In the aftermath of the international military campaign against the Islamic State group (ISIS), Europe can contribute to stability in Iraq by supporting accountable institution-building both to shield the country from geopolitical rivalries and to bridge widening social cleavages. In recent years, support for Iraq from the European Union and its member states has focused on humanitarian aid and counter-terrorism. But, as the ongoing protests in Iraq highlight, there is deep popular frustration with the Iraqi elite – who, since the fall of the ISIS caliphate, have been widely viewed as corrupt and have failed to provide basic services. The fact that most countries do not view Europe as an active player in the Middle East could work to its advantage in dealing with Iraq. Yet this will only be the case if Europe is willing to take on a more significant role there, exerting its influence on its partners, allies, and adversaries.
The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq not only toppled Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime but also dismantled the structures of the Iraqi state, removing most of the country’s security apparatus and the top tiers of its civil service. Iraq has never completely recovered from this process, suffering from recurrent conflicts that have involved extensive interference from outside powers, particularly the United States and Iran. Most Iraqis reject such interference, especially when it directly affects their domestic politics. Nonetheless, many Iraqis still believe that foreign governments can help rebuild and stabilise Iraq.
The EU has some leverage over this process. Unlike Middle Eastern powers or the US – which are tarnished by their past (and current) involvement in Iraq – the EU and most of its member states have a reputation for political neutrality in Baghdad. As such, European engagement with Iraq is not a sensitive issue for most of the country’s citizens. This perception plays a key role in enhancing the EU’s influence in Iraq.
An important source of leverage for the bloc is its mediation of the US-Iran dispute, which threatens to reignite conflict in Iraq. Recent airstrikes on bases associated with the Popular Mobilisation Units (which allege that the attacks come from the US and Israel), and these militias’ threats to retaliate against American and Israeli interests, indicate that the country could descend into widespread violence once again. Several members of the Iraqi political elite, regardless of their factional allegiances, want their country to remain neutral and at peace. To do this, they need assistance from foreign allies such as the EU and some of its member states. The bloc can, as Ramon Blecua, its former ambassador to Iraq, recently wrote, help Iraq “build a new regional order based on cooperation instead of confrontation, supporting security and stability without imposing its own agenda”.
The EU also gains leverage in Iraq through diplomacy. For instance, the EU is one of the only powers to have met with populist Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose troubled history limits his diplomatic interaction with Western countries. Sadr was the leader of the notorious Mahdi Army, which allegedly committed sectarian war crimes during Iraq’s 2006-2008 civil war. However, since 2011, Sadr has rebranded himself as a statesman, winning the 2018 election and becoming a key player in Iraqi (and regional) politics. Nonetheless, American, British, and even Iranian officials do not meet with Sadr, due to his past. This has allowed the EU to use its relative neutrality to meet with a wide array of Iraqi leaders.
The EU also plays a pivotal role in reconstruction and development in Iraq. According to the European Commission, since the rise of the ISIS caliphate in 2014, the EU has provided more than €1bn in support to Iraq, including €435m in humanitarian aid, €320m in development funding, and €6.5m in European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights funding for civil society organisations. In February 2018, the EU co-convened the Kuwait International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq. At the meeting, donor countries pledged around $30 billion to help Iraq rebuild – around €400m of which came from EU grants.
In the past year, the EU has provided funds to support the Iraqi state’s provision of basic services, including €2.5m for emergency reproductive health. The bloc has also supported Iraq’s economy through initiatives such as a €15m grant to Iraqi farmers – who feel increasingly vulnerable due to both worsening agricultural conditions and the massive influx of neighbouring countries’ agricultural goods into the Iraqi market. Moreover, many Iraqis regard the EU’s backing for organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme as important to stabilisation and reconstruction in Iraq.
In these ways, the EU provides essential services without the political baggage that often comes with Middle Eastern or American support. While European member states and the European External Action Service (EEAS) may work in the vacuum created by the decline of American influence in Iraq, they are still no match for the US, nor for Middle Eastern powers such as Iran and Gulf Arab countries. The EU does not have enough leverage to force parties to come to the table nor to act in the way it wants – although it can create a measure of stability between the US and Iran.
However, the EU is often less than the sum of its parts in Iraq: variations in policy between EU member states and the EEAS have led to a degree of incoherence. As a result, it is difficult to analyse any one policy approach as representative of Europe. At times, the foreign policy of one EU member state can hinder the efforts of others or the EEAS.
European actors risk falling into some of the same traps that have caught other international state-builders in Iraq since 2003. For instance, a few months ago, one resident of Mosul’s Old City asked the author of this piece: “where is the EU and the internationals who came to announce the project and never came back?” This was a reference to the partly EU-funded project to rebuild al-Nuri Mosque, which has stalled due to administrative difficulties created by Iraq’s bloated bureaucracy. Therefore, while the EU does not have the same political limitations as other foreign actors in Iraq, its financial support for capacity-building has not always overcome systemic barriers.
In short, the EU’s leverage in Iraq comes from its role as a balancer. Yet it must carry enough economic and political weight to achieve the political solutions that will consolidate the military victory against ISIS. Beyond humanitarian and stabilisation support, Europe has fallen victim to the same corruption problems that have blighted past efforts at state-building in Iraq. To ensure that its future efforts are effective, Europe needs to apply greater pressure to actors who implement its projects in the country, ranging from government ministries to private organisations. If their financial support for Iraq is to achieve the intended outcome, the EU and its member states will require both a greater understanding of power dynamics within the Iraqi state and a greater willingness to hold its partners to account. If Europe fails to do so, Iraq will likely remain caught in a cycle of conflict and incomplete recovery for years to come.