A draft of a new EU Strategic Compass was recently presented to senior European officials, with plans to approve a final version in the first half of 2022. The document seeks to help Europe better adapt to a changing global security environment. However, the EU’s foreign policy challenges run deep, including its ability to pursue its interests in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Strategic Compass warns against what Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief who is leading the project, called “strategic shrinkage.” It acknowledges that Europe faces more economic competitors with worldviews that contrast with European values. Similarly, there are rising actors who are able to use military force, as well as cyber tools and disinformation. The draft also highlights European concerns that the US has become a less reliable ally, often focused on priorities beyond Europe.

The concern about declining European influence is certainly relevant to the MENA region. Despite its economic and security importance to Europe, European influence has been waning in the region for years. While Europe was the dominant player before the post-colonial period, it has been losing power since at least the 1970s.

America’s role in the region increased and it often pursued policies that benefited Europe. However, the US public and policymakers today feel fatigue from the Iraq war and other involvements in the MENA region and want to reduce America’s role, at least in terms of its military involvement. The Biden administration has continued efforts to try to pivot US priorities toward East Asia.

Washington is likely to maintain a significant role in the MENA region and serve as a European partner where there are shared interests, particularly counterterrorism, but Europe can no longer rely on the US to devote resources to issues that are not its own priorities. Migration is an example of a key European concern that is not a priority for Washington.

As Europe also faces Russian efforts to expand its influence and an increasingly assertive China, European leaders must reevaluate their interests and role in the region. On a global scale, European foreign policy officials and experts often talk about “strategic autonomy.” The term’s meaning is debated, but it implies increased European ability to act independently to pursue European interests, abroad and within the EU. For the MENA region, part of strategic autonomy would mean a European ability to act without reliance on the US.

As neighboring regions, Europe has significant interests that are specific to MENA. Mass migration flows from the region and terrorism threats have shaken the foundations of European politics in recent years. Europe is the MENA region’s biggest trade partner and those trade links are important for both regions. The continent also has geopolitical interests in the region, including Iran’s nuclear program, wars in countries such as Syria and Libya that have prompted refugee flows, and maritime security.

Given the MENA region’s proximity and multilayered importance to Europe, it is somewhat surprising that Europe has not pursued a larger role. Experts have used terms such as “weak,” “irrelevant” and “bystander” to describe Europe’s position. Despite the Syrian war’s direct impacts on Europe, European countries had only minor involvement, mostly focused on Daesh. Disagreements between France and Italy have hampered Europe’s approach toward Libya.

Europe handed most of the diplomatic influence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Washington. European countries have also lost some influence with regional partners, as several Middle Eastern countries have sought to diversify their military and trade relationships and pursue more active foreign policies of their own. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action deal with Iran was the one major diplomatic victory that Europe could claim in the region, and it fell apart under Donald Trump’s presidency.

Multiple factors have shaped Europe’s reduced role. Europe has long relied on the US and NATO to manage key challenges, but there is growing understanding within the continent that it needs to be less dependent on Washington. Meanwhile, Russia and China, in different ways, have sought to expand their own reach into the MENA region. Furthermore, regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have increased their capabilities — gaining greater influence over the direction of their own region.

While several factors have constrained Europe’s capabilities in the MENA region, divisions within the EU and a lack of long-term foreign policy goals have played a major role in limiting European influence. EU requirements that all member states agree on a foreign policy hampers its ability to act, especially as the states do not all agree on threats and opportunities from the region or how to manage them. The EU and major European countries have capabilities and leverage that they could use, but have often chosen not to.

The Strategic Compass aims to address some of these issues, such as proposing a new rapid force deployment capability. The major obstacle to such a capability is the EU’s principle of unanimity, but some leaders are trying to find a way for some states to act militarily together with more flexibility. Europe would be better placed to pursue its interests in the MENA region — and to be an effective partner to MENA countries — if the EU can agree on long-term strategies and find ways to act more flexibly.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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