The Middle East conundrum


by Ana Echagüe and Barah Mikail

The European Union’s (EU) policy towards the Middle East is highly fragmented. Its epicentre is the flagship European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), whose Southern dimension builds on an institutionalised Euro-Mediterranean framework. In contrast, policy towards the rest of the Middle East is less structured, at times divisive and in some instances barely defined. The response to the Arab uprisings, while adequate, has been unambitious and somewhat slow. Efforts to address the Syrian crisis have shown unity of purpose, although with meagre results so far. Policy towards the Middle East peace process is atrophied, in part because of member states’ divergent perspectives. Engagement with the Gulf, with the exception of Iran, is so low key it is hardly visible. Such fragmented and uneven policy is inefficient as it fails to take into account the political and economic links between Maghreb, Mashreq and Gulf countries. The EU should adopt a more strategic approach to this region, addressing the connected crises and taking into account the growing role of regional powers and external actors. 64

Strategic context and challenges

The Arab uprisings have had a profound impact on the geo-politicsof the region. Its reverberations are still being felt, most devastatinglyin Syria but also in Yemen, Bahrain and to a lesser degree in Jordan,Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The countries in transition are at thestart of a long process of reform, the outcome of which is less thanassured and is likely to create uncertainty and instability. Their new-found self-confidence will lead to a diversification of their foreignpolicy relations away from the traditional favouring of the West bythe previous regimes.

Egypt has already stepped up its game by trying, albeit unsuccess-fully so far, to broker a regional solution to the Syrian crisis withthe help of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Islamist nature ofthe new governments will also have regional implications. The oncestrategic relationship between Egypt and Israel will become morenuanced, as the recent crisis in Gaza has demonstrated. The outcomeof the conflict in Syria will be a key determinant in the dynamics ofalliances in the region.

Despite their unease at witnessing the fall of fellow autocratsand the rise of political Islam, the Gulf States have been increasinglyactive players in the turmoil that has shaken the Arab world over thepast two years. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in particular, have increasedtheir regional assertiveness and diplomatic profiles. They were atthe forefront of calls for an international intervention in Libya andhave been active in the transition process in Yemen and in calling forsupport to the Syrian opposition.

All this has played out against the backdrop of increasingIranian and Saudi regional rivalry and deepening sectarian cleavages.Beyond genuine balance-of-power concerns, Gulf accusationsof Iranian inspiration behind the popular uprisings in Bahrain,65

the Saudi Eastern provinces or Yemen is a well-worn tactic to de-legitimise protests. But externalising the causes of the protests, and de-legitimising the Shiite opposition, is a dangerous exercise since it increases sectarian tensions.

EU foreign policy in the Middle East

The EU’s fragmented approach towards the Middle East has seen different levels of engagement on different issues and regions. In North Africa, the uprisings obliged the EU to revise its main policy framework after failing to foresee and being slow to support the internal political dynamics. But the revised ENP continues to be a highly institutionalised Euro-Mediterranean framework, which limits EU actions to its immediate neighbourhood and excludes potentially inter-linked adjoining regions such as the Arabian Peninsula.

In contrast, relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and its member states are much less institutionalised, low key and focused on commercial issues. The EU has struggled for more than a decade to agree on a free trade agreement (FTA) with the GCC, while member states fiercely compete for lucrative defence and commercial contracts. Giving up on the FTA, in June 2010 the EU-GCC Joint Ministerial Council adopted a Joint Action Programme that emphasises cooperation on issues such as the economy, energy and transport, but neglects the more political and strategic dimensions, including cooperation on regional crises. Some Gulf and EU foreign policy goals are aligned, be it in Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq or Yemen. Furthermore, the EU and GCC have shared security concerns such as energy security, terrorism or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which should be addressed at the regional level. Finally, such strategic neglect encourages the perception of the Gulf as an exception, weakening support to reform efforts in this region.66

The determination the EU has shown in dealing with Syria,including 20 rounds of sanctions on the regime, has not yet translatedinto an effective response to the crisis. Faced with stalemate at theUN, the EU has hesitated on offering more concrete support to theinsurgency as the Gulf countries have done. It was mainly the UnitedStates’ (US) prodding that urged the Syrian opposition to form anew umbrella group. In November 2012, both France and Britainrecognised the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary andOpposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people(a position adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council in December)and signalled their intention for a more robust involvement in thecrisis, but – at the time of writing – this involvement had yet to bedefined. Certainly, any use by the Syrian regime of chemical weaponswould be a game-changer and would likely provoke a more robustinternational response.

Likewise, on Iran the EU has been disciplined about imposingeconomic sanctions, but a negotiated compromise palatable to boththe US and Iran still seems some way away. After the 2012 USelections, EU-led – on behalf of the five United Nations SecurityCouncil (UNSC) permanent members plus Germany, known as theP5+1 – nuclear talks with the Iranians were mooted to take place at theend of 2012 or beginning of 2013.

