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The European elections brought no change for the Middle East

June 7, 2019 at 12:00 pm

The banner of European Elections is seen prior to European elections outside the Station Europe in Brussels, Belgium on 23 May 2019. [Dursun Aydemir – Anadolu Agency]

At the end of May, almost 500 million citizens across the European Union voted for Members of the European Parliament to represent them over the next five years, shaping the political orientation of the EU for the immediate future. While the results reflect voters’ desire for some real change, they brought no change for the Middle East.

The results triggered mixed reactions and interpretations, but it is obvious that European voters turned their backs on parties which have dominated EU institutions for a decade. Instead, they supported smaller candidates from Green, Liberal and Nationalist parties.

Europe has been largely absent from the Middle East for years, as it has been preoccupied with its own problems, from the 2008 financial crisis through migrant issues and now Brexit. The outcome of the elections is a divisive parliament, suggesting that one can expect a sense of déjà vu with Europe fighting internal battles and largely neglecting issues affecting its near neighbours.

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This is rather surprising, given the interdependence between Europe and the Middle East on a number of matters, as well as their geographic proximity. The ongoing violence in the region has already affected Europe deeply with refugee flows and the spread of extremism, which both threaten its basic security and declared values.

However, according to Lorenzo Kamel, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Turin and Senior Fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), European countries are actually paying a limited price considering the violence in the Middle East. Many migrants who are now in Europe possess valuable skills, education, financial means and other capabilities which eased their entry into the continent. “All others,” he told MEMO, “the poorest and weakest ones, have remained in countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey; they represent over 90 per cent of everyone affected by the post-2003 destabilisation of the region.”

Many European countries must share some responsibility for the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) regional chaos. Foreign interventions in Iraq and Libya produced catastrophic results and have contributed considerably to the migrant crisis and the rise of Daesh/ISIS. Along with the US, Europe has played a destructive role in the region while trying at the same time to act as a powerless and inefficient “honest broker”.

The latter is especially true in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict, recent developments regarding the Israeli annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights and Benjamin Netanyahu’s promises to annex part of the occupied West Bank. Although Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini has said that the EU “does not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights,” there is a general belief that the Union has been way too passive and is simply waiting for the ever elusive “Kushner peace plan” to materialise.

A voter casts his ballot at a polling station during the EU election in Rotterdam, Netherlands on May 23, 2019. [Abdullah Aşıran - Anadolu Agency]

A voter casts his ballot at a polling station during the EU election in Rotterdam, Netherlands on May 23, 2019. [Abdullah Aşıran – Anadolu Agency]

Not much change is to be expected in the future, says Professor Fulvio Attinà from the Department of Political and Social Sciences at Italy’s University of Catania. He explained that the EU policy-makers’ approach towards Israel-Palestine and Middle East politics is influenced by the inconsistent and conflict-prone politics of regional countries and actors: “The foreign policy instruments of the EU as the international organisation of the member states are singular, to say the least, and mostly focused on the economy or used for aid and assistance. The major EU-member states, instead, have true political means but they clash with the volatile nature of Middle Eastern politics.”

Lorenzo Kamel, who also serves as the Director of the New-Med Research Network, observed that the EU is unable to unify its approach even on relatively simple issues related to the conflict. In July 2013, it was discussing the possibility of labelling products originating from settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). In the end, it was unable to agree on this small but significant move.

Since the EU will be in a political transition period for many months now — with a new European Commission, a new president of the Council, and a new high representative for foreign and security policy to be appointed — Israel believes that this will be a perfect time for the Trump administration to unveil its “deal of the century”.

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The inability to act is also evident in the case of the war in Yemen and the absence of a joint EU stance towards Saudi Arabia’s aggressive regional policy and human rights violations, including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. While the EU Parliament has adopted several reports and resolutions condemning the Saudi coalition attacks in Yemen and called repeatedly upon the EU commission to introduce an arms embargo, its efforts have been ignored, especially by France and Britain, which have both profited from lucrative arms sales to the Saudis and the UAE.

Foreign policy documents adopted by the EU Parliament, noted Attina, are not formally part of any decision-making process. “Normally, their value is close to zero,” he pointed out. Only the European Council (made up of the heads of state of member states) can adopt a legally binding decision such as a European arms embargo, but this step has to be taken unanimously.

By not complying with its own declared principles and values, and being unable to take a more proactive and coherent approach when dealing with the Middle East and MENA issues, the EU is basically self-marginalised, giving the impression of an unreliable and weak partner of which other powers are taking advantage.

This is not surprising. “The EU is not a ‘fully-powered’ actor of international politics,” said Attina, “but an instrument of the member-state governments.” They use it to complement their own foreign policy. Too often, though, these two-track policies confront each other directly, contributing to an erosion of Europe’s soft power. Consequently, its incapacity to respond coherently and in line with declared principles puts the EU in a very awkward position, with an uncomfortable reliance on highly authoritarian leaders in the Middle East, such as Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi, Mohammad Bin Salman and General Khalifa Haftar.

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A good example of such an approach can be seen in French arms sales to Egypt, which according to Kamel jumped in value from €39.6 million in 2010 to €1.3 billion in 2016, despite the EU Foreign Affairs Council declaring in 2013 that member states had to suspend exports to Egypt of any equipment that could be used for domestic repression. The same is true of Britain and its exports to Saudi Arabia, as well as a number of other European countries. They often justify the gap between declared principles and practice by pointing to the new realities on the ground, and hope that “firm-hand” leaders like Sisi and Haftar will somehow manage to stop the migrants on their side of the Mediterranean. It is thus very likely that the main EU effort in the future when it comes to the Middle East will be focused on preventing immigration while other issues will be largely neglected.

It thus seems that nothing much has really changed since US President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski described Europe as, “too rich to be relevant to the world’s poor.” Europe, said Brzezinski, “attracts immigration but cannot encourage imitation. Too passive regarding international security. Too self-satisfied, it acts as if its central political goal is to become the world’s most comfortable retirement home.” Residents of retirement homes, though, don’t usually have long and healthy lives.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.