Punching Below Its Weight: A Covid-19 Upgrade of EU Engagement in the Middle East

Written by | Sunday, June 7th, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic offers the European Union an opportunity to leave the margins of great power politics in the Middle East where it presently lingers, and to make a positive contribution to the state of conflict and stability in the region. To achieve this, the EU’s recent €3 billion economic assistance package to its neighborhood partners must be followed by a few focused diplomatic and developmental efforts that help address the region’s many deeper ecological, economic and social problems.

At present, the EU is hardly relevant in much of the Middle East at the level of regional power politics. This has especially been the case after its predictable difficulty in resisting the US to maintain the nuclear deal with Iran. Of course, the EU provides significant humanitarian assistance, but on issues of peace and conflict it matters not. Israel does not take the EU seriously when debating the (de)merits of West Bank annexation, Turkey has put the EU in its black books, Tehran considers most European countries as American lackeys, at least rhetorically, and most of the Gulf countries look to the US. In part this is by design, as the EU is not hardwired to enact a coherent foreign policy commensurate with its size.

Yet, the EU has much to offer in terms of its economic dynamism, knowledge and know-how, as well as its experience in institutionalizing cooperation to produce regional common goods. While some ‘EU values’ are open to debate, many elementary human rights and the basic tenets of good governance retain universal resonance as demonstrated by the Arab uprisings of 2011 and recent protests in the Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon as well as Iraq. Despite problems of its own, the EU has ample skill in developing functioning rule of law and solid governance mechanisms.

More important, given the prevalence of conflict in the Middle East, is that the EU addresses disputes and collective action problems on the basis of compromise and shared benefits. While the EU remains poorly equipped to confront tools of hard power, one interesting aspect of the Covid-19 crisis is that the EU’s approach and focus is likely to become more relevant as economies tank and societies protest across the Middle East. Beyond muscular talk of kicking the US out of Iraq (Tehran), re-establishing Ottoman suzerainty in parts of Syria (Ankara) or prosecuting the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists (Riyadh, Abu Dhabi), the region faces growing poverty and inequality, major ecological problems, deep economic challenges and wide social cleavages. Neither strongmen nor tough talk will resolve these problems. Instead, they require collaborative and consultative approaches that can resolve tragedies of the commons and other collective action problems. It is exactly here that the EU has considerably experience – although certainly no magic formula or silver bullet.

And the Covid-19 crisis is mercilessly exposing the region’s many economic, ecological and social problems. Strong states with strong public finances – mostly those along the southern littoral of the Persian Gulf – are faced with the twin challenge of economic diversification and social development while maintaining autocratic rule as the oil price tumbles. Strong states with weak public finances – like Jordan, Iran and Turkey – confront the prospect of protest or political crisis because the wake of Covid-19 will expose the fragility of their middle classes and is likely to curtail both economic prospects and livelihood standards of many of their citizens. Weak states with weak public finances – such as Yemen, Syria and Iraq – face catastrophe as capabilities for collective action are overwhelmed by socio-economic problems.

While only the countries of the Middle East themselves hold the keys to addressing these issues, external interventions of the Russian or American ‘powerplay variety’ have not helped of late. Here, the EU has a friendlier handshake to offer. It is from this angle that the EU can throw Iran and Turkey an economic lifeline now that they are at risk of drowning – as regional powers they are essential to stability – and support new voices that can push for more innovative approaches to addressing longstanding socio-economic problems.

For instance, the EU should provide massive post-Covid-19 humanitarian-plus support to Iran via INSTEX. This would help Tehran make an economic recovery in the face of growing poverty and unrest. As quid pro quo, an end to Yemen’s civil war and less political interference in Iraq would need to be on the table. In the case of Turkey, the existing customs union could be upgraded to include more services and facilitate European supply chains shifting out of China and into Turkey post Covid-19, profiting from Ankara’s low wages and proximity. In exchange, the Turkish government could agree to participate in an international mediation initiative to address the Kurdish issue, for example starting with the release of several imprisoned members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) as a sign of goodwill.

Beyond the state, recent protests in places like Lebanon and Iraq show how difficult it is for citizens to dislodge entrenched elites to bring more equitable public policies about. External help can be useful. In times of Covid-19, it will be essential since the pandemic offers authoritarian regimes a wonderful opportunity to strengthen their hold on power. Despite having Hungary as its own bête noir – or rather because of it – the EU should create a large and easily accessible regional fund to empower social groups and communities to pilot initiatives against poverty as well as climate change and to make themselves heard politically.

With diplomatic muscle behind it, some grassroot initiatives can bubble upwards and inspire – or force – the deadlocked national politics of a number of countries in the Middle East. Covid-19 is exposing the limitations of power politics with regard to the region’s many socio-economic problems. There is a chance for the EU to help make a positive difference.

‘A COVID-19 Upgrade of EU Engagement in the Middle East’ – Op-Ed by Erwin van Veen – Clingendael / The Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

The Op-Ed can be downloaded here

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