Europe is steadily losing relevance in the dynamic political landscape of the Middle East. Can it arrest this trend?
The Widening Rift between Historical Allies
President Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ for a Palestinian homeland has triggered a storm. The controversial plan legitimises Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in the Jordan Valley in exchange for an independent Palestine State.
The EU Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrel, has officially stated that the proposal “departs from” all existing international agreements and understandings. He has stressed upon a more conventional approach. In his opinion, "to build a just and lasting peace, the unresolved final status issues must be decided through direct negotiations between both parties." More importantly, the European Union rejected the efforts to legitimise the areas illegally occupied by Jewish settlements.
Due to the need for unanimity amongst its 27 members, the European Union is generally slow in responding to major international events. Its prompt response in this instance is indicative of its concern that the geopolitical equilibrium in the region is being disturbed without adequate consultations.
The public disagreement emphasises the growing rift between the United States and Europe. The sudden withdrawal of American forces from North-East Syria, giving the Turks a free hand, had also come as a surprise to the European Union. Similarly, the US strike on Qassim Soleimani was done without any prior warning to its European allies.
The Marginalisation of the European Union in the Middle East
Once the colonial master of the Middle East, Europe has been gradually relinquishing its influence in one of the world's most significant regions. Even though part of the same bloc and military alliance, Germany, France and the United Kingdom have divergent views. Europe now follows America's cue, rather than being proactive. Bilateral relations rather than a common EU foreign policy dictates diplomatic interventions.
When the major European countries sealed the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 along with the United States, it promised stability in the Middle East. Germany and France were proactive while the deal was being hammered together, but the unilateral US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was not opposed despite its huge economic blow-back. Even now, there is no coherent or cogent European strategy on this issue.
The European countries were part of the coalition air effort that was active over Syrian airspace while the battle to crush ISIS in Syria and Iraq was raging. Europe and its American ally have now left a vacuum in Syria, where Russia is the dominant external power. Even China has a greater say than Europe in Syrian affairs.
Libya is critical to European security. It is the gateway for migrants fleeing to Europe. A stable Libya is the centrepiece of any European strategy to stem the migrant tide. The American disengagement in Libya, allowing Turkey and Russia a free hand and the apparent endorsement of warlord Khalifa Haftar, have worsened the security situation, deepening the US-EU rift.
President Trump has been calling out EU members for not doing enough for global security, leaving the United States to do all the heavy lifting. President Trump had pointed out the declining budgets of many EU countries to buttress his claim. After the strike on Qassim Soleimani, President Trump called out to his European allies to “do more” - without getting into the specifics.
As per the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), 19 EU members had deployed about 3,000 soldiers in Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. In addition, there was a civil assistance mission involved in reconstruction, transport, energy and economic development. When the Iraqi Parliament asked all foreign troops to leave, EU states scaled down their presence, moving their troops to safer areas.
Filling the Growing Power Vacuum
Europe has the resources and the capacity to influence the political discourse in the Middle East. Its economic resources dwarf that of Russia and can match the United States, dollar to dollar. Militarily too, it compares favourably to Russia. France and the United Kingdom have military bases in the region, and their combined diplomatic network surpasses that of other major countries.
The European Union has now come forward and offered to act as a mediator to end the unrest between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The European Union has the economic heft and greater acceptability with the Palestinians to act as an honest broker.
NATO has agreed to expand its training mission in Iraq by relieving US forces engaged in training anti-ISIL forces. For the time being, NATO will continue to have non-combat duties while discussions with the United States will continue on its future role. EU navies will take part in enforcing the UN arms embargo on Libya.
Jamie Shea from the Friends of Europe, a Belgian think tank, has called President Trump’s demand for greater European participation in the Middle East as an opening to become more relevant in the Mediterranean. Prof. Fawaz A. Gerges of the London School of Economics commented, “The American century is coming to an end. There has been a rupture in global relations between historical allies, and NATO is at the centre.”
Europe cannot ‘bury its head in the sand’ with respect to the turmoil in the Middle East. A disruptive conflict in the region has a serious economic blow-back and can trigger yet another migrant exodus. Therefore, Europe needs to get proactively involved in calming down the Middle East. Resolving the Iran nuclear deadlock would be a good beginning. This is also an opportune moment to fill the vacuum in the region.
NATO's involvement in the training of the anti-ISIS capacity in Iraq is an encouraging sign. However, it is not enough. A larger military presence would give it a greater say. The bloc needs to formulate a clear and cogent policy.
Europe’s refocus on the Middle East has not gone well with its Eastern European allies, who remain concerned with Russian attempts to destabilise them. They fear that increased NATO involvement in the Middle East would be at their cost. This fear has to be calmed, and even the East Europeans must be harnessed in the European Union's efforts in the Middle East.