Feb 28, 2023

“In Our Middle East Policy We Are Learning the Lessons of the Past”

The European Union’s policy toward the Middle East and North Africa has been reinvigorated by Russia’s war against Ukraine, Enrique Mora, Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service, tells IPQ in an interview. And Brussels’ focus has been moving to the Gulf.

Enrique Mora
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began a year ago, has been an all-consuming external crisis for the EU. Did it put Europe’s “other” neighborhood, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), on the backburner?

There is no doubt that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is an immensely important policy priority for us. We are in the business of supporting Ukraine, of isolating Russia and limiting its ability to finance this war, and of reaching out to the rest of the world on this conflict. This is, of course, consuming time and resources. But at the same time it has expanded our engagement with the region and given this relationship a new impetus. It is clear to all of us: What Putin is doing in Ukraine is an existential threat to the EU. We have had to react accordingly.

This might surprise you, but the effect of the war in some regions, particularly in the Middle East, has been for us to reinforce our engagement there. So, far from distracting us, Russia’s aggression has thrown our policies in an entirely different direction. Energy, for example. Before the invasion, we were entirely dependent on Russia for gas and oil. Our interest in energy in the Middle East, in particular the Gulf, was in having them as suppliers of green energy—i.e., green hydrogen—in the future. That’s of course still an important part of the European Green Deal, but with Russia’s invasion, we had to change our entire approach.

What other effects is the war having on EU MENA policy?

Russia has been involved in various conflicts in the Middle East, for example in Syria. One of the main lines of action in our policies toward Russia is isolating them internationally, countering false narratives, according to which they were obliged to invade Ukraine because of so-called plans to invade them. We have been reacting to those emphatically. However, the Gulf states for example, while taking a principled stance in the UN, do not want to go along with our sanctions policies, with sanctions, or what they see as military confrontation with Russia. They seem to think that a multipolar world will provide them with more opportunities and greater independence. So, then we have had to act and double our foreign policy efforts to convince them that Russia’s actions actually threaten them too and undermine the very nature of the multilateral system.

Then there’s the Iranian question. Over the last few years, Iran has been developing a very strong military relationship with Russia; it has been intensified after the start of the aggression against Ukraine. This is aggravating other issues we have with Iran. The conflict in Syria, unfortunately, is now very difficult to solve—options have been narrowed down due to the heavy presence and involvement of Russia there.

At the same time, Russia has no economic offer to make to the Middle East. It only pretends to be a security provider, and, for instance, Egypt is still one of biggest buyers of Russian military equipment. Of course, after seeing how ineffective the Russian military equipment is, they may now be thinking twice.

Another recent new dynamic has been Israel’s diplomatic successes in the wake of the Abraham accords, establishing more relations with Arab countries. Benjamin Netanyahu has just returned to power, having formed his sixth administration, and may continue in this direction. How do you read these developments?

The Abraham accords are part of the story of normalization between Israel and Arab countries—it started decades ago. You have to remember: After Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel in the 1970s, the peace process did not advance further. Now we have seen this revival, and we welcome very much the normalization of Israel’s relations with Lebanon, Morocco, and some countries in the Gulf. This is good news for us and the region.

Simultaneously, it’s clear that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not improving. It is now a source of bad news almost every day. We cannot continue like nothing is happening. The frustration on the Palestinian side, and in particular the Palestinian youth is clear. This could be the beginning of a bigger and more open conflict.

As for the new Israeli government, I do not think it will change the dynamic of the conflict. If you look at recent history, the policy toward Palestine has been steady and continuous. So that is not a key factor. Another question is what the new government means for Israeli democracy, but this is something for the Israelis themselves and an entirely different issue.

How big an influence can the EU exert? What role does the EU’s Special Representative, Sven Koopmans, for the Middle East Peace Process play?

EU Special Representative Sven Koopmans is advancing the EU’s policy toward the Middle East Peace Process. At the same time, we have to be realistic to what extent we can be influential on this issue. A two-state solution is one that we stick to, but frankly speaking, and this is my personal opinion, given developments on the ground, we would need to see how feasible it ultimately is, which is worrying for us.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy once pushed for a “Union of the Mediterranean.” Are closer relations between the EU and its Mediterranean neighbors something the EU is still systematically pursuing?

Yes, we are as interested in getting closer to the southern side of the Mediterranean as we have been for the many years. But we have to take into account the various dynamics in this region. After the Arab Spring there was a lot of hope, a lot of expectations about the arrival of democracy and prosperity, which have not been fulfilled. But our efforts to get closer to the south are permanent and we will maintain them. As we are working toward a fully-fledged regional approach, we are also looking at the challenging bilateral relationships of some of the countries in the Southern Neighbourhood. Look for instance at North Africa, where you have Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. So, this is the situation and, in these conditions, you cannot have a fully-fledged regional approach.

Another Mediterranean state whose future is uncertain is Lebanon…

Unfortunately, the situation in Lebanon is not sustainable if there are no big political and economic reforms. I will tell you a personal story. Beirut was my first diplomatic posting back in 1992. The president of the Republic was Michel Aoun, the president of the parliament was Nabih Berri, and prime minister was Rafik Hariri (he was murdered in 2005). 30 years later Lebanon’s president was until recently Michel Aoun, the president of the parliament is Nabih Berri, and Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s son, was most recently prime minister. This is very telling of the country.

Lebanon needs deep reforms; it already needed them back in 1992. We have left open the possibility of using sanctions, we have offered financial incentives. We’ve been reaching out all the time, but the internal dynamics are very difficult to break and it is up to the Lebanese themselves, and not us, to break this dynamic. Of course, we can help but we cannot change reality.

