Between the Pen and the Sword: Continuity and Change in the EU’s Foreign Policy for the Middle East

EU strategies and policies pertaining to the region exhibit a difficult balance between short- and long-term interests.

The European Union’s (EU) foreign policy with regard to the Middle East is shaped by a complex interplay between external and internal goals as well as the multiplicity of evolving foreign policy portfolios of Member States. Both policymaking and implementation are permeated by persistent dichotomies[i]: those of pursuing stability and promoting democracy, prioritising state or societal resilience, and working through bilateral or multilateral mechanisms. This inspires speculation over what exactly the most prominent driving factors of EU foreign policy are in any specific case. Despite the fact that some initiatives succeed in challenging the exclusionary nature of these dichotomies, the EU and its Member States often fall back on them.

In addition, EU strategies and policies pertaining to the region exhibit a difficult balance between short- and long-term interests. They are also reflective of cumulative and corrective choices that alternate between logics of engagement (e.g., in the context of the nuclear deal with Iran), containment (e.g., vis-à-vis irregular migration in partnership with transit countries in the Southern Neighbourhood), and damage control (e.g., in avoiding criticism towards the Union’s inertia in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict).[ii] Overall, the EU continues its pursuit of establishing itself as a regulatory authority and, in a more selective manner, a credible crisis manager and security actor in the Middle East. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the “return of war in Europe”,[iii] old policies have been reviewed, new declarations of intent have been released, and the emerging courses of action are being drawn up. These developments are underpinned by a changing geopolitical imagination that brings the Arabian Peninsula and sub-Saharan Africa closer to the Southern Neighbourhood; and the Red Sea and the Gulf closer to the Mediterranean.

Taking the Back Seat

Direct engagement has given way to containment and damage control from afar.

If there is a specific historical pattern that encapsulates EU policy towards the MENA region, it is the lack of proactivity with regard to hot-button geopolitical files, including conflicts in the region.[iv] Exceptions, indeed, exist. The EU has been instrumental in preventing the complete demise of the JCPOA, and in financing humanitarian assistance in Syria throughout the years. However, the EU has systematically been unable to mobilise political capital in a vigorous way and, where it managed to do so, it generally failed to be an effective power broker. When it comes to crisis and conflict management, it has performed best by taking over complementary positions. When EU-led initiatives or policy trajectories preferred by the EU faltered, direct engagement has given way to containment and damage control from afar.

Notwithstanding, the EU has historically sought to deploy a range of instruments for its broader involvement with the region. Central to this have been the reviewed versions of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and, to a lesser extent, the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM). The former was launched in 2004 with the primary aim of exporting the incremental model of peace and security, democracy, the rule of law and free market economy in line with the EU’s attitudes towards its own success. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings brought the ENP’s model into question, but the EU’s reaction was to reinforce the logic of positive financial and diplomatic engagement in exchange for partners’ progress in ‘deep reform’. This remained ill-defined and largely failed to convince regional audiences. The adjustments put in place were meagre considering the authoritarianism and violence that soon followed.[v] In the face of a turbulent regional environment, and heightened cross-border threats, the 2015 review resulted in the effective securitisation of the ENP, marking a trend with important implications. Three new priorities were added: 1) economic development for stabilisation; 2) security; and 3) migration and mobility.[vi] As in the case of Egypt, the ENP’s financial instruments and programmatic work in the Southern Neighbourhood tended to prioritise state over societal resilience.[vii] The area of migration and refugees became “the single most important area of cooperation or, [viii] creating recurrent tensions between the EU and its southern partners. Paradoxically, the updated ENP did not come with robust crisis response and conflict management tools nor was it connected well enough to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Security and Defence Policy mechanisms.[ix]

The recent events and transformations post-2020 compelled the EU to design a ‘Renewed Partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood’.[x] Though its priorities remain largely the same, there is a greater emphasis on energy security, a recognition of the Abraham Accords as a strategic advantage, and a relative abandonment of the securitised language. Crucially, a new strategic partnership programme with the Gulf was launched last year.[xi]

Energy Security and the Green Transition

The EU is pushing for Green Hydrogen Partnerships with MENA countries and encouraging investment through the Global Gateway strategy.

