EU-MENA at Geopolitical Crossroads: Mapping Europe’s Leverage in the MENA Region

Written by | Saturday, January 4th, 2020

Turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) directly affects Europeans. Yet their influence in the region has never been weaker. The region has been in flux since the wave of Arab uprisings began in 2011, experiencing revolutionary movements, the end and reassertion of authoritarian rule, and repeated attempts by established elites to crack down on agents of change. Despite its considerable economic and political partnerships with regional players, Europe has been unable to influence the major shifts that have taken place. This failure has often come at a high cost for Europeans.
Today, civil wars rage in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The central authorities look increasingly shaky in several other countries too. Popular discontent has provoked large-scale public protests in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan – and it simmers elsewhere in the region. The MENA region appears destined for further discord and upheaval in the coming years – reflecting the core reality that the political, economic, and social drivers of the 2011 uprisings remain as strong as ever. Meanwhile, the upheaval has created openings for increased external interference and fed the forces of extremism and destabilization.
The European Union and, in any coordinated fashion, its member states are today essentially nowhere to be seen on the series of interlinked regional crises that have such a powerful impact on their interests. Chief among these has been the displacement of millions of people seeking protection from violent conflict, many of whom have sought refuge in Europe. This has been accompanied by terrorist operations across European cities carried out by the Islamic State group (ISIS). With the region in desperate need of a stabilizing and reforming influence, and the United States increasingly uninterested in involving itself in the region’s problems, one might have expected the EU and its member states to take up a prominent role in support of these twin objectives. However, across the region’s many flashpoints, Europeans are largely bystanders – with the Syrian war a prime example of this.
In the limited instances in which it has engaged with the MENA region, the EU has focused on short-term, transactional policies designed to address the migration crisis and the threat from terrorism rather than the underlying causes of instability. Here, the bloc has primarily addressed its concerns through the externalization of European border control – exemplified by deals with Turkey and Libya that essentially pay local authorities to prevent refugees from crossing into Europe – and limited participation in anti-ISIS military efforts. Some of these arrangements are not only highly questionable from the human rights and refugee law perspectives but are also unsustainable, given that they fail to address the core drivers of regional instability.
Meanwhile, Europe’s one regional success story, the nuclear agreement with Iran, has morphed into a failure. Europe’s response to the US’ withdrawal from the agreement and its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has failed to muster the necessary political capital and economic resources to fulfill European commitments to sustain Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Even in North Africa, where Europe has stronger influence by virtue of economic ties, Europeans undermine their own position by focusing on short-term concerns and on technocratic fixes that lack local support.
Europe’s apparent inability to find a mutually beneficial way of working with countries in North Africa – and those elsewhere in the region – has been accentuated by other powers’ growing interest in the region. These powers have provided MENA states with an opportunity to diversify relationships away from their traditional European partners. The EU’s reluctance to engage in deeper or more sustained political involvement in the region has allowed Russia – as well as powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates – greater freedom to strengthen their alliances. Unless they adjust, Europeans will become increasingly irrelevant.
Europe should take on a greater role and bolster its influence to protect its core interests. Some European officials will likely argue that the EU and its member states have done enough to address the challenges of migration and terrorism, given the bloc’s structural deficits. Yet this would be to underestimate Europeans’ potential influence in the region and the risks that a largely hands-off approach poses. In the region and beyond, there is a worrying degree of disdain for Europe’s position and a sense that its influence is waning. Even some Europeans acknowledge this – with one high-profile official telling ECFR that Europe’s position across MENA has “never been so divided and weak”. Indeed, more than 60 percent of respondents to ECFR’s survey described the EU’s regional role as “fairly ineffective”.
So what have been the sources of Europe’s – real or perceived – weakness vis-à-vis the MENA region? Firstly, one core issue that explains European weakness is the profound lack of unity among its 28 EU member states, which prevents them from responding efficiently to challenges in the region. Secondly, another key weakness reflects what Europeans bring – or, rather, do not bring – to the table. The EU is widely seen as a negligible political player in the MENA region, as it continuously looks to US leadership in a manner that precludes an independent policy on regional developments. This is often accompanied by European countries’ unwillingness or inability to deploy their militaries in the region, at a time in which hard power is increasingly important there.
Thirdly, rather than having a weak hand, the EU plays a strong hand very weakly. The bloc has important sources of economic (the bloc is the MENA region’s most important trading partner) and political/diplomatic (collective weight of the EU bloc along with France and UK being permanent members of the UN Security Council) influence – but it squanders them. Still, policymakers across the MENA region consistently highlight the clout that a combined and independent European political position could have. Fourthly, if it is to enhance its leverage across the MENA region, the EU and its member states will require more than just the right assets. The bloc must also pursue a smarter set of policies – ones that can bridge the gap between its pressing domestic priorities and the realities of a region that is increasingly shaped by realpolitik. The challenge for Europe, then, is to use the assets it has in service of a unified and coherent political program.
Finally, there are reasons to hope that Europe can better manage its internal divisions in the future. This requires greater assertiveness from the EU high representative for foreign and security policy in relation to the MENA region and also the European External Action Service (EEAS) to do more to forge a consensus between member states rather than merely seeking to reflect one. To that end, Europeans today face a daunting set of challenges across the MENA region and things are only likely to worsen, given Europe’s deep structural deficiencies. Against the backdrop of a rapidly shifting global environment – one in which the US-led liberal order is in decline due to advancing hard-power and geopolitical realities – it is imperative that Europeans learn to act for themselves.
While this may be a difficult outcome to imagine given the long-standing sense of European marginalization, it is not impossible to achieve. If Europeans are willing to change course and start using their levers of influence – perhaps not military ones, but certainly their political and economic assets – in a coherent fashion and in support of core interests rather than short-term goals, they may well see regional players begin to take them more seriously. As argued by the EU’s incoming foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, the bloc has “the instruments to play power politics. Our challenge is to put them together at the service of one strategy”. This will require a new impetus in which key actors focus on working together to create much-needed European coalitions or core groups on regional issues. It is a necessary moment for a shift in this direction.
‚Mapping European Leverage in the MENA Region: Strengthening European Autonomy Across MENA‘ – Study by Team of Authors – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.
The Study can be downloaded here

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