We keep hearing that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. However, thinking that the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy, but one that might also be a temporary friend, would perhaps be more appropriate when it comes to the situation in the Middle East, North Africa and Caucasus. As crises pile up from Libya to Azerbaijan with the same powers involved — namely Russia, Turkey and Iran — temporary and unstable might be the best way to describe the EU’s foreign policy. It is superficially mimicking the US’ notorious superpower unpredictability, while actually showing division and weakness.
Thus, it has been interesting to monitor the EU’s relationships with Russia, Turkey and Iran during the past decade. The most predictable point is where the EU chooses to put human rights at the forefront and where it decides to ignore them. Iran, for example, has been exempt from any EU human rights scrutiny, especially during the nuclear deal years, thanks to its $45 billion a year in trade contracts gifted by the US to EU companies. It is still exempt while the EU anxiously awaits the result of the US presidential election, which might reopen this much-needed business opportunity. On the other hand, Russia has been continuously targeted on this theme. Turkey, which we can refer to as the new player in town, has lately brought to light the divisions within the EU membership and the Western alliance.
Therefore, the recent rapprochement between French President Emmanuel Macron and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin was a big signal that the former is trying to change the dynamic of EU-Russia relations. This could have a strong and positive impact not only in Europe but in many files in the Middle East and in the former Soviet nations. This initiative was, from the start, criticized by EU lawmakers.
With the pick-and-choose EU decision-making on human rights, we can notice common patterns with America’s Democrats and the country’s rising left-wing political movements, as well as with Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups, which hold anti-Russia, pro-Iran and pro-China views regardless of their actions. This group was the one most opposed to Macron and, to a certain extent, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new approach to Russia and wanted to see it fail.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also criticized Macron’s approach and announced that the EU needed to complete its sanctions toolbox so that it could more quickly punish specific individuals anywhere in the world, like the 2012 Magnitsky Act in the US, referring mainly to Russia of course.
When it comes to Russia, the EU can build all the sanction toolboxes it wants but, ultimately, this will not change the dynamic of the relationship or Putin’s strategy. The EU should be more focused on building its common military and security infrastructure and a centralized and unified decision-making process rather than a sanctions toolkit.
With the euro becoming an undeniable reserve currency, Europe can start thinking of building a sanctions system like the US has. However, if its foreign policy has no clear strategy and is overrun by governments, it will have difficulty keeping to its strategic objectives and achieving its goals. It can be compared to a boat sailing with no clear destination, just being guided by the wind.
The recent issues with Turkey have exposed divisions between France, Germany, Italy, and the EU. The same potentially applies to Russia and maybe, in the future, China’s Belt and Road Initiative too. Europe’s integration of various immigrant communities from the Middle East, the Western alliance, energy supplies, economic growth, and human rights commitments have all crashed together in the recent geopolitical crises and unveiled all of the bloc’s contradictions, flaws and weaknesses.
So the EU has an important decision to make going forward. I firmly believe that the transatlantic alliance between Europe and the US is key to the stability of the world and as an engine of growth, into which new rising powers should be plugged. However, the Europeans need to pull their weight to pursue these common interests and build a unified force capable of acting on difficult files. The strength of Russia, Iran and Turkey is their capacity to act to protect their interests. The EU lacks this.
In the eventuality that the US gives a green light to Turkey to challenge Russia in all the region’s hot spots, it will mainly be because the Europeans have been unable to propose a proper solution. But the EU will ultimately settle this bill one way or the other. Despite this, European policymakers seem to want to wait for a new transatlantic agenda to be written following the US elections. Instead, they should take the initiative and build a vision of what their broader region should look like.
The EU is a strong economic bloc, but some say the euro currency was created “inside out,” which means it was introduced before a truly common and unified European fiscal policy had been put in place, and that this is its main weakness on the economic front today. The coronavirus pandemic has forced a mutualization of debt and a first step toward this unified fiscal policy.
But, when it comes to geopolitical and foreign policy issues, the virus crisis might not leave the EU enough time to react and could cause irreparable damage. The current situations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in Syria and in Libya attest to this. Indeed, on these three separate files, Russia, Turkey and Iran stand firm on their positions, while the EU does not. The clearest example is the Libyan file, where we had French sovereign institutions completely at odds with the Italians, while Brussels was expressing a third political stance.
Europe can be compared to a boat sailing with no clear destination, just being guided by the wind.
Khaled Abou Zahr
Even if the EU had a centralized political decision-making body, nothing could change if a European defense and security infrastructure was not also created. The recent episode with NATO, Turkey and France in the eastern Mediterranean is evidence, especially as Turkey threatened the EU members into no strong responses other than France’s isolated position. Therefore, trying to project strength on human rights issues with sanctions, while keeping silent on clear acts of aggression, makes the EU look divided, weak and biased.
To be able to build a successful rapprochement with Russia, China, Turkey or whoever serves the interests of the EU, it needs to build a military and security toolkit and sovereign decision-making body before anything else. Today, the US can oppose and compete (or agree) with China and Russia simultaneously, while the EU is not even able to compete and oppose (or agree) with Turkey and Russia simultaneously, especially when these two countries hold the key to keeping European homes warm this winter. The question is for how many winters to come will the EU accept this?
- Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.