Now the EU should get serious in Iraq

The Iraq issue almost derailed the European Security and Defence Policy, but now it presents a chance to show how far the EU has come in learning how to stabilise war-damaged states. The divisions within the EU over Iraq made it look all too foolish in 2003, so now it's time to get serious.

Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

European leaders, having
preferred not to talk much about Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in
2003, seem fascinated by it once more. As Iraq recovers from civil war it is
beginning to look like a good place to make money. It also offers an
opportunity for EU security cooperation, especially for those governments that
are unwilling to send more troops to Afghanistan. The Iraq issue
almost derailed the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), but now it
presents a chance to show how far the EU has come in learning how to stabilise
war-damaged states.

Even two years ago, when the
insurgency was still in full swing, it would have seemed foolhardy to predict
that Iraqi trade might soon capture top-level attention in Europe.
Yet early 2009 saw France’s
president Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany’s
foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the UK’s
business minister Peter Mandelson all leading trade delegations to Baghdad.

Iraq has hard cash – saved when oil prices were high – but its infrastructure needs an overhaul.
Lord Mandelson was accompanied by representatives of more than 20 British
construction companies, while President Sarkozy promised there will be “no
limits” to French involvement in Iraq’s reconstruction.

The potential rewards are
huge; last December, Iraq’s
government signed a €1.5bn deal with Germany’s Siemens for gas turbines.
Baghdad has also offered to supply up to half
the gas for the new Nabucco pipeline that is meant to reduce Europe’s
reliance on Russian energy supplies.

But the risks remain very
significant too. Iraq
may have grown safer, but its stability is far from assured. With the U.S. poised to draw down its forces – and Iraq’s own army and police still
far from consistently reliable – the
country faces continued uncertainty. In Washington,
many Middle East experts fear the consequences of Iraq
being forgotten, overshadowed by Afghanistan
and Pakistan.

If European governments want
to develop trade with Iraq,
they need to contribute to the country’s security – or their investments may go to waste. A
relapse into violence would be very damaging to the EU in other ways,
destabilising its relations with Turkey,
weakening its diplomacy with Iran
and even endangering its policy towards Palestine.

European governments are not
unaware of these dangers. This year, Germany
set aside €150m for support to Iraq.
Yet the last thing the Baghdad
government needs is a slew of well-intentioned but poorly-coordinated security
initiatives from the West.

The ill effects of
under-coordinated aid have already been demonstrated in Afghanistan
after the initial defeat of the Taliban. Individual European states adopted
specific projects – Germany
took on the police, Italy
handled the judiciary, Britain
attempted to get a grip on drugs –
and the result was an unproductive mess.

Something similar has since
happened in Iraq,
although on a smaller scale. Italy
is offering in-country police training, while Germany
also offers training, but in Jordan
and the Gulf. There has also been a (predictable) gap between support from
those countries that backed the U.S.
in 2003 and those that refused to do so, reducing the options for EU
coordination.

Future European aid to Iraq needs to
be applied more strategically. This is especially true because it is necessary
to avoid clashing with the work of the U.S.,
still crucial to all foreign engagement with Baghdad, and the UN Assistance Mission to
Iraq (UNAMI). The latter has significantly expanded its activities, taking on
assignments the U.S. could
not resolve, like mediating internal boundary disputes between Baghdad and the Kurds.

But as Middle East expert
Elizabeth Sellwood warned in a recent report for New
York University’s
Center on International Cooperation, UNAMI’s “capacities are limited and the
UN’s reputation in Iraq
is still fragile.” There are looming challenges on security sector reform as
the Iraqi government attempts to find a modus vivendi with formerly hostile
militias previously pacified by U.S.
cash.

So there are still gaps for
Europeans to fill in Iraq,
especially in helping mould the country’s security forces into a credible,
accountable whole. To tackle this, European efforts should be channelled
through a single framework, to be provided by the EU. Had anyone suggested in
2003 that the EU could play a major coordinating role in Iraq, they
would either have been ignored, or mocked. But now, with the disputes that
surrounded the war finally fading into history, the European Union it is
well-placed to do so.

Gradually and largely
unnoticed, the Council of the EU and European Commission have already
established themselves as players in Iraq. The Commission has recently
enlarged the Baghdad
office, it opened in 2005. It has committed nearly €1bn to Iraq since
Saddam’s fall. The Council has been involved in building up Iraq’s police and judiciary through EUJUST LEX,
an ESDP mission that has in the last four years brought 2,000 Iraqi officials
to Europe for training in everything from
murder investigations to financial crime.

