Europe and the Middle East

Europe and the Middle East: The Non-Strategic Way Ahead

Across the Middle East, the European Union and its member states are putting stability before reforms and human rights. Their main priority is to stop migration flows, whatever the cost.

Polish and Lithuanian external borders are now heavily patrolled. Lithuania has put up barbed-wire fences that straddle its border with Belarus while Poland has physically pushed back migrants to its neighbor to the east.

The majority of migrants who spurred this reaction have flown to Minsk from Baghdad, Iraq with the prospect that they could enter a European Union country through green borders. Meanwhile, Belarus’s president, Aleksander Lukashenko, has instrumentalized the migrant issue to get back at Lithuania and Poland for their consistent criticism of his crackdown on the opposition within the country that began in August 2020, following protests against the rigged presidential election.

The EU’s reaction to the new “walls” being built along the bloc’s external borders reveal a change in perceptions, however. Leaders of both EU institutions and several member states rallied against Hungary back in 2015, when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán erected barbed-wire fences to stop the wave of refugees fleeing the war in Syria from illegally entering Hungary via the Western Balkans route. Six years later, there is an unspoken acceptance of the way in which Lithuania and Poland have erected similar fences on the EU’s eastern borders.

It is a reactive posture and not pragmatic reforms in development aid programs and the human rights arena that defines the EU’s foreign policy posture towards the Middle East and North Africa region. Migration is at the center of it.

Migration as a reactive response will only diminish if populations, especially the youth, are given stable prospects for the future.

Pouring money into the region will not solve the core of the migration issue. Migration as a reactive response will only diminish if populations, especially the youth, are given stable prospects for the future, and particularly when it comes to job security and the protection of their basic human and political rights. Individuals between the ages of 15 and 29 account for roughly 30 percent of the population of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) today.[i] By 2050, according to UNICEF[ii], half of the countries in the MENA region are projected to experience further population increases amounting to a growth of at least 50 per cent. Iraq, Sudan and the Palestinian Territories are projected to see nearly a doubling of their population in the 35 years between 2015 and 2050.

Inequalities in terms of gender issues, rampant levels of corruption, and the authoritarian reflexes of several of these countries are additional factors that encourage migration towards Europe.

Short-sighted policies which are designed to curb migration levels in the most immediate term – such as by the erection of barriers - continue to carry their own dangerous deficiencies.

These are problems that require a combination of short- and long-term strategies. The failings of the EU and its individual member states is that they do not think or act with longer term strategic goals in mind. Short-sighted policies which are designed to curb migration levels in the most immediate term – such as by the erection of barriers – continue to carry their own dangerous deficiencies, as if the EU did not experience the inefficiencies associated with this approach firsthand.

The EU has had a consistently poor record when it comes to forging an informed and sustainable foreign policy towards the MENA region. Much of the excitement over the launch of the Barcelona Process in 1995 for a Union for the Mediterranean revealed a certain degree of naiveite about their will to make the MENA region like Europe. Since then, there have been endless initiatives started and a series of lengthy communiques published by the European Commission, not to mention the platitudes of the European External Action Service. They all lack effective strategies.

One main reason for this is that EU member states do not share a common perception of threat about migration from the MENA region – whether defined in political or economic terms. Nordic countries see Russia and the competition for influence in the Arctic arena as their primary concern. France is occupied with terrorism first – now focusing on the Sahel – and migration second. Germany is concerned with migration, although on an equally important level, also with Russia and China – particularly on issues related to cyber security.

Member states in the south and along the Mediterranean are perhaps the most coherent bloc in terms of perceiving migration as their number one foreign policy issue emanating from the MENA region. Lukashenko’s cynical policy of pushing beleaguered Iraqi migrants across the border and into the EU may have in fact bolstered the sense of unity on this issue.

Until Lukashenko’s action, it was left up to particular member states for migration to filter into the analyses or policy memoranda published by the EU Commission and the European External Action Service at the highest levels of European policymaking.

