, Italy, Malta and Portugal) and five Southern (Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia) Mediterranean states.

Credible hard power capabilities are needed to back up broader diplomatic engagements and reassure local partners and adversaries alike of the seriousness and long-term commitment of the EU in the MENA. At the same time, Europe cannot, and should not, seek to replace the hard power projection of the US with its own. Courage and political will are required if Europe is to emerge from the shadow of the US in the MENA region and develop new frameworks for engagement based on the principle of inclusivity as opposed to containment and cooperative security as opposed to exclusivity and preferential relationships.

When it comes to the Middle East, the EU's new ambition should be to harness instead of oppose broad international shifts, including China's expanding BRI and Russia's growing assertiveness. This approach, if successful, will not only give new strength and direction to the EU's "global role", but will also ultimately serve to deepen and rebalance Europe's transatlantic bond with the United States.

Andrea Dessì participated in the 11th EUREN meeting on "Russia and the EU in multilateral fora" on 31 October – 1 November 2019 in Moscow. This paper is based on his presentation. Its content is the sole responsibility of the author and does not represent the position of individual EUREN members or EUREN as a group.