In March, the Council
approved proposals for EUJUST LEX to start in-country training programmes. It
is currently expected to remain small-scale: the mission still has just 30
staff, compared to the UN’s 300. Nonetheless, this decision could be one more step
towards a much more expansive EU role in coordinating police and justice issues
in Iraq.

This role would not centre
on training rank-and-file police officers, which has been the priority for the U.S. and its
allies in the immediate post-conflict years. Instead, the focus is now to be on
developing Iraq’s
strategies for fighting smuggling and organised crime, and ensuring democratic
oversight of its security services in a fashion acceptable to all communities.

Daniel Serwer, a former U.S. diplomat
and post-conflict specialist, stresses that these are strategies that require
competent civil servants as well as policemen. The U.S.
has struggled to develop Iraq’s
Interior Ministry, in part because it still relies heavily on military
personnel. The EU could take over, says Serwer, by deploying two hundred
Europeans prepared to move into the ministry and give it the close, hands-on
attention it needs.”

European officials might be
tempted to throw unseemly tantrums at the idea of raising 200 personnel for Iraq. The
priorities for Brussels remain Afghanistan and the Balkans, and already the
Council has found it hard to find staff to send to Kosovo and Kabul. But even a lesser number of experts
with specialties like border security would make a difference. If EU member
states were prepared to hire recently retired police and civil servants on the
open market – currently a controversial
topic in Brussels
– it wouldn’t be hard to find
200 of them.

The EU could maximize its
leverage by uniting its security personnel and Commission staff together under
a “double-hatted” EU Special Representative (EUSR). The relatively small number
of personnel would carry weight because of the aid money behind them. The idea
of a EUSR for Iraq
has been floated before, with Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt among its
advocates. Previously, there was no European consensus in favour, but Bildt
could well make use of Sweden’s
current stint in the EU presidency to get agreement on creating the position.

The enlarged ESDP mission could
also increase its muscle by incorporating the small NATO-run military training
mission in Iraq
that has been there since 2003. This not only educates senior Iraqi officers
but provides “gendarmerie-type” training to the police – in layman’s terms, teaching them how to
handle riots and even low-level insurgency. Consolidating these activities
under EU command would not only simplify interactions with the police but would
relieve NATO of a minor burden as it concentrates it energies on Afghanistan.

And while the Afghan crisis
is placing new strains on the transatlantic relationship, an EU effort to
cement stability in Iraq
would win some gratitude from the Obama Administration. European and U.S. strategists alike also recognise that an
effective Western presence in Iraq
is needed to widen the containment of threats from Iran.

Although the “EU Three” of Britain, France
and Germany have led UN
efforts to halt Iran’s
nuclear ambitions, Europe has played a very
limited role in Gulf security. Its interactions with the Gulf Cooperation
Council (GCC) – the most promising regional
partner – have been largely limited
to economic matters, not urgent political ones.

An expanded EU presence in Iraq could act
as an anchor for enhanced regional efforts. To support the GCC, the EU could
launch new initiatives in the region based on the Stability Pact for South-East Europe devised to foster regional cooperation
after the Bosnian war. Other issues like maritime security and border disputes
could be added to trade-focused talks to build greater trust.

The EU’s menu of options in Iraq –
civilian security, good governance and regional coordination – seems almost perfectly tailored to the Union’s own skill-set. After all, ESDP missions have
handled similar issues not only in the Balkans but from Aceh to Africa.

But Iraq is Iraq. Reinforcing the EU’s role
there will be doubly painful. EU members that supported the U.S.-led invasion,
like Britain, are wary of
handing any responsibilities to Brussels.
And those that did not might still prefer to minimise their public profile in Baghdad. After all, if
the EU were to set up a new headquarters in Iraq, it could be a target for
terrorists – just as UNAMI’s HQ was an
early victim of suicide bombing in 2003.

But if Europeans hope their
leading businesses can make profits in Iraq without their governments
bearing some of the security costs, they will find themselves in a morally
dubious and operationally silly position. The divisions within the EU over Iraq made it
look all too foolish in 2003, so now it’s time to get serious.

This piece first appeared in the Autumn 2009 edition of Europe’s World.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Authors

Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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