Recent developments have placed the Middle East region at a geopolitical turning point, challenging the European Union (EU) more than ever, to the extent that a significant portion of the threats facing Europe today stems from the Middle East. The EU’s attitude towards the region has constantly been evolving since the end of the Cold War. In turn, it has led to different and sometimes contradictory policies due to varying perceptions of itself, interregional relations, and the trans-regional arena. The EU’s approach to the Middle East has always been unique in different periods and shows how the region’s geopolitical importance and the world have been revived.
The Middle East has fragile and turbulent decades ahead. A substantial obstacle to peace and sustainable development in the region is intense competition between regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel with the United States of America’s (US) support. But it also provided an opportunity for European actors to address the region’s geopolitical tensions with little leverage and perhaps prevent further conflict. The Middle East has witnessed a series of disputes over the past two decades, the collapse of economies and government structures, revolutions, the rise of extremist groups, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the threat of chemical weapons, and the mass migration of people. The Syrian crisis and the spread of terrorism, and the influx of refugees have had severe consequences for Europe, showing that insecurity in the Middle East is directly linked to Europe’s internal stability.
The path ahead seems vague. Yemen and Syria remain in the midst of conflicts and need massive humanitarian aid, stability, and reconstruction, a need that will continue long after the violence is over. Meanwhile, regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia seem reluctant to engage in a direct war. However, the decisive approach and foreign policy based on their political views have been detrimental to third countries such as Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Qatar. They have also fueled internal conflicts. As tensions between countries increase, so does the risk of military tension.
In the meantime, world powers such as Russia and the United States are still active in the Middle East and pursue their foreign policy. The United States and Russia cannot or do not want to distance their regional partners from further confrontation. European actors are also increasingly blinded by events and marginalized on critical political paths, especially in Syria. In cases such as Lebanon, the timely intervention of European governments has prevented conflict and contributed to the security of the Middle East. European actors must pursue policies that help reduce political polarization, violence, and the risk of military confrontation in the region.
From pragmatic policies to realistic considerations
The issues of subject-oriented and pragmatic policies are more prominent than the policies based on regional ambitions. The rise of diplomatic realism opposed to democratic idealism and the narrowing of the scope of action due to the confrontation with the multiparty system in the region should be considered as one of the most critical changes in European presence in the Middle East. There is no doubt that the EU has always had security considerations and concerns for the Middle East. Nevertheless, EU action in the Middle East has changed in recent years. Changes that have been the product of geopolitical amendment in the southern borders of the continent. The rise of diplomatic realism over democratic idealism and the more responsive and less favorable response to the changing and unpredictable conditions of the region has been one of the areas of change in the EU’s Middle East approach. In fact, in recent years, the Middle East has been a good place for the emergence of long-standing competition between Europe as a normative actor and Europe as a realist actor.
In short, geopolitical changes based on establishing a multi-actor system in the Middle East have also affected the level and depth of European activity in the Middle East. Indeed, as Europe increasingly seeks to use the Middle East to expand its global influence in the face of the 21st-century multipolar world, it is paradoxically facing powerful rivals in the region. In recent years, regional players such as Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have seen expanding their influence and consolidated their presence in the Middle East. This new reality has affected the functioning of Europe in two ways. First, the geopolitical rivalries of the major powers in the region over issues such as Syria or Yemen have made it difficult for Europe to act effectively and positively in these cases. The other facet is that the depth of action of the European Union and the powerful EU countries has been weakened, given the weakening of the main tools of their effectiveness in the region.
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About the author:
Amin BAGHERI is an Iranian research fellow at the International Studies Association in Tehran, Iran. His primary research interest lies in international relations, political science, and conflicts in the Middle East. You can see more of his work on Twitter @bghr_amin.