Ending energy dependence on Russia and rapidly diversifying hydrocarbon supplies emerged as top priorities following the onset of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Reaching out to energy partners  more unconventionally, to the Arab Gulf states became a logical solution. Despite oil-producing countries have limitations on how much and how fast they can divert exports towards Europe, the EU was eager to secure access to resources and individual Member States (including France, Germany and Italy) rushed to sign deals, even if deliveries would not start for a few more years.[xii] For the EU, the Gulf has a key role to play in the new energy strategy – REPowerEU2. If appropriate follow-up strategies are pursued, the current engagements driven by the ostracization of Russian gas may strengthen cooperation in both hydrocarbon and non-hydrocarbon energy, and not only in terms of trade, but also investments in technology, transport, and infrastructure development.

In light of the EU’s aspirations and MENA countries’ potential, “hydrogen is the most promising field”[xiii] of clean energy cooperation. The EU wants to capitalise on the shifting perceptions amongst Arab Gulf states towards the Green Deal, the proclaimed net-zero goals of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the transitional plans of countries like Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Algeria. The key questions will be, on the one hand, how to balance disparate interests and approaches while advancing the transition, and on the other hand, how to meet and funnel the large-scale investments needed. In balancing this act, the EU is pushing for Green Hydrogen Partnerships with MENA countries and encouraging investment through the Global Gateway strategy. Even if regional partners prioritise the allocation of green energy for domestic consumption, as some researchers asserted,[xiv] the EU will try to lead the transition, diffuse international norms and standards, create synergies across economic sectors, and pull its own weight to encourage others to follow. Nonetheless, the EU must be careful not to trigger international criticism by falling into the trap of short-term tunnel vision that may be perceived as opportunistic and contradictory to its proclaimed goals across the region. Episodes like the scramble for hydrocarbons in response to the war in Ukraine may lead others to question the EU’s seriousness towards its own long-term commitments and, ultimately, taint its projection of normative power.

Soft and Hard Security

The maritime arena is an area of security in which the EU is the keenest to promote its interests.

In the context of security, it is worth noting elements of continuity and change in EU policy. Terrorism still looms large in considerations on engagement with MENA countries. Beyond the latent threats of Daesh and al-Qaeda, the EU’s acquiescence has played a role in consolidating the regional crackdown on ‘political ’,[xv] a trend to which the EU has shown no major objection since the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013. Although individual Member States adopt varying stances, the EU has been generally passive in preventing the political stalemate in Libya[xvi] (where reconciliation with Islamist presence in the government was once within reach), stopping systematic repression in Egypt or criticising Ennahda’s persecution and the broader authoritarian turn in Tunisia.[xvii] Instead, the EU is reinforcing the international image of these regimes as successful bulwarks against terrorism, exemplified in the co-chairmanships with Morocco and Egypt at the Global Counterterrorism Forum.[xviii] However, recent developments serve as a bitter reminder of the risks of prioritising authoritarian stability. After all, hybrid threats usually link back to state involvement. The corruption scandal that is shaking the European Parliament’s legitimacy points at illegal meddling from Qatar and Morocco.[xix] Notwithstanding the veracity of the allegations, the episode may damage relations in ways that are still to be seen, with both Qatar[xx] and Morocco[xxi] already signalling a possible rebuff.

On matters of hard security, close cooperation with the U.S. as the foremost extra-regional actor continues to dominate. However, the ongoing recalibration of U.S. Middle East policy, coupled with the EU’s search for its own geopolitical voice—motivated by the realisation that influence comes with presence—are advancing an alternative regional security architecture. The EU’s engagement with Arab Gulf states may evolve to include a political-military dialogue, as declared in the European Commission’s strategic partnership.[xxii] More interestingly, there are signs of growing alignment with the region’s anti-Iran camp[xxiii], albeit still short of categorical moves like the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organisation.

