Secretary-General of the UN Antonio Guterres; German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German FM Heiko Maas at the end of a Peace summit on Libya. (File/AFP)
When Ursula von der Leyen took over as head of the European Commission last year, she called for the organization to play a greater role in geopolitics. A year later, this idea has proved to be a much-needed step that can greatly contribute to providing stability in a turbulent Middle East. Though Europe is relieved at the election of Joe Biden, who seems more committed to a multilateral approach, the US president-elect does not differ much from Trump in his desire to pursue retrenchment from the region. Therefore, Europe needs to step up its efforts to fill the role played by the US.
The turbulence the region is witnessing started with the Arab uprisings, which triggered the collapse of authoritarian regimes that had plunged the region into decades of stagnation. These shallow and centralized regimes did not leave behind strong institutions that could serve the average citizen or prevent states from unraveling. This created threat and an opportunity for influence for the regional powers. The chaos increased the sense of insecurity of different regimes in the Middle East. Each regime started looking beyond its borders in order to secure its own survival.
In 2013, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood plotted to take power in the UAE. This marked a turning point in Emirati foreign policy and a shift from the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan’s philosophy of focusing on building friendly relations and on humanitarian aid. The UAE reversed its traditional foreign policy course by adopting a more assertive attitude that was aimed at shaping the regional landscape, driven largely by an anti-Brotherhood perspective.
Meanwhile, the failed 2016 coup d’etat in Turkey put President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the defensive, which translated into an offensive and interventionist foreign policy. Chaos in the region also allowed Iran to spread its tentacles everywhere. American retrenchment exacerbated the problem, as the US was the de facto offshore balancer in the region. The prime example of this was the first Gulf War, when US intervention prevented Saddam Hussein from destabilizing the existing regional system.
The American retrenchment started with Barack Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq and was shaped by a general isolationist public mood that came as a reaction to George W. Bush’s wars. The US disengagement reinforced the feeling that each state needs to fend for itself in a dangerous regional environment. States with similar perceived threats coalesced and formed alliances. The competition between the Turkey-Qatar-Iran and UAE-Saudi Arabia axes is directly affecting local conflicts and regional security and stability.
It is in Europe’s interest to make sure its neighborhood is stable, safe, prosperous, and can accommodate its inhabitants.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Europe, on the other hand, has been adopting a soft power policy toward the region based on economic cooperation and aid. However, such a policy needs to be revised and replaced with a more assertive policy, as troubles in the region are having a huge spillover effect on Europe. The flow of migrants resulting from the Syrian crisis led to social problems, while the rise of Daesh in Syria and Iraq gave an impetus to homegrown terrorism in Europe. These two factors fueled the rise of far-right parties, and in Poland and Hungary they are at the helm of government.
The rise of ultra-nationalist movements presents a severe problem for the EU. The 70-year European integration project, which has gathered countries under a cooperation framework and generated peace and prosperity after two devastating wars, risks unraveling because of the spillover of problems from our region. It is in Europe’s interest to make sure its neighborhood is stable, safe and prosperous and can accommodate its inhabitants — hence Europe is the most eligible actor to fill the void left by the US. It is already starting to become more proactive, such as with Germany’s leading role in trying to reconcile the warring Libyan factions.
Today, Europe realizes that stability in the region means stability at home. However, it should have a forceful policy. It can no longer afford to appease corrupt regimes and let the money flow without any accountability. It needs to be firm in forcing change. For years, Europe has tolerated mediocrity for the sake of stability. Now it realizes that this policy is no longer sustainable and that appeasing corrupt regime does not guarantee stability.
Europe should also no longer allow others to blackmail it. A prime example of this came in 2018, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s discussions with the Lebanese government on the issue of refugees. Instead of discussing with Germany how to accommodate refugees and help host communities in order to avoid creating tensions between the two, the Lebanese government used refugees as a negotiating card to extort funding from the EU.
By now, Europe should realize it needs to take bold steps, as cosmetic operations do not provide solutions. Europe should no longer accept this sort of treatment from leaders in the region. It should put all its weight behind forcing reforms on corrupt systems — reforms that will render those countries functional and livable. It might be a big ask of the European Commission, especially as it represents a consortium of countries and its decision-making requires a consensus that is sometimes hard to achieve, but Europe needs to find a formula through which it can have a more active role in Middle Eastern geopolitics. In the current circumstances, European engagement is no longer a matter of choice; it is a matter of necessity.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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