The Middle East and North Africa was the venue for a great European success in 2015, in the Iran nuclear deal, but also significant failure, as state breakdown and extremism worsened.
The military-led response to the threat posed by Islamic State (ISIS) points to a renewed European focus on the so-called war on terror at the expense of the difficult political steps necessary to address core structural problems underlying the crisis, including with respect to Europe’s allies in the region. This was particularly clear in Europe’s response to the Syrian conflict, which is profoundly affecting the continent in terms of refugee flows and terror attacks, but which continue to lack a united and coherent response from the EU and member states.
On the positive side, European governments played an important role in finalising July’s nuclear deal with Iran, in a process headed by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini. The settlement came after a decade of Europe pushing a dual diplomatic and sanctions strategy, with the risk of collapse and a descent into conflict permanently hanging over the talks. Europe played a constructive role helping Washington and Tehran get the final deal past domestic hurdles. European governments, and the EU especially, have been keen to use the deal as a gateway to broader conversations on MENA regional issues.
Elsewhere, and also of positive note, the EU stepped up support to Tunisia, the lone standard bearer of the Arab uprisings, which faces growing domestic challenges and has played an important role in the Libyan peace process. Europe also maintained significant – albeit insufficient – financial support to Syria’s neighbours in an attempt to help them manage the burden of the refugee crisis.
But these positive developments were increasingly sidelined by the spectre of regional implosion and the rise of extremist forces. Following the November Paris attacks, European member states fell back on an intensified securitised focus on ISIS, even though this is failing to deliver significant gains. Despite European involvement in the anti-ISIS military campaign in both Iraq and Syria, the group remains entrenched on the ground, has expanded its physical presence across the region, notably into Libya, and launched a series of devastating attacks in the wider MENA region and Europe.
Even as European governments welcomed the nuclear deal as positive for the wider Middle East, it had the effect of intensifying regional tensions, with Saudi Arabia in particular viewing it as part of a Western pivot away from the Gulf and as a means of empowering Tehran. In response, Riyadh doubled down in Syria against the Iran-backed Assad government, as well as initiating a new intervention in Yemen aimed at dislodging the Iran-backed Houthi movement. This has been accompanied by deepening violence in Libya and authoritarian entrenchment in Egypt. Across the region, order is threatened by the spread of ungoverned spaces where extremism thrives, as well as the rise of non-state actors, whether Kurds, or Sunni or Shia militias, with clear implications for European interests.
The threat that the region’s conflicts could spill over into Europe – brought painfully home by the Paris attacks, and by hugely increased migration flows – is now the key driver of European thinking. However, as Europe has turned its focus to the security sphere – with Paris and London adopting an “ISIS-first” strategy – it has failed to devote equal attention to the political dynamics behind the group’s rise. In particular, there is a need to address the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars, including by taking a tougher stance towards regional allies. While many member states acknowledge the need for those involved in the conflict – both directly and indirectly – to moderate their ambitions and prioritise taming underlying conflicts, they have been unwilling to push their regional partners in this direction.
France and the UK in particular have been constrained by a desire to keep Gulf allies on board. More than other member states, France’s relations with the Gulf deepened in 2015, reflected in lucrative arms contracts and in President François Hollande’s invitation to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders’ summit. The result has been ongoing French and British support for more maximalist Gulf positions on Syria, to the detriment of necessary pragmatism, as well as material backing for the Saudi-led war in Yemen – despite the humanitarian cost, the creation of new space for extremists, and the desire of some European states and the EU high representative to forge a path towards mediation.
This unwillingness to use European influence to de-escalate conflicts – by challenging regional allies to dial down their aims, and questioning their problematic methods of pursuing them – extends across the region. It includes Libya, which represents an increasingly pressing threat to regional security as civil war gives ISIS room to expand and gives people smugglers a pathway to Europe. Despite the EU’s commitment to UN peace efforts, member states have been unwilling to call out Egypt and the Gulf states for their negative roles. In Egypt, Europe offered increased legitimacy to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi through significant economic deals, in France and Germany’s case, rather than challenging him on a deepening authoritarianism that is fuelling a dangerous insurgency. Member states made little effort to voice concerns during Sisi’s visits to European capitals, including London.
