Regarding the conflicts in Syria and in the MENA region, two main issues are being over discussed; Schengen and the EU foreign policy. Not to be confused and in order to avoid general comments on the uselessness of the EU external affairs, it is necessary to remind that the EU is very strong in the field of EU trade policy. In this case, the Members States are unified and the EU is a major global power. It is certainly a shortcut, as unification is not the only reason for success, but it is a necessary step if the EU wants to play a worldwide role through external affairs. The bad news for the EU is that its foreign policy and its neighbourhood policy are also part of what one calls external affairs. In this case, the basic requirements, such as unification, are not met.
EU foreign policy: A deadlock
On the Schengen area and cooperation, the problem comes from Europe itself, and its European construction. The ‘Schengen area’ has been founded on the Schengen Agreement of 1985 and it represents a territory where the free movement of persons is guaranteed and where all internal borders are abolished. It is the wonderful idea of unity and solidarity that is questioned today. The 1985 agreement was mainly structured on idealism without looking at issues that have to do with internal borders, especially regarding recent events or the EU enlargement policy. Some concrete work has to be done in this regard in order to strengthen the agreement, instead of questioning it as soon as a problem occurs in one of the EU Member States.
Within EU foreign policy, the problem is rooted, as there is no effective European Union’s foreign policy aside from the foreign policies of Member States. To go straight to the point, European governments do not want a common foreign policy and are reluctant to transfer decision-making authority to supranational European institutions. Despite innovations contained within the Lisbon Treaty, in force since 2009, the EU is still limited in its real-time response to crises. Once again, the idea of an EU foreign policy is logical, as it would in theory create unified action from the 28 Member States, raising a strong voice in a global order. In practice, however, this delivers little results when compared to its potential. Member States are not ready to give up the notion of sovereignty in the case of foreign affairs.
Sometimes, if there is an overlap of interests between the 28 Member States and a willingness to give a strong mandate to the Institutions, the EU foreign policy can be useful as well as occasionally successful, but this is still limited by its action. Whatever the Lisbon Treaty offers, in absence of a strong mandate from the Member States, there is no possibility for the EU to conduct real diplomacy. And regarding diplomacy, the EU is not a big power due to its lack of united military strength. Therefore, the main role of the EU is to back up diplomatic efforts of its strong ally, the U.S.
Turning now to the European foreign policy in the Syrian crisis
Until 2015, the success of the EU geopolitics was quite positive; at least, it did not have negative repercussion on foreign policy or internal borders. Now, for one of the first times since the creation of the European Union, the EU is paying the price for the failure of ‘unified’ foreign policy, especially regarding the Middle East and the Syrian conflict. The EU is today facing a strong refugee crisis and a raise of terrorist attacks, or threats thereof, within its borders. Compared to what happened before 2015, this time, the EU has to proceed on its own, without the help of Washington.
One has to admit, the conflict in Syria is very complex; local, regional and international actors are involved, alliances are changing on a monthly basis, the rebels are divided in hundreds of different groups – adding to this human rights issues and economic pressure. No one expects the EU to solve the conflict, however, too little has been done at the EU level. At the beginning of the conflict, and as long as support remained in the realm of ideas and institutions, the Member States of the EU were united under the assumption that “Bashar Al-Assad has to go”. However, it the EU made a mistake and underestimated the Syria crisis. Despite being a strong provider of humanitarian assistance, the EU never played a real political role. There was a lack of awareness that the crisis was serious enough for the EU to get involved, yet it was geographically close enough for the EU not to ignore it. At the time when the crisis was increasing and the civil war had started, it became obvious that the EU would need to further efforts on understanding and solving the conflict, which led to Member States becoming divided. Division amongst the 28 Members prevented collective actions and reinforced the lack of will to a play a stronger political role in the Syrian crisis.
Not being able to act as one regarding its foreign policy, the EU adopted a strategy that it has mastered; waiting for the US to take the initiative. However, the EU did not anticipate the obvious -whereas it was clear from the Arab spring protestations that the Obama administration was reluctant about taking the lead in Middle Eastern conflicts. The US decided to wait and see, as subsequently did the EU. But the EU, hoping that the Syrian crisis could be contained, did not realise that Syria is in its neighbourhood and started to feel the pressure from those who fled the conflict. The EU is again reacting, and not acting, having now to deal with both the refugee crisis, in addition to the root causes of the conflict. To know where the EU stands does not mean that its foreign policy will be effective, particularly since the EU is not willing to take risks which could impact interests with regional actors.