Another thorny problem is Iran, which has seen popular uprisings since the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, at the hands of the so-called religious police. Until recently, the EU has focused on saving the international nuclear agreement, known as JCPOA, with Iran, which the United States left under President Donald Trump. What is the current state of play?

Iran has put itself at the center of a perfect storm, created by Tehran, due to three main issues. First, there is the internal situation: The killing of Mahsa Amini triggered powerful protests with women at the forefront, which has lasted longer than expected. It has been spectacular to see how Iranian girls and women have responded. The regime has answered with a crackdown, not with dialogue. Of course, the repercussions of this, particularly in the Western world, have been massive, as was the reputational damage this has caused to the Iranian government.

The second factor, which is extremely important for us, is Iran’s military relations with Russia and the fact that they are providing Russia with drones. We’ve been seeing the tip of the iceberg only, this is an extremely serious matter—the most serious issue we have with Iran, namely to stop these transfers.

The third is the JCPOA. We have a text ready since last fall to restore, but the Iranians said they first wanted to close the safeguards issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, they’ve done nothing to address them and did not provide the IAEA  with any answers. In short, they did not behave as if they really wanted the JCPOA. Now, they are probably more willing to restore the JCPOA because they are in this perfect storm and they think the easiest way out is with the JCPOA but frankly speaking the framework required for that is not in place. We still think that the JCPOA is the only way to deal with the Iranian nuclear problem, it is the only way for us. We want to keep the JCPOA on the table, but at the same time we are talking to the Iranians, we are helping the Ukrainians talk to Iranians and others and put an end to drone deliveries. But it is difficult because in Iran there are various power centers, and one is highly interested in the military relationship with Russia. The situation is really bad. We are keeping all channels open, but it is difficult.

To paint a broader picture: the EU’s focus has really moved to Iran and the Gulf region?

Absolutely. If you look further west, Syria is what it is, and we do not see a political solution in sight. The humanitarian situation is getting worse. At the same time, we are looking at the dynamics in the Gulf—and when I say Gulf, I mean both sides of the Gulf. There is a worrying dynamic because of the Iranian-Saudi antagonism. We as the EU used to be criticized for talking to the Iranians, but more recently we are now being accused of not having enough dialogue with them. The focus is not just a question of strategy as expressed in our Strategic Partnership with the Gulf announced in May 2022. If there is conflict in that part of the Middle East, then things can get very detrimental to the EU. We prefer to focus on that and try with all the countries.

At the same time, we observe the United States disengaging from the region as a long-term trend, while China has established itself as a new important player…

You are right about the US disengagement in the region but this is also relative. It started during the Obama administration, mainly as a fallout of the Iraq war. At the same time the US was becoming self-sufficient in terms of energy, too, they pursued the pivot to Asia where their interests were defined. All in all, it’s something we can understand in foreign policy terms. But this US disengagement is also relative. The United States still has a considerable number of troops in the Middle East. The biggest military asset outside of the United States is in the Gulf.

Then we have China—very interesting also in the sense that it is acting completely differently compared to Russia. First, China is more economically attractive for the Gulf and the Arab countries. China needs energy—it is a consuming a lot of oil and gas. China needs this region and is offering financing as well as technology, and it is a relationship we are looking at very carefully.

We as the EU have defined our relationship with China at three different levels: We are partners, competitors, and systemic rivals. In the Middle East we are competitors, in economic terms and for energy, but we are not yet geopolitical competitors. We do not see China using the Middle East to project global power. It is true that their only military base outside China is in Djibouti, but this is for different purposes. So far, systemic rivalry has not come into it, but that could change.

What does this mean for democracy promotion? You mentioned the Arab Spring—the hopes connected with it have largely evaporated. Is it still a feature of EU policy to push for democracy?

We have learned a lot of lessons. During the first years of the Arab Spring we did mix it all together: democracy promotion and human rights policies. I do not think democracy promotion is part of our foreign policy anymore. A completely different thing is human rights, and that is a key part of our foreign policy. We have established a dialogue on human rights with every single country in the region. We have told them systematically that if they expect better relations with Europe, then we expect things from them in questions related to human rights. At the same time, we have also learned how to conduct such dialogue in a more respectful way. All in all, we are very keen on the human rights aspect of our foreign policy. Democracy promotion, however, frankly speaking, did not work.  

The European Parliament is currently taking steps to ensure that “Qatargate” will not repeat itself—a scandal in which the FIFA World Cup host nation stands accused of having bought at least one MEP and one former MEP. The message this sends to autocratic regimes is that Europe can be bought. Can it?

Obviously not. The reaction that we have had has shown that our internal self-defenses against corruption work. It’s important that the European Parliament takes steps to prevent corruption, but despite some individual cases still under investigation, one “cannot buy an entire parliament.” I do not think our image has deteriorated on that front. Justice reacted swiftly. It is also true that we have to be aware of these kinds of things and that they are in the minds of others. 

What are the messages the EU, which is four times as rich, would like to send to its MENA neighborhood?

… that we realize that we are living in difficult times when it comes to food and energy security, but also in terms of debt in the so-called Global South. Our first message is: This has been caused by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Our second: We in the EU are there to work with you on all these issues to overcome this situation, which could get worse in the future. Russia seems determined to continue its war against Ukraine, Putin will become even more radical, and there will be an aggravation of the situation. We are entering a new era of international relations. But we, the EU, are there to cooperate with you, work with you, and figure this out together. We are learning lessons from the past and we are factoring it into our foreign policy.

The interview was conducted by Martin Bialecki, Henning Hoff, Uta Kuhlmann, and Nikita Divekar.

Enrique Mora is Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and chief of staff of Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Euroepan Commission.