The EU has not shown any greater commitment to progress on Israel/Palestine, where developments continue to trend against the prospect of a two-state outcome. The EU issued guidelines for labelling products made in Israeli settlements, but failed to launch any serious pushback to Israel’s vitriolic response. Europe has long sought a seat at the top table on the peace process, but, though the US offered greater space for European initiatives in 2015, the EU failed to step up.
Towards year-end, in the face of widening regional deterioration and the growing ISIS threat, European member states started moving towards greater pragmatism on Syria, as Germany and the EU high representative prioritised the need to de-escalate the crisis over the immediate ambition of removing President Bashar al-Assad. Europe took part in renewed diplomatic activity, specifically the US–Russian-led Vienna talks. The talks brought together all regional actors for the first time, including Tehran, and offer one of the few paths towards progress in addressing the conflict. But, despite occupying a quarter of the seats in Vienna, Europe failed to deploy its influence to wield any real leverage, and remains excluded from the high table.
If Europe is to help defuse the series of MENA crises that threaten its interests in 2016, it will need to take a lesson from its own playbook. Diplomatic deal-making with Iran on the nuclear issue, based on a strong European consensus, a sense of strategic purpose, and – critically – the pragmatic pursuit of feasible goals, shows what hard-nosed politicking can achieve. Europe will need to extend this approach to the Syria talks and beyond, including Libya and Iraq, if it is to assume an effective role in delivering regional de-escalation and consolidating a united front against ISIS.
De-escalation of conflicts in the region
Leaders: Italy, Germany
The situation in the Middle East in 2015 was complicated significantly by the involvement of regional actors playing out their rivalries. There were few EU efforts in the year to defuse these rivalries as a contribution to managing the conflicts in MENA, though Italy’s activities in Libya were noteworthy, as were German attempts to strengthen Europe’s role in promoting diplomatic solutions in Syria and Yemen.
Humanitarian aid in response to refugee crisis
Leaders: Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, United Kingdom
Slackers: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain
Successive European Council conclusions have called for prioritising EU humanitarian aid to countries in the region that are hosting refugees. The leaders gave significant bilateral support (and contributions to EU packages) as a proportion of their GDP for countries on the frontline in the refugee crisis, including Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.
The slackers, meanwhile, did not provide sufficient support to these refugee host countries compared to their means.
The region’s major diplomatic success of 2015 was the finalisation of the Iran nuclear deal in July, in talks chaired by the high representative. The EEAS also had an ongoing role in supporting mediation efforts in Libya and Yemen, but remained on the sidelines of the Syria conflict – though Mogherini was a participant in the Vienna talks.
On Syria, the EU’s main focus was providing financial support for the humanitarian crisis. In December, the EU Regional Trust Fund for the Syrian crisis announced the launch of the biggest ever single EU response package, worth €350 million, to support the country’s refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. EU funding mechanisms active in Syria and surrounding countries included the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, the Instrument Contributing to Stability and Peace, the Instrument for Pre-Accession, and the Development Cooperation Instrument.
The Commission’s humanitarian aid department, DG ECHO, is also currently active in Algeria/Western Sahara, Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen. In North Africa, the EU dispersed €180 million in bilateral assistance to Morocco and €200 million to Tunisia, and pledged €100 million to Libya.
In November, the Commission published a review of the European Neighbourhood Policy, setting out the EU’s approach to countries to its south and east. The review signalled a more hard-headed approach to the MENA region, prioritising security and stability. It recognised that “more for more” policies, which offered closer collaboration to countries that carried out political and institutional reform, had failed to incentivise reforms beyond the aspirations already held by the region’s governments, and called for a greater focus on the EU’s interests and on local ownership. There was an increased focus on migration, but the message on what states such as Tunisia – at a crucial crossroads in its reform agenda – could expect, was unclear.
Also in November, the EU published guidelines on the labelling of products from Israeli settlements, but did little to push back against Israeli efforts to discredit Europe’s non-recognition of settlements and to divide member states over the issue.