Changes in the region – need for mediation
Adding another degree of complexity to the already complicated conflict in Syria, tensions are escalating between two major actors in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran, since the clash over the execution of Saudi cleric of Shia Muslim faith Nimr al-Nimr and the occupation of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Already opposed regarding the outcome of the Syrian conflict, as Tehran supports Assad while Riyadh wants him to be ousted, both countries also support opposite sides of the proxy war in Yemen, and to a certain extent in Bahrain and in Lebanon. While often facing criticism for supporting radical Islamists group, Saudi Arabia is a long-standing strategic ally and oil supplier to the EU, buying billions of euros in weapons that come from EU Member States each year. Moreover, Saudi Arabia wants to assume leadership in fighting instability in the region. However, the real game changer in the region is the deal the occurred between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany regarding Tehran’s nuclear program. By ending the sanctions, the deal allows Iran to assume the role of a new reliable partner in the Middle East, which is already felt in Syria. Saudi Arabia fears that the end of Iran’s economic isolation will change the balance of power in the region and is worried for the stability of the kingdom.
It is unlikely that Iran and Saudi Arabia will engage in direct confrontation despite the cut of diplomatic ties. The main concern is the use of sectarianism to promote regional interests, due to an already charged environment. Even if to deflect regional and domestic pressures, the use of sectarianism is a risky endeavour. Not only because both states have strong confessional minorities, Sunnis in Iran and Shias in the East Province of Saudi Arabia, but also since this could mean an end to any broad regional engagement like the Vienna talks concerning the outcome of the Syrian conflict. Undeniably, the participation of both countries is vital to any chance of a truce in an already destructive war.
On top of not respecting freedom of expression alongside basic civil and political rights, particularly regarding the executions which took place recently in Saudi Arabia, the main concern of the EU is the stability as well as the security of the whole region since this could inflame unnecessary sectarian tensions, subsequently impacting the role of Riyadh in promoting peace in the Middle East.
EU policy makers are working actively with regional and local actors to find a political solution for the crisis in Syria with fears that these efforts will be jeopardised by new instability. Therefore, Europe should avoid taking sides, instead seeking to provide a neutral contact point between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, nowadays, neither Iran, nor Saudi Arabia are reliable allies. Both are dismissive when it comes to European and International values such as human rights or democratic governance. The EU has to use all its power, in the short term, to avoid new tensions in an already existing regional conflict. It should not think in a long term yet, as the situation is too far from being even slightly stable and it is too early to think of a security architecture for the Middle East. The strong point of the EU is that it can be seen as a mediator, however, it might not be enough when combined with its weakest point, its foreign policy of dependence, as the U.S. do not seem willing, yet, to fully reengage in the region.
The EU should stop looking for a strong foreign policy and start efficiently using its weaknesses.
It would be pointless and unproductive for the EU to take sides, and truly the EU doesn’t have the strength to do so. However, lessons are being learned regarding the future of the EU foreign policy, and the EU can be part of the solutions regarding the Syrian conflict.
EU military operations are weak, but the EU has to keep supporting, financially or politically, military ad hoc coalitions even if not part of a formal EU framework. This must be done in order to limit damages and consequences of ongoing crisis.
The EU also has to be more realistic and see that its foreign policy is very dependent on the foreign policy of the U.S. Therefore, the EU has to increase its influence in the decision making process of the U.S., to provide more support diplomatically and politically, alongside further investments in NATO. Military power is essential to solve such a crisis, with the interests of both the EU and the U.S. do not differ much.
While the EU still has to promote and share its values, especially on human rights issues, it should not limit its diplomatic talks to that alone and has to accept moral compromises proportionally to the degree of severity of a conflict as well as its consequences.
To finish, the EU is now mostly limited to humanitarian efforts on the ground to ensure the resilience of the Syrians. It is necessary to help the population to survive and to prepare for a post conflict era on the ground, even if it requires a lot of diplomacy between local communities. The EU is also able to find alternatives, in order to help at a local stage rebuilding administration and an economic life. The EU has a proven capacity to restore and rebuild a country, with Syria is a good opportunity for the EU to show the world its importance of being a neutral actor that can bring and maintain peace. There is also a place for EU diplomacy to play a major role in the resolution of the conflict. Indeed, by lacking real influence in the region, the EU is not seen as one sided and can engage in talks with all major actors, from Iran and Russia to Saudi Arabia and Turkey along with all opposition groups. The EU is playing a useful part by bringing all the main actors to the negotiation table, even if they all have different objectives. The EU is committed to bring back peace and stability in Syria as well as in the region. By playing a role as a mediator, which can be more substantial and significant than it has been, the voice of the EU will become more important in the framework of the United Nations by bringing together the members of the UNSC in order to help stabilise the Middle East, alongside supporting and assisting the UN initiative as well as the UN assistance behind special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. There are no other alternatives to outside interference and the EU should not look for it.
The EU has to work on a concrete strategy that can turn its weaknesses into an advantage. It cannot compete, due to sovereignty reasons, with other major actors, and it should not try to do so. The EU has its own foreign policy, different than what one could describe in a classic definition, different than what was expected at creation, but the EU has managed to be one of the most and efficient actor in terms of diplomacy. The EU has found an essential place between hard powers and that is already an achievement.