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January 06, 2021

The EU in Action I: The Middle East and North Africa

If Europe has ambitions to shape the future of its neighborhood, rather than just accept it, it must redefine its role in the Middle East and take action now.

Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Damascus
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Imagine waking up one morning in 2030 to headlines like these: “Libya—Five Years of Peace,” “European Election Observers Arrive in Syria,” and “Grand Opening of Trans-Mediterranean Energy Network.”

Of course, these developments can never come simply as a linear progression from our current state. If we continue in the direction we are going now, the future will be a whole lot darker. However, the headlines do represent what futurology calls a “desirable future.” The term may be redolent of science fiction, but it is actually a very useful tool for thinking through reforms, identifying obstacles, and developing alternatives to current policies. To do so, you first formulate a concrete endpoint—a desirable one of course—then think “backwards” from there. The process can reveal the gap between present and future, and suggest how it might be closed, demonstrating the limits to future feasibility limits and giving an idea of the required resources.

For a Europe that is currently pondering its foreign policy options, this thought experiment should mark the beginning of every deliberation. Beginning with desirable futures is the only way to escape the danger of status quo thinking, which can easily get the upper hand, especially in times of crisis. But constant “crisis thinking” inevitably tends to be short-termist, losing any sense of strategic depth. Its long-term goals are rarely achieved.

In the specific case of Europe’s southern neighborhood, a “desirable future in 2030” might look like this: a region that is politically stable, economically productive, peaceful in security terms, socially balanced, and equipped to face the challenges of the near future. But what would Europe have to do to get to this imaginary breakfast table scenario?

Homework for Europe

Every future thought game begins by assessing the kind of influence exerted by each actor on the future in question. The future does not just happen: it largely comes about through human choices. In the case of 2030, this means recognizing that the future of North Africa and the Middle East will be shaped first and foremost by regional decision-makers, but also by the Americans, the Chinese, and the Europeans. While Europe has nothing resembling sole decision-making power over the Middle East’s future, it will certainly play a role. What that role will be, is something it must decide for itself. If Europe has ambitions to shape the future of its neighborhood, rather than just accept it, it must redefine its role in the light of the future outlined above.

The first step would be to create a self-contained foreign policy environment. Self-contained here does not mean that Europe would become a new Switzerland. Instead, it is about bringing all policies and actions into a coherent whole. Currently, Europe does not have a unified Middle East policy. It has many: a host of foreign policy narratives get told, between member states and European Union institutions, but also between different EU policy areas, including the economy, environment, and security. When the EU urges human rights, European ministers are only too happy to smile for photos. But when the EU seeks long-term reforms in partner countries, some member states take actions that undermine their short-term promises. In quite a few cooperation programs, economic interests take priority over environmental ones. This is not only a problem for Europe, and for Europe it is not solely a problem concerning the Middle East. However, in this area, the price is particularly high, since the region has particular strategic importance for Europe. Inconsistent foreign policy on the Middle East means a loss of efficiency that Europe can simply not afford.

Moreover, “consistent” vision does not necessarily mean complete unison: it is enough that incoherence does not undermine the overall policy. Making policy consistent might, for example, mean a clearer division of labor between the EU and the member states, depending on the issues at hand, or the creation of closer links between national and European initiatives. Goals could be agreed on together, setting out what is to be concretely achieved in the short, medium and long term, an approach that would automatically make prioritization easier.

On its own, none of this will be enough. As well as a strategic calibration, the foreign policy means at Europe’s disposal will have to be reconsidered. Europe has many instruments in its toolbox, but not all are being used, or used correctly.

In thinking through available means, we should start with violent conflict. This is still exceptional in Europe, but by now the norm in the region. Three wars are currently raging—in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Every year sees bloody clashes between police and citizens, be it in Iraq, Algeria, or Egypt. The cold wars in Palestine and the Western Sahara have been unsolved for decades, with the violence of terrorism attracting an even more violent response. Although these conflicts represent the largest obstacle to a better future, Europe so far has no coherent conflict strategy. Abstention or minimal engagement have proven quite unsuccessful.

The reason for this lack of engagement is Europe’ fundamental opposition to any form of security policy engagement. There are several factors at work here: historical reasons, a lack of military capacity, and post-heroic societies that regard violence as unnatural. However, this attitude fails to appreciate that the military can be a useful foreign policy tool, used to secure peace agreements, achieve deterrence, or disarm militias. If Europe wants to be heard in the Middle East, it must get over its traditional aversion to defense used as foreign policy.

Europe’s political toolbox is also in need of an overhaul. Traditionally, Europe has supported democracy worldwide, but the Arab Spring revealed how little it knows about helping with the birth of democracy. If it wants to guarantee democratic transition in the next Arab Spring, it needs to develop methods to support the machinery of new democracies. This would mean no hasty elections—these have turned out to be counterproductive. When there are elections, it should preferably be at a local level only: better to avoid large-scale national events like presidential elections, which tend to be polarizing. Europe also needs to support organizations that mediate between citizens and the state. These might be political parties, but could also take other institutional forms, like NGOs. Last but not least, Europe must devise new approaches to compensate for democratic deficits. When the focus has been too closely on elections as a criterion of democracy, these deficits in democratic reality have been severely neglected. The local level can be particularly promising for small-scale democracy.

Surviving the Future

However, to truly shape up for the future of the Middle East, Europe's foreign policy will also have to incorporate entirely new aspects. If the present seems difficult, the future will be even more challenging.

The biggest challenge will be climate change, currently the most neglected regional problem. The entire region is set to become one of the hottest in the world, but Arab states, too busy with present-day demands, are currently accepting this with a shrug. Strong European climate diplomacy must have several aims: it must convey urgency, encourage understanding of climate scenarios, and take measures to mitigate the worst effects of the heat. If this does not happen, we can and must expect migration, state collapse, and violence.

Energy transition is another of the region’s ignored problems. Although Europe is increasingly turning its back on oil, very few oil-producing countries have anticipated the loss of their main source of income. Algeria, Iraq, and Yemen will be hit particularly hard. This offers Europe an opportunity to support the region during energy transition. The greatest potential lies in solar energy, but today this accounts for only 0.8 percent of the regional energy mix. As well as helping states offset their energy deficit, solar power could also put eco-friendly money into their coffers through exports to Europe. Last but not least, solar energy would help reduce CO2 emissions: North Africa and the Middle East currently emit just as much as Europe.

Finally, but by no means least important, the fourth industrial revolution also harbors dangers for countries in the region, threatening to destroy old employment patterns before new jobs can be created. However, this can also be seen as an opportunity for Europe: regional millennials and Generation Z (and what comes after: the regional population will grow by 83 million by 2030) have bigger ambitions than being a Club Med waiter or working on the production line. But to make use of the opportunities of digitalization, the region needs something like a regulatory revolution, which would create a start-up-friendly environment. It also needs new education policies, to accomplish the transformation to a knowledge society. Should it miss out on this opportunity, the region will literally lose its international connection and be thrown out of production chains. If that happens, it will have no economic future. Europe can help with this—economic reform already forms part of cooperation programs, but so far it lacks specific goals about creating an economy of the future.

Carried out in coordination, these five approaches could create a European foreign policy which would bring the future described above into reach. Europe could help resolve conflicts, reduce democratic deficits, and lay the foundations for a more participatory society. It can also help to make the region fit for a green, digital future. None of this is absurd: a coherent European foreign policy will be, by definition, forward-looking, prevention-oriented, and long-term. But only action can transform this thought experiment into actual reality.

Florence Gaub is Deputy Director and MENA analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) in Paris.