A New Division of Labor? How Europe and America Can Work Together in the Middle East

The US and the EU could make serious progress in fostering regional stability in the Middle East. Both should emphasize the other's strength and help offset any shortcomings. With its soft power, Europe could also aid Washington in rebuilding its tarnished reputation in the region.

By Zoé Nautré

The challenges faced in the Middle East still require attention and common trans-Atlantic strategies. Greater cooperation between the United States and Europe is hampered by a lack of honest dialogue about common goals and the means to achieve them.

Although Europe has a lot to offer, it needs to become more unified and proactive. Political and economic reform in the region is in the trans-Atlantic, national, and humanitarian interest. Supporting domestic endeavours to achieve this goal remains an enormous challenge that can only be met by working collectively and on a cooperative basis.

US President Barack Obama at Cairo University's Grand Hall in June: With the Obama administration in place and the EU preparing the Union for the Mediterranean, the time is ripe for assessing how trans-Atlantic policies can complement each other.

US President Barack Obama at Cairo University's Grand Hall in June: With the Obama administration in place and the EU preparing the Union for the Mediterranean, the time is ripe for assessing how trans-Atlantic policies can complement each other.

Reform in the Middle East may not be the highest priority for the Obama administration. But the underlying issues in the Middle East -- most notably the lack of political and economic opportunities -- demand attention sooner rather than later. The Middle East (especially North Africa in the case of Europe) represents a ticking demographic time bomb. The majority of the population is under the age of 25, and most face unemployment in countries that offer poor economic prospects. Many countries are rampant with corruption and cronyism, leading to political alienation and frustration in an environment where freedom of assembly and speech remains restricted; thereby contributing to wider social unrest and radicalization.

The root causes of the region's problems are more widely acknowledged and addressed today. However, according to the most recent Freedom House " Freedom of the World" index, none of the Arab countries have made significant progress in terms of political rights and civil liberties. Although reforms have taken place, observers note that they do little to challenge the real distribution of power. Conversely, as a response to external pressure, Arab regimes have become smarter in dealing with outside pressure, which has led to "staged reforms" for external consumption, such as those in Morocco, which European Union and US donors have overwhelmed with praise. The Bush administration's bold reform initiatives have not had the anticipated results and there seems to be a general uncertainty about how to proceed across the US political spectrum.

US agencies dealing with the region are currently in a transition and re-assessment period. The post-9/11 paradigm that reform in the Middle East is now an issue of national security for the United States faces many obstacles in terms of implementation. The United States has lost much of its leverage in the region because of its unpopularity, the obstacles it faces in Iraq and its reduced capability to influence key actors. The United States may now welcome external help to deal with the region's challenges. This is where Europe could step in and shoulder some of the burden.

What Europe Can Offer

Europe can offer a whole range of soft power tools to complement domestic reform efforts and US efforts to address challenges in the region. Europe's soft power is difficult to define in exact terms, but it broadly consists of a "better" awareness of the region's historical trajectories and an allegedly more 'respectful' tone of engagement.

Europe also has less of an image problem in the Middle East than the United States. US actions during the Bush Administration (e.g. the specific problems the US encountered in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and renditions) have tended to undermine US credibility and increased resistance to US involvement in the region. Europe has managed to distance itself from the so-called war on terror -- and still views terrorism largely as a law enforcement issue.

Consequently, Europe's reach into Arab civil society has not suffered. Institutions such as the Anna Lindh Foundation display an impressive network of actors and range of activities that are geared towards shaping the Euro-Mediterranean region as "an area of cooperation, exchange, mobility, mutual understanding, and peace." The foundation was created in 2005 by governments engaged in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. Its activities range from discovering Islamic art to promoting Euro-Arab cinema and youth mobility. The foundation goes beyond the classical development assistance framework by focusing on cultural dialogues such as "Dialogue 21," which was launched at the peak of the Danish cartoon crisis, allowing young people to discuss issues with peers on both sides of the Mediterranean. This is a key issue given the displays of ignorance on all sides and the deliberate attempts by radicals to widen the perceived gaps between "them" and "us."

The European Union also looks back on a history of successful institution building and the integration of former Eastern European countries into the EU, which helped those countries reach "EU standards" in terms of rule of law, transparency and accountability. The European Union has successfully integrated the economies of 27 different countries, managed monetary stability and established a free trade zone for around 480 million consumers. These are noteworthy achievements, as key impediments to economic growth in the Arab world include the lack of intra-regional trade (which accounts for only 10 percent of the region's total trade), a lack of integration in the global market, and limited foreign investment due to the lack of trust in local institutions. Furthermore, exports from the European Union to the Middle East as well as North African exports to Europe provide a "way-in" for the EU to increase its leverage in the region.

Time for Honest Dialogue

In addition, the Barcelona process initiated in 1995, or more precisely, the recently revived and renamed Union for the Mediterranean, is the only forum where Israelis and Palestinians meet regularly. It is also the only forum where the European Union meets with its southern Mediterranean partners, as well as the Arab League, to discuss issues ranging from transport to the environment and education. Much has been invested in this process: the European Commission alone has supported the Barcelona Process with €16 billion since 1995. Traditionally, Europe also maintains direct channels of communication with states like Syria, in contrast to the frosty relations the country has shared with the United States in recent years.

In short, the European Union can offer more to the Middle East. It has potentially more leverage in the region than the United States in terms of soft power, it is less tied down by binding agreements (such as with Jordan or Egypt) than the United States, and its reserves of soft power can serve to further development and curb radicalization in the region.

While there exists a trans-Atlantic consensus on the need to improve socioeconomic and political conditions in the Arab world in principle, in practice priorities and policies to address these challenges differ.

With the Obama administration in place and the European Union restructuring the Barcelona Process into the Union for the Mediterranean, the time is ripe for a sober assessment as to how trans-Atlantic policies can complement each other. This period represents a fresh start where honest dialogue can take place concerning strategic challenges, priorities, and assumptions that lie behind the respective state policies towards the Middle East.

Related Topics

All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission

Die Homepage wurde aktualisiert. Jetzt aufrufen.
Hinweis nicht mehr anzeigen.