Disintegrating states and societies, decades of misrule, deepening sectarian polarisation, dissolving borders, proliferating non-state actors, expanding civil wars, and a set of near-catastrophic humanitarian crises: The dynamics tearing up the Middle East and North Africa are terrifying enough.
But how has Europe addressed them? Surprisingly often, by over-reacting.
This is because the EU and its member states’ responses to these crises have often been based on collective misinterpretations of the nature and scale of the threat to European interests. One case in point: Europe is blindly focused on the so-called migration crisis, involving tens of thousands of people banging on its door, while not much further away humanitarian and refugee crises caused by wars in Syria, Gaza and elsewhere have displaced more than 10 million.
That’s because European leaders find it cheaper and more politically expedient to pursue short-term interests. Tactical, reactive measures trump resource allocation for securing long-term goals, and at times even undermine them. The resulting mix of over-reaction and short-termism has rarely been sufficient. Inconsistent stop-gap responses aggravate conflicts rather than help resolve them. None of these measures has been to Europe’s benefit.
The obvious long-term goal — a peaceful and stable Middle East — is not only a worthy moral goal, but would also entail direct security benefits for Europe, encouraging trade, investment and secure access to energy sources.
When the EU does focus on its deeper long-term needs, its concerns about nuclear proliferation for instance, the benefits are clear. The recently-concluded nuclear deal between the E3+3/P5+1 and Iran was achieved in large part thanks to a sustained 12-year EU mediation led by Javier Solana, Catherine Ashton and Federica Mogherini.
However, long-term interests are far more often overshadowed by narrower, short-sighted ones: The EU is intent on stemming the flow of migrants and refugees, containing the region’s conflicts, and preventing extremists from carrying out attacks in Europe, rather than to applying the full weight of the Union’s diplomatic and financial resources to help end the wars that spawn these problems.
Indeed, the EU, just like the rest of the international community, was simply not prepared to deal with the most recent disasters in the Middle East. This led to an overreliance on securitized responses to fundamentally political problems, creating unintended consequences that help to foster radicalisation, rather than counter it.
Talk to the enemy
Take Yemen, where the EU took sides, or Iraq, where it relied on local proxies that have their own agendas. The EU often displays a shallow understanding of Islamist groups and their motivations, conflating politically diverse actors — not all of them violent — into a single threat, as happened with rebel groups in Syria or in Libya. And the EU exhibits a dogmatic reluctance to talk to, or encourage its allies to talk to, the enemy — Syria’s Bashar al-Assad or Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, or Yemen’s Huthis.
These failures in common sense conflict prevention have harmed the EU’s interests in the region. What Europe needs now more than ever are policies that address the drivers of deadly conflict in the region and seek to prevent them from breaking out, spreading, and jumping over national borders — from being hijacked by violent transnational actors such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
EU responses should be based first and foremost on the principle of “Do No (Further) Harm.” The EU should not, for example, endorse military intervention in Syria or Libya unless it is linked to a clear, overarching political strategy that addresses the roots of the region’s unfolding humanitarian tragedies. The EU should not act before fully understanding which actors are allied with which, what drives them and what divides them, particularly in the case of Yemen or Libya.
However difficult to achieve, a negotiated solution to the Libyan conflict is the best sustainable solution to the migration problem emanating from that country. Similarly, attacking the Islamic State in Iraq can only succeed as part of a larger strategy to help rebuild Iraqi state institutions based on a reaffirmed, inclusive national pact.
And a successful strategy cannot leave out adjacent states: In the context of the recent humanitarian crises, the EU should focus on aid to Syrian refugees, and their educational needs in particular, and address the fact that the flood of new arrivals from Syria is undermining already fragile states like Lebanon and Jordan.
At the same time, it is fundamental for the EU to be attuned to the specific challenges that need to be addressed, and craft tailor-made solutions for each one. This involves talking to some groups that may today be seen as the enemy, and explore areas of common ground and the possibility of compromise solutions, as UN is currently doing in its mediation efforts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya.
Successful EU intervention must also focus on institutions, not individuals. This is especially true in Egypt, where President Sisi is being rehabilitated as an answer to Islamist radicalism, but state and society are paying the price.
When it comes to addressing the root causes of conflict — and preventing the Islamic State from extending its reach — the EU must marry its lofty aspirations and sincere rhetoric with the requisite political capacity and will.
Budget constraints and divergent political interests within the Union have turned the EU into a “payer, not a player:” able to spend money for humanitarian aid and development assistance but incapable of forging a common political strategy that ensures that money goes beyond funding stop-gap solutions.
Member states often find it difficult to explain to their home publics the beneficial impact of long-term conflict-prevention approaches and support for institutions based on transparency, accountability and the rule of law. Instead, politicians have taken the populist path of boasting about securitized approaches.
The EU and its member states cannot address growing instability in the Middle East and North Africa simply by disrupting smuggling networks, sending weapons to Iraqi Kurds (or more specifically, to one group of Iraqi Kurds), and bombing suspected Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq.
The EU needs to be more pro-active, and sometimes even step into a leadership position ahead of Washington, especially considering the U.S. is less directly concerned by the threats emanating from the region’s instability.
In particular, the EU should do more of what, in theory, it is already very good at: spend vastly more money on targeted refugee aid; help strengthen institutions in the states that are still standing, such as Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon; and give full-throttle financial and political support to UN-led mediation efforts in Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
Joost Hiltermann is the Program Director, MENA for International Crisis Group.