The maritime arena is an area of security in which the EU is the keenest to promote its interests. The Council set the stage by declaring the North-Western Indian Ocean a ‘maritime area of interest’ last year.[xxiv] With Operation Atalanta in the Horn as an example of success, and the renewed commitment to European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH), the EU is showcasing its abilities as a maritime security provider while embracing its “ad-hoc, flexible missions”[xxv] that largely avoid the constraints found in the Common Foreign and Security Policy. A bigger role at sea can support multiple objectives, from ensuring freedom of navigation via vital trading routes, to establishing a larger influence in peace negotiations in conflicts like Yemen. The EU has the potential to establish a modular security presence extending to the Mediterranean, where the maritime domain is heavily entangled with the Libyan conflict and the EU’s dilemma over migration and asylum.

(Securitised) Migration and Asylum

The EU’s externalisation of borders and controls to neighbouring countries is not new.[xxvi] The so-called EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan of 2015 and incidents such as the deadly stampede in Melilla last year[xxvii] add to a dubious record that feeds into sentiments of resentment and hypocrisy across the region. With a ‘New’ Pact on Migration and Asylum that failed to live up to expectations, the tendency remains to reproduce a securitised approach. This is most apparent in the Mediterranean Sea. Objections to Operation Sophia (an EU-led mission to neutralise refugee smuggling routes and, controversially,[xxviii] to save lives at sea) ultimately led to the mission’s substitution with Operation Irini in March 2020. Operation Irini’s focus on enforcing the arms embargo on Libya and disrupting human smuggling led the EU to effectively abandon any formal role in the rescue of people illegally crossing the sea. The Union has even provided assurances to reluctant Member States that the mission would not contribute to the so-called pull factor,[xxix] the belief that the presence of military vessels in the Mediterranean encourages irregular crossings. The EU’s self-imposed limitations through the logic of security mean that “NGO boats are now, in effect, at the centre of the EU’s migration policy,”[xxx] highlighting a void of governance that can only result in more deaths.[xxxi]

Reflections for the Future

The EU is far from simply doing away with the existing dichotomies in its foreign policy towards the MENA region.

Calls and initiatives that foreshadow a more geopolitically oriented and security-focused EU almost always spark debates over common values: what they are, when they apply, which ones should be prioritised and how they advance common and individual interests. Despite the growing perception of a challenging environment that asks for more decisive action, alongside less ambition in promoting values, the EU is far from simply doing away with the existing dichotomies in its foreign policy towards the MENA region. As Colombo and Soler i Lecha contend, these do not need to be mutually exclusive, but can behave as mutually reinforcing aspirations.[xxxii] The green transition is perhaps the EU’s best opportunity at shaping the region’s normative order in the long term. However, EU policymakers will surely keep in mind that MENA regimes tend to be fundamentally concerned with their security. But regimes are not the only voices from the region that matter. The EU would do well to avoid sticky habits of setting the agenda for the region without factoring in local populations. But, deciding who is included in conversations, and on what terms, will make an important difference.