The Arab spring saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict relegated tothe background if not neglected. Even during the last flare up in Gazain November, the EU was conspicuously absent. Despite its financialcontributions to the Palestinian Authority and its criticism of Israelisettlement policies, the EU continues to upgrade its commercialrelations with Israel. Part of the problem is that member states differ intheir response to the conflict, a fact which was once again prominentlyon display at the UN General Assembly vote on Palestine’s ‘observerstate’ status that took place in November 2012. Nevertheless, asIsrael’s positions harden, European member states seem to be inching67

towards greater convergence, with only the Czech Republic voting ‘No’ in this case compared with five ‘No’ votes against Palestine’s application to join the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2011.

What to do in 2013?

The EU needs to design a more inclusive and coherent strategy for the region that identifies key areas where it should expend most effort. Given the fluidity of the geo-political environment in the region, the EU should experiment with flexible cooperation clusters (bilateral, multilateral and regional, amongst others) around shared issues, including in some instances external players such as the US, China and Russia. Furthermore, the EU can benefit from its perceived neutrality compared with other international actors.

The EU has looked the other way at the clamp down of protests by Gulf regimes. Bringing the Gulf States into the EU’s partnerships and frameworks of cooperation with the Mediterranean offers an opportunity to indirectly help reform dynamics in these more reactionary cases. Plus, greater engagement with the Gulf would counter the closing of ranks in the Gulf States on political reform. But the EU should devote greater resources to the region, such as personnel and funding (there is only one EU delegation to the Gulf, in Riyadh).

The main priority for the EU should be to resume talks with Iran in an effort to avoid war – as threatened by some in the Israeli government and parts of the US congress. The elections in Israel and Iran, along with the harsh impact of sanctions on the Iranian population, will make it all the more difficult to reach an agreement. However, in order to achieve some progress the P5+1 should stop insisting on framing the talks within a strictly ‘technical’ framework 68

and acknowledge the geo-strategic context and security issues that area major concern for Iran. In addition, the P5+1 must stand ready tooffer significant incentives beyond technological cooperation.

Piling on punitive measures might bring Iran to the negotiatingtable, but on its own, it will not lead to changes in Tehran’s nuclearprogramme. The outlines of the deal are well known: some enrichmentwithin limits subject to inspections and monitoring. But to achievethis, sanctions relief must also be offered. To forge a compromise, theP5+1 should consider ways of easing sanctions through appropriatesequencing, safeguards and verification. An agreement with Iran couldhave the added bonus of alleviating tensions in related conflicts andlead to a general cooling down in the region. It could also persuade Iranto cooperate on Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, as well as Afghanistan.

The potential for the Syrian powder keg to explode beyond itsborders requires a more concerted effort, one that draws in Russia andChina as well as Turkey and Iran into the process and acknowledgesrelated vulnerabilities in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. In the past fewmonths Moscow has repeatedly offered to host an internationalconference on Syria while, at the same time, refusing to back KofiAnnan’s peace plan with sanctions to put additional pressure onthe regime. A meeting between US State Secretary Hillary Clinton,Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and UN Special EnvoyLakhdar Brahimi in December in Dublin could lead to renewedengagement towards the objective of achieving an internationallymonitored ceasefire and an eventual brokered agreement. With Franceand Britain inching towards greater involvement (and maybe armingthe opposition), the EU should be wary of involvement without thebacking of the UN Security Council.

The time for a compromise transition between the Syrian regimeand the opposition might have passed, but capitulation of theentrenched regime seems just as unlikely. Some form of dialogue or69

communication between the Syrian regime and its opponents might be the only way to defuse tensions and limit the bloodshed. The EU could discretely put out feelers on such a possibility to elements of both the regime and the opposition. The EU should also coordinate its support for the opposition with the US, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Following the hostilities in Gaza in November 2012 and elections in Israel in January 2013, the coming year will require the EU to back up its vision for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as the European Economic Community (EEC) did in 1980 with the Venice declaration that proposed the two-state solution and called for an end to Israeli territorial occupation. Any continuation of Israel’s settlement expansion would require the EU and its member states to sharpen their position, and adopt policies consistent with their stated support for 1967 borders as a basis for renewed peace talks. If necessary, the EU should be prepared to pass legislation on labelling and eventually banning products from Israeli settlements, in accordance with international law.

An EU common policy should include cautious dialogue with Hamas, the encouragement of Fatah and Hamas to form a national unity government and Palestinian capacity and institution building. While a common European approach will be insufficient to resolve the conflict without firm US engagement, it would send an important signal that the EU is strongly committed to supporting any real revival of the Middle East peace process.


The Arab uprisings have underlined the need for a renewal of European foreign policy in the Middle East. A more strategic approach, one that recognises the regional links and vulnerabilities should be crafted. To do so, the EU will need to make policy choices about all major issues 70

and not simply sideline those on which it cannot reach an agreement.Fine-tuning the approach to Iran through a better balance of sanctionsand incentives might offer an opportunity to start to unravel all theseconnected conflicts. Potential regional flare-ups during 2013 couldinclude Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Bahrain. To help prevent suchpotential conflicts, the EU will need to work more effectively withregional and external powers. Cultivating closer ties with the GulfStates could be one way of deepening its relations in the region, butthe EU should also work with Egypt, Turkey and even Russia in theirattempts to reach solutions to regional conflicts.


FRIDE publication: “Challenges for European Foreign Policy in 2013. Renewing the EU’s role in the world

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