Return to Geopolitics: A Call for EU-US Complementarity in the MENA Region

Written by | Saturday, January 30th, 2021

In the Middle East and North Africa, or the MENA region, there is a risk of the European Union falling into a disillusionment trap. With the return to the US administration of familiar faces closely involved in Middle East issues during the presidency of Barack Obama, many European capitals are misguided in perceiving the era of former US President Donald Trump as a parenthesis that has come to an end. His successor, Joe Biden, looks set to quickly initiate a US return to the 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and engage in peace efforts to settle regional crises. Meanwhile, Europeans foresee the start of a new phase of stability and are looking for their own niche in a rekindled policy for their Southern neighborhood.

Contrary to these European assumptions, the new US administration may be tempted to disengage from a con?ict zone it considers less of a priority than its Indo-Paci?c focus. Yet, US strategic interests are at stake in the Middle East. It is therefore highly unlikely that the Biden team will walk away from the region. But the challenges of sorting out Trump’s legacy in the MENA region and meeting US obligations could push the new administration to call for more European political investment. Can the EU respond to such an invitation when its in?uence in the region has diminished to the point that the union appears an irrelevant player to many regional actors?

The conundrum is there for all to see. The United States would rather distance itself from the MENA region, but its strategic interests make de?nitive disengagement problematic. For its part, Europe would be prepared to engage more solidly, but its insufficient political and military capabilities make Europe a feeble successor to promote Western values and interests in the region. From this double contradiction, a natural complementarity may arise between the two partners, whose mutual assets could merge into closer cooperation.

The EU and the US share a goal of promoting regional stability in both the Middle East and the Maghreb. This must imply containing the increasing in?uence of Russia and China, convincing Iran and the Gulf countries to engage in a regional security agenda, persuading Turkey to return to the mainstream in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and urging Israel to seriously consider a de?nitive settlement of the Palestinian issue. A comprehensive MENA road map, endorsed by both the US and the EU, will require a differentiated approach, tailored to the speci?cs of each subregion.

In the Maghreb, the EU should lead. Effective cooperation should prioritize efforts to bring the current political discussions in Libya to a positive conclusion, in conjunction with enhanced security operations in the Sahel against jihadist military groups. In the Middle East, the US and the EU should work side by side. The short-term priority must be to double down on efforts to end the war in Syria and, additionally, to exert joint pressure on politicians in Lebanon to sort out their domestic political deadlock and put the nation back on a stable course. As for the Palestinian question, the transatlantic partners should mobilize at the international and regional levels to press the Palestinian Authority to put its house in order and convince Israel to satisfy the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. Finally, in the Gulf, efforts under a US lead will have to incentivize Iran and its neighbors into a regional security dialogue, whereby this work should build on the new relationship between Israel and the Arab world.

The ongoing US disentanglement from the MENA region has progressively sent the message of a distancing partner and eroded the trust of many countries in the region toward US commitments. Washington’s withdrawal has resulted in growing in?uence in the area from Russia and Turkey, which have been competing in the same military ?elds in Syria and Libya. At the same time, a more nimble China has steadily increased its economic presence to become the largest trade partner and foreign investor for many countries in the region. So far, Europe has been unable to ?ll the vacuum left by US disengagement. And there is little evidence that it could do so anytime soon without strong US support. Both partners should therefore make full use of their political, diplomatic, military, economic, and cultural assets for the bene?t of an active, complementary approach.

Yet, to be legitimate and reassure regional partners, reinvigorated collaboration between the US and the EU in the MENA region must deliver. To that end, Europe must avoid complacency. In the absence of a clear strategy and effective action, the EU’s credibility in the region has receded in recent years. To be more convincing and win over the minds of the Biden team, Europeans urgently need to straighten up their act. This will require the EU to de?ne a comprehensive regional strategy, overcome the cumbersome processes of the union’s machinery, encourage institutional ?exibility, and introduce diplomatic agility in the system. Finally, the EU will need to show steadfastness to sustain this agenda in the long term.

With this imperative in mind, the EU should reach out to the new US administration and propose a MENA policy to be discussed as a possible basis for a common regional agenda. Both sides will probably not agree on a full-?edged road map, but they could start by focusing on some clear and urgent priorities for action. In this regard, Turkey and Iran should stand out as natural choices.

‚A Call for EU-US Complementarity in the Middle East and North Africa‘ – Article by Marc Pierini and Pierre Vimont – Carnegie Europe.

The Article can be downloaded here

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