As the “Islamic State” (IS) spreads its black wings across the Middle East, most of European’s diplomats and statesmen are on vacation or not answering the phone. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who has at least made a trip to embattled Baghdad, has called on his colleagues to come together, saying that “when people die, you must return from vacation”. His message did not bear fruit until today, when the European Union’s Political and Security Committee will finally meet – a very, very underpowered response to a crisis of this magnitude.
High Representative Catherine Ashton did not address the issue of the Islamic State (a simple and telling designation, in that it knows no geographical bounds) until 10 August. On that day, she condemned IS for possible crimes against humanity and declared that the EU and member states would on 12 August provide €5 million in humanitarian assistance – and nothing else. She then issued a statement on the designation of a new prime minister in Baghdad. Earlier, on 4 August, her spokesperson merely issued a short statement expressing “deep concern” and calling on the government and the Kurds to reconcile (of which there is of course no long-term chance) while stopping short at suggesting any action by the EU. In the meantime, the European External Action Service which Ashton heads has issued statements on Gaza, on Karabakh, on a meeting with the Vietnamese prime minister, and on the Day of the World’s Indigenous People.
It is not that the EEAS and the High Representative speak and act – or fail to speak and act – in a void that the EU’s member states are falling over themselves to fill. Even the United States has been tardy and hesitant in its response, with President Barack Obama anxious not to make another military foray into the quicksands of the Middle East. Nonetheless, the US response now includes a military component, and the US is said to be planning the urgent evacuation of the civilians now trapped in the parched mountains of Northern Iraq in their flight from the IS. France and Italy (in Italy’s case, largely because of the Christian factor) stand out as a near exception within the EU. The United Kingdom is providing some humanitarian assistance as well as transport for military equipment supplied by others, but is strongly refusing to take military action or send military equipment on its own account. A group of British members of parliament is attempting to change that stance.
Europe’s inaction is a tragic failure that will have more than just moral consequences.
Europe’s inaction is a tragic failure that will have more than just moral consequences. It points to a trail of passivity by the EU itself and by many of its member states. This passivity was already in evidence when France acted in an urgent and timely fashion to stop another Islamist gang from seizing much of the sub-Saharan region in January 2013. France’s action was greeted with irony about France’s neo-colonialism, as well as with scepticism – today’s Europeans, with their lack of military culture, do not understand the degree to which air power and mobility can be decisive in a desert situation. Meanwhile, the military budgets of all EU states have been shrinking, with Germany, possibly at its historical apex as an economy, at the head of the pack. Contributing only non-lethal military equipment is simply not in keeping with Germany’s present responsibilities.
Much of this indifference and hypocrisy is on display today. False liberal perceptions are distorting the European approach to IS. Typically, this involves Europe’s obsession with events in Gaza. The blame game begins there – Europe blames Israel for the hold that Hamas has over the Palestinian territory’s population, and fail to perceive how the conflict was reignited. It is extraordinary to see how much of Europe’s media first denied that the kidnapping and killing of three Jewish teenagers was the handiwork of Hamas. Then, when the perpetrators were discovered, they maintained that the act was carried out by a rogue cell of Hamas – without offering any evidence. The thousands of rockets hurled into Israel, usually from civilian sites in a very dense territory, the two truces broken by Hamas, none of that was as important as Israel’s overly strong yet still targeted response. The plight of Gaza’s civilians is painful, caught as they are in the crossfire between a deadly organisation and an Israel that is determined to keep threats away from its territory. But all of the 1,900 casualties of a month-long conflict do not equate to a week of civil war in Syria, and many of these casualties took place after warnings were issued but not acted on. Nor does the loss of life even come close to the atrocities carried out by the IS, or the systematic persecution of religious minorities and even non-sectarian Muslims that is happening in Syraqistan. Saying this is not intended to condone the thick-headed Israeli policy of fragmenting and disenfranchising Palestinians – but it helps to restore a sense of the scale of the events.
Failure to act against the IS will have implications for Europe. Already, Europe is facing large refugee inflows from the Syrian Civil War. Out of humanity and some sense of shared identity, it is likely that Europe will have to provide humanitarian protection and perhaps asylum to hundreds of thousands of Christians and Yazidis fleeing the IS. The backlash from jihadists coming back to Europe from Afghanistan or Syria has already been shown by the Brussels Jewish museum killing and the Toulouse school massacre. This backlash, and the upheaval in the Middle East more generally, represent a catastrophe for Europe. Right now, only the depressed economic climate is preventing a massive oil price rise as it becomes clear that Iraq’s oil resources will not stay on stream for much longer.
Europe’s weakness is not a given, but a construct.
Against this, Europe’s military weakness argues for inaction. However, Europe’s weakness is not a given, but a construct. The only European country that has consistently used military power in recent years is France – with smallish contributions by the UK, Denmark, and Sweden. Germany’s insistence on reducing public deficits across Europe may be absolutely correct in terms of economic policy. But as Germany totally fails to live up to its economic weight in military terms, it takes no notice – or even laughs derisively – at France’s military stance. And France’s military expenses are a major contributor to the public deficit. Taking military action is not a trick to bolster President François Hollande’s position on the deficit – in fact, it is members of the opposition who have issued a call for military support to the Kurds. At the moment, France is deciding whether to deliver weapons to the Kurds, and it is likely that this will not be done without putting military advisers on the spot.
Europe must not abdicate its responsibilities by taking refuge behind the blame game. Yes, America’s clumsiness in its political handling of Iraq during the occupation carries with it a responsibility, and Obama’s obsession with a withdrawal was irresponsible: think what massive air strikes and a quick deployment from US bases could have done to the IS columns that have been advancing on desert roads over the past few weeks. Yes, Obama’s disappointing inaction on Syria was the reason that the radicals and the lunatics were able to take over the opposition against Assad – but that argument should not be used by those who were against arming the rebels anyway! Yes, the Israeli game of disempowering any moderate Palestinian group plays into the hands of extremists across the Arab and Muslim world. Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia factional rule is awful, but does all that even begin to compare with the IS? Europe’s actions should condone his eviction and promote a pluralist government – but more importantly, they should work to staunchly roll back the IS and other gangs.
Europe’s egoism and coldness is frightening. Europeans seem ready to stand by passively while a crime against humanity, one that in part targets Christians, is carried out. This inaction will bring shame and contempt for Europe, and make it an easy target for strongmen everywhere.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.