It is worth giving a thorough read to the EU’s “Renewed partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood: A new Agenda for the Mediterranean”[iii], published in April, 2021. The declaratory style aside, the paper’s policy shopping list omits substantive strategic planning for the region for the long term. It does mention the need to increase intra-regional trade, but this represents an old aspiration of the EU – first articulated when the Barcelona Process was launched – which has gone nowhere. The intention for furthering investment programs, curbing the challenges of climate degradation, and coping with the Covid-19 pandemic feature as additional elements in the paper that could be characterized as having a medium to long-term outlook.

The Commission’s communique also makes a passing reference to the EU playing a bigger role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As for the Abraham Accords that former U.S President Donald Trump championed to normalise relations between Israel, Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan[iv], the EU missed another opportunity to play a more proactive role instead of being mealy-mouthed about the peace agreements and remaining on the sidelines of new developments.

The Commission’s paper confirms two main areas of interest with regard to the EU’s priorities in the MENA region for the coming years: the dual issues of migration and stability. The EU does realize that stability in the region – despite the fact that it can breed its own instability depending on how the government or regime exercises power – is key to mitigating migration flows, at least at the level of rhetorics. On the implementation side of things, this is less visible.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been among the few European leaders who played a major role in mediating efforts aimed at the above goal. Trying to end the war in Libya was among such efforts in an unusually active stance for Berlin. Attempts by the EU to step up its actions as a unified body were nevertheless thwarted from the beginning of this conflict as France and Italy initially had different agendas and supported opposing groups within Libya. This entailed that the various factions and war-lords of Libya were able to continue fighting for control over their respective areas of the country. Libyans could not trust Paris or Rome as impartial brokers of peace, which contributed to Turkey and Russia gaining a foothold and a chance to meddle in the country’s domestic affairs. Germany’s efforts as a trustworthy mediator managed to gain traction. Merkel’s quiet diplomacy may in fact lead to presidential elections that could be held this coming December.

Germany’s approach was underpinned by the realization that if the war did not end in Libya, there would be an endless flow of migrants using it as a transit country to Europe from the Middle East as well as the African continent. If Libya could return to some semblance of stability, then irregular migration towards Europe could be reduced just to the extent that support for populist, anti-immigration parties in Germany and elsewhere across the EU could be curbed. All big ifs but at least a plan for political stability was on the table. Firm political and economic support by the EU – as well as the United States – is however necessary for seeing it through.

Germany’s foreign diplomatic and economic relations with Egypt and Turkey have also been linked to considerations about migration. In a historic deal, German Siemens Mobility signed a contract in the value of $3bn for the development of the Turnkey Rail System in Egypt.[v] The deal will provide some 15,000 local jobs and other spin-off opportunities, particularly for the country’s tourism sector. Accompanying the investment by Siemens, Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, expressed his willingness for cooperation with Germany in order to curb migration to Europe. Merkel helped strike a financial deal with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the same goal too, so that Turkey would close the floodgates of migration to Europe.

The cases of Libya, Egypt and Turkey aptly illustrate how fear of the political and economic costs of migration has been driving certain foreign policy strategies for Germany – also backed by other EU member states.

Looking at other countries in Europe’s Neighbourhood, sources of uncertainty and potential instability abound. In Tunisia, the questionable commitment to democracy by the country’s new president, Kais Saied, is combined with a rapidly deteriorating economy.

Prioritizing stability would necessarily come at the cost of promoting democracy, the rule of law, and peacebuilding.

Prioritizing stability, however, would necessarily come at the cost of promoting democracy, the rule of law, and peacebuilding – normative principles that the EU has been championing for decades. Immediate interests of curbing migration might necessitate turning a blind eye to how President Sisi and President Erdogan are doing everything possible to suppress political opposition in Egypt and Turkey respectively, how King Abdullah is siphoning off funds for his own use[vi], and how Israeli and Palestinian leaders are involved in a long, insidious relationship to preserve a status quo that no longer delivers results for the people.

The most important issue Europeans should face is that the status quo in most countries of the MENA region cannot be sustained. But that is exactly what the Europeans are supporting in varying degrees.

For European policymakers – as if they learned nothing from the pre-2011 days that brought the MENA region to a boiling point – a less than ideal status quo, but a status quo nonetheless, is still preferable to rapid systemic changes. This “non-strategic” track may well be the approach that defines the EU’s actions for years to come. If that is the case, it carries a very high price. It puts the future – that is in the hands of the younger generation, on hold. Just think of the consequences.


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