[i]Colombo, S. and Soler i Lecha, E. 2019. A half-empty glass: limits and dilemmas of the EU’s relations to the MENA countries. MENARA Working Papers no. 32.
[ii]Colombo, S. and Soler i Lecha, E. (2021) “Europe and the ‘New’ Middle East,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 23, no. 3: 403-422. DOI: 10.1080/19448953.2021.1888246.
[iii]European External Action Service. 2022. A Strategic Compass for Security and Defence.
[iv]Tocci, N., Alcaro, R., Caruso, F., Colombo, S., Cristiani, D. Dessi, A., Fusco, F. and Huber, D. 2021. From tectonic shifts to winds of change in North Africa and the Middle East: Europe’s role. IAI Papers 21-12.
[v]Stivachtis, Y. 2018. The EU and the Middle East: the European Neighbourhood Policy. E-International Relations. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/
[vi]European External Action Service. 2021. European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP).
[vii]Bordón, J. 2019. “The European Union and the Egyptian Neighbour: assessing the characterization of resilience as an external action priority.” Paix et Securité Internationales, no. 7 (January): 323-348. DOI: 10.25267/Paix_secur_int.2019.i7.11.
[viii]Colombo, S. and Soler i Lecha, E. 2019. A half-empty glass: limits and dilemmas of the EU’s relations to the MENA countries. MENARA Working Papers no. 32.
[ix]Blockmans, S. 2017. The obsolescence of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Brussels: Centre for European Policy Studies.
[x]European Commission. 2021. Renewed Partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood: a new agenda for the Mediterranean. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/
[xi]European Commission. 2022. A Strategic Partnership with the Gulf. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/
[xii]ISPI. 2022. Europe’s bumpy road to energy security: heading to the Middle East? MED This Week.; Al Jazeera. 2023. “Italy’s Eni signs $8bn gas deal with Libya amid energy crunch.” Al Jazeera, January 28, 2023.
[xiii]Bianco, C. 2021. Power play: Europe’s climate diplomacy in the Gulf. ECFR Policy Brief.
[xiv]Rybski, R. (2022) “Energy in the European Green Deal: impacts and recommendations for MENA countries.” Journal of World Energy Law and Business, jwac033.
[xv]Hafez, F. 2021. “Europe has entered its own era of McCarthyism -against Islam.” Open Democracy, December 8, 2021.
[xvi]Marcuzzi, S. 2022. The EU, NATO and the Libya crisis: scaling ambitions down? Atlantic Council Report.
[xvii]Fox, B. 2022. “Democracy campaigners frustrated as EU shies away from criticising Tunisia’s Saied.” Euractiv, October 20, 2022.
[xviii]El Tawil, N. 2022. “Egypt to co-chair Global Counterterrorism Forum for 2 years.” Egypt Today, April 8, 2022.
[xix]Rosskopf, K. and Bodoni, S. 2023. “What you need to know about the EU corruption scandal involving Qatar and Morocco.” The Washington Post, February 2, 2023.
[xx]Espinoza, J., Foy, H. and Kerr, S. 2022. “EU corruption scandal could hit ties with Doha, Qatar diplomat warns.” Financial Times, December 18, 2022.
[xxi]Euractiv. 2023. “Morocco votes to review ties with European Parliament.” Euractiv, January 23, 2023.
[xxii]European Commission. 2022. A Strategic Partnership with the Gulf. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/[xxiii]Motamedi, M. 2023. Iran condemns EU vote over ‘terrorist’ designation for IRGC. Al Jazeera, January 21, 2023.
[xxiv]Council of the EU. 2022. Coordinated Maritime Presences: Council extends implementation in the Gulf of Guinea for two years and establishes a new Maritime Area of Interest in the North-Western Indian Ocean.
[xxv]Bianco, C. and Moretti, M. 2022. Europe’s role in Gulf maritime security. Middle East Institute.
[xxvi]Colombo, S. and Soler i Lecha, E. 2019. A half-empty glass: limits and dilemmas of the EU’s relations to the MENA countries. MENARA Working Papers no. 32.
[xxvii]Le Monde. 2022. “Deaths rise to 23 in stampede as thousands of migrants attempt to enter Spanish enclave Melilla.” Le Monde, June 24, 2022.
[xxviii]Barigazzi, J. 2020. “Operation Sophia to be closed down and replaced.” Politico, February 17, 2020.
[xxix]Rankin, J. 2020. “EU agrees to deploy warships to enforce Libya embargo.” The Guardian, February 17, 2020.
[xxx]Barigazzi, J. 2022. “The EU is privatizing its migrant rescue work -by default.” Politico, November 29, 2022.
[xxxi]Armstrong, K. and Slow, O. 2023. “Italy migrants boat shipwreck: nearly 60 killed off Calabria coast.” BBC, February 27, 2023.
[xxxii]Colombo, S. and Soler i Lecha, E. 2019. A half-empty glass: limits and dilemmas of the EU’s relations to the MENA countries. MENARA Working Papers no. 32.

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