European challenges 2014: Middle Eastern challenges

expert roundtable on challenges in the MENA region 2014


Daniel Levy, Director of Mena Programme, ECFR

Robert Dölger, Head of Middle East section, German MFA

Chaired by

Olaf Böhnke, Head of ECFR Berlin

European challenges 2014: Middle Eastern challenges

What can we expect in the Middle East in 2014? Is it all bad news? Can Europe play a positive role; if so how? These were the questions addressed at the lunch discussion of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the Berlin office on the 5th November.

The central and overarching theme of the discussion was the changing US stance in the Middle East, and the implications for the region and for Europe’s role in the Middle East. Despite Secretary of State Kerry’s best efforts, Obama is being increasingly constrained by a conservative Congress, and no longer has the free hand he previously enjoyed.

Tied down by domestic considerations, Obama has turned to a more multilateral approach with players in the Middle East, and this changing the fundamental dynamics of the region. This policy has the potential to unleash further instability as Saudi Arabia and Israel increasingly go their own ways. These issues will become critical in 2014 – provoked by the shifting balance of power in the region other potential conflicts are already on the horizon in Yemen and Lebanon.

Europe’s role is also changing; despite US multilateralism, close co-operation between the US and Europe in several key fields has declined and Europe is no longer able to hide behind the US shadow. Instead, it has to engage seriously with the region on a pan-European level. The current disunity, with nation states like Britain and France advancing their own interests ensures that Brussels’ (admittedly modest) attempts at diplomacy are rendered incoherent. At the moment, it seems highly improbable that, despite a reduced US footprint in the region, Europe (either as Union or individual member states) will be able to pick up the slack on issues like the Middle East Peace Process and negotiations with Iran. 

The Outlook for 2014

The prospects for Syria in 2014 are not good. The military and political deadlock is unlikely to change without a major external player dramatically changing its stance or directly intervening. Moreover, it seems that much of the Syrian population has adapted to a war economy, in which new revenue streams have opened up as a result of the conflict.

It is highly improbable that the Geneva II negotiations will be able to put an end to this deadlock. The few participating rebel groups realise they stand to lose out from western pressure to sign a deal in what they perceive as a zero-sum game. For his part, Assad (with his international legitimacy renewed by the chemical weapons deal) will not make game changing concessions at the talks. While the rebels demand a full transfer of executive authority, Assad is refusing to budge. Further, a de-escalation of the conflict will fundamentally depend on the co-operation of regional powers. At the moment, Turkey’s porous border to Syria allows for a constant supply of the rebel sides, while Iranian, Saudi and Lebanese support for various factions complicates a possible deal enormously.

Despite this, some experts argue that Geneva II might well be the last chance to find a viable solution before Syria disintegrates entirely. In any case, the approaching winter risks blowing an already grave situation for displaced Syrians into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. The situation is particularly severe in Lebanon, where the authorities have not provided adequate accommodation for the 1.3 million refugees.

Will 2014 bring any good news in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Increasing power shortages in Gaza might conceivably pressure Hamas into seeking some understanding with Abbas, and thereby strengthening his hand in negotiations with the Israelis. But is Netanyahu prepared to make any compromises to Abbas?

Any treaty worth the paper it is written on will have to address both an agreement on settlements and a Palestinian State. As the number of settlers has risen to 600,000, this problem seems particularly charged and intractable, and Netanyahu seems unwilling to make any concessions on this issue. In terms of Palestinian statehood, there is perhaps some room for optimism: if the whole world is willing to call the minimally sovereign Palestinian Authority a state, why shouldn’t Israel accept this as a pragmatic and cheap concession?

A Role for Europe?

So what can we expect from Europe in 2014? The consensus seemed to be that, despite a clear need for serious political capital to be invested in the region, major changes in European priorities is unlikely. Among the big three, France and Britain will presumably continue to go their own way (thereby undermining Brussels’ common European External Action Service), while the new German government will presumably bumble along as before.

Nonetheless, Europe is confronted by an array of challenges which are becoming ever more acute. Decisions about the European stance on Syria, Iran, Egypt and Israel/Palestinian can no longer be avoided. What is then the best case scenario?

On Syria, rather depressingly, the best we can hope for now is the step-by-step approach we saw in the agreement on chemical weapons. Europe’s role in this will remain limited, the larger question being determined by Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran. It also needs to be borne in mind that dealing with Assad, even on an issue-by-issue basis, strengthens his position. Europe should try to support regional partners like Turkey to contain the conflict, and attempt to establish a dialogue between civil society groups in Syria and larger state actors. Beyond that, there is rather little Europe can do except providing resources to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

On the Israeli-Palestinian question, Europe needs to re-assert itself and demonstrate to Israel that its preferential relations with Europe are contingent upon the curtailment of settlements in the West Bank. By separating the legal international entity of Israel from its activity in occupied areas, Europa can interrupt the cosy domestic narrative in Israel which attempts to depict the current reality as normality. Specifically, tying policy to a better understand of domestic political processes in Israel could potentially bear fruit. Refusing to extend visas to settlers and obstructing further economic integration and preferential tariffs could perhaps convince the centrist floating voters in Israel that the costs of Israel’s settlement policies have become too high. Europe can thereby help force a domestic debate in which Israelis will have to make long term and difficult choices about their priorities.

In the final analysis, Europe more than ever needs to walk a fine line between encouraging peaceful solutions and democratic processes in the region while avoiding cries of western interventionism. In disintegrating countries like Syria and those on the brink like Egypt, Europe in 2014 nevertheless looks closer than ever to losing all semblance of leverage.