For all the talk of a 'global Europe', the EU struggles to influence its neighbours in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its uncertainty over Egypt is indicative of a wider loss of direction in the EU's regional policies. 

To understand the European Union’s efforts to forge a common foreign policy, we must look to the Egyptian crisis. Not the crisis unfolding today in Cairo and Alexandria, but the one that occurred in 1956, when France and Great Britain intervened in Egypt in an attempt to overturn President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal.

The intervention ended in disaster when the U.S. insisted on European withdrawal. While Britain’s leaders scurried to rebuild bridges with the Americans, French decision-makers concluded that they could not rely on Washington in future crises. Their quest for autonomy still echoes in France’s advocacy for the EU to play a strong international role.

Yet for all the talk of a “Global Europe,” the EU has struggled to influence its immediate neighbours in the Eastern Mediterranean. In recent days, European commentators have lamented their governments’ apparent lack of readiness for the Egyptian protests. Yet the EU’s uncertainty is indicative of a wider loss of direction in the EU’s regional policies.

Five or six years ago, it was easy enough to describe what the EU wanted to do in the Eastern Mediterranean. In 2005, European officials launched formal negotiations with Turkey about eventually admitting it into the Union. The EU had an established role in negotiations on Palestine’s future as part of the Quartet. After the Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution, Europeans threw their weight behind pro-Western politicians in Beirut.

British spies worked with the U.S. to persuade Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi to give up his nuclear program. There was even talk of persuading Syria to break with Iran and look West.

Egypt’s internal situation never featured too high on the European agenda. A stable regime in Cairo seemed essential in stabilizing the rest of the region. With the U.S. giving huge quantities of military aid to the Mubarak regime, Europe’s had little leverage anyway.

The EU’s strategy in the eastern Mediterranean has crumbled piece by piece in the last few years. Turkey has lost faith in the prospect of EU membership thanks to French and German opposition, and struck out as an autonomous regional powerbroker. The Bush and Obama administrations have sidelined the Quartet, trying and ultimately failing to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with little reference to Europe. Hezbollah has strengthened its grip on Lebanon, and managed to impose a new government in Beirut this January.

European initiatives – from the deployment of thousands of peacekeepers to Lebanon after the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war to the creation of a Mediterranean Union – have had a limited impact on the region. Now Egypt is in chaos, and the EU looks confused.

After some initial equivocations, European leaders have lined up with the U.S. to call for an orderly transition to democracy. With mounting violence in Cairo and Alexandria, they may be disappointed. But if the EU can raise itself above day-to-day reactions to events in Egypt (no easy task) it needs to seize a two-track strategy in the Mediterranean.

The first track centres on enhanced democracy support. As my ECFR colleague Daniel Korski argues, it’s time for the EU to commit itself to backing “free, fair and clean elections and a clean break with Mubarak’s regime.”

Yet this idealism needs to be mixed with a solid dose of realism, too. If the EU wants to have a sustainable role in the Eastern Mediterranean, it needs to revitalise its flagging strategic relationship with Turkey, talk to Ankara about how to stabilise Lebanon, manage Syria, and, hardest of all, reinforce moderate Palestinian forces. Turkey, not Egypt, is ultimately central to the EU’s hopes of retaining influence on the eastern Mediterranean.

The EU has lost a lot of goodwill in Turkey due to its vacillations over enlargement. Its ambiguous position on democracy has also lost it many friends on the streets of Cairo. Can the EU now reverse these failures, or will we recall the Egyptian crisis as a decisive marker in Europe’s decline in the same way that we remember the 1956 Suez debacle?

This article first appeared in The Mark

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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