Failure: The EU in the Middle East

By Edward Lucas

[This article was first published by CEPA]

Neither foes nor friends take European foreign policy seriously

Did you see the European Navy’s carrier strike force looming off the coast of Israel, reminding the countries of the Middle East that decision-makers in Brussels wield military might as well as the single market’s rulebook? The diplomatic clout was impressive too, with Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, her European Council counterpart Charles Michel, foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, Germany’s Olaf Scholz, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and French President Emmanuel Macron, plus Britain’s Rishi Sunak, all on the same plane as they shuttled between Cairo, Doha, Amman, Riyadh and Jerusalem, brokering first a ceasefire and then a peace deal. Decision-makers in Beijing and Moscow doubtless drew the right conclusion: Europeans have a grip on geopolitics; don’t mess with them. 

In some parallel universe, that may be reality. But in this life, it’s a dream, and one that contrasts disappointingly and puzzlingly with the strong support shown in Europe for Ukraine.

True, Europe is divided internally and externally when it comes to the Middle East. Some countries are loyal supporters of Israel’s right to self-defence (and thus its existence, they would argue). Others feel instinctive solidarity with the hard-pressed Palestinians. Politicians in countries with big Muslim populations remember where the votes are; the Jewish electorate everywhere is much smaller, and more diffuse.

Yet that should apply to attitudes towards Russia too: countries with Orthodox Christian connections, a history of pan-Slavic sentiments (Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria) or big Russian diaspora populations (Germany) might be expected to side with the Kremlin. Poland and Romania have historically difficult relations with Ukraine. In countries like Germany and Italy there were big commercial interests that stood to lose out from sanctions on the Kremlin. But none of this weakened Europe’s stance. The only superficially pro-Putin country in the EU is Hungary, where the reasons are primarily commercial, and perhaps also contrarian: whatever Brussels wants, prime minister Victor Orbán dislikes. 

The European interest is clear in the Middle East too. Humanitarian questions aside, instability and conflict in the region stoke poverty and migration: that should catch decision-makers’ attention. Nor does Europe lack leverage. By population it would be the world’s third-largest country, after India and China. It’s the second-largest economy behind the United States. It enjoys hefty cultural, financial and trade clout. The EU proudly calls itself  the “most important donor for the Palestinian people,” splurging money on the Palestinian Authority which runs the West Bank, and on UNWRA, the United Nations refugee agency active in Gaza. It gets little for that. Imagine offering visa-free travel or single-market access to sweeten agreement on a two-state solution. 

Unlike the US, the EU has diplomatic relations with everyone in the Middle East, including Iran. But it was Beijing, not Brussels, that brokered the audacious deal between Tehran and Riyadh in March. The Middle East seems close enough to be lucrative and distracting for Europe’s national governments, but too far away to focus minds on a unified, effective strategy. 

A decisive European policy might not work, any more than repeated American efforts have done in past years. Unreasonable people do not necessarily care about peace and prosperity. But at least the attempt would make the Europeans seem serious actors on the global stage. That would help deter foes. But more importantly, it impresses friends. The big question for the coming years is how far the United States can rely on European help in dealing with its big challenge, China, and how much transatlantic security assistance it will offer in return. On the evidence of recent days, the answer will be “not a lot”. Everyone in the free world will be worse off as a result.

Photo Credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash