Europeans must avoid pairs of slaps

(B2) European States have taken, collectively, some beautiful slaps in 2019 on the international level. In 2020, they will have to react and anticipate more if they want to continue to display an international ambition

(credit : MOD Autriche)

In 2019, European countries successively and collectively took some serious slaps in three crisis zones around their southern periphery: Iran, Syria, Libya. Countries which are rather medium powers, but each conceal internal wealth and fundamental challenges in terms of stability, terrorism or migration for Europeans. Countries where Europe is struggling to print its mark where the USA, Russia and Turkey take the initiative.

A strategic retreat in Syria

On the ground in Syria, the Turkish coup supported on the one hand by the United States, on the other by Russia, results in reshuffling the cards. It consolidates the Assad regime, makes the Astana trio (Russia-Turkey-Iran) essential on the international scene, which asserts itself as the indispensable ‘sponsor’ of a peace solution in the Middle East. It represents everything that the Europeans fought: the security zone, the Assad regime, the weight of Russia, Iranian influence in the region, etc. This is not a simple tactical defeat, we are pouring into a strategic effacement. The cause is not only European, but they did not want and could not play a role in the crisis.

Lack of effect on Iranian record

In Tehran, the hardening of the regime on the Iranian nuclear issue is torpedoing the last European hopes to keep this agreement. Europeans caught between the hammer (of American sanctions) and the anvil (of Tehran’s gradual disengagement from the agreement) are doing everything they can to preserve the agreement. But they did not manage to move up a gear which would have required, in order to sustain the agreement, to oppose the Americans head on. It was not possible economically and politically. The measures taken, such as the trading company Instex, are interesting but too slow and measured to be able to reverse the trend of Iran’s disinvestment from the nuclear agreement painfully signed in 2015.

Bogged down in libya

In Libya, the conflict around Tripoli not only continues, but it is taking an increasingly international turn. The efforts to bring about a political compromise are fading away. Again (as in Syria), the Europeans arrived divided on the matter. It is no secret that French (and British) on the one hand, Italians (and Germans) on the other did not have quite the same views on the future of government in Libya. They have not been able to acquire sufficient levers to weigh a decisive weight in the conflict by lining up on one side deliberately alongside the government of Fayez al-Sarraj, while supporting in a partial and diverted opposition General Haftar’s army. Russia and Turkey have rushed into the breach to continue their struggle for influence alongside other regional (Egypt) and Arab (Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Qatar) players.

A reflection to initiate

This series of bad news should prompt to think seriously.

Congenital weakness

It shows a fact that several observers have already highlighted, but which politicians are struggling to insert into their thinking: none of the European countries really weighs on the world stage, especially when they face a line of force. It is obvious that is taking shape today on all issues. It is useless here to accuse European diplomacy of being powerless or of pointing the finger at this or that country accused of dragging its feet. Even with regard to medium powers like Turkey or Iran, Europe can no longer drive a new deal. At best, it can slow down or slow down certain effects.

Clear European assets

Too much pessimism. Europeans keep many assets up their sleeve: being a gentle power, having a certain economic strength, being a democratic alternative to the overpowered American or authoritarian Russian model and representing a diversity of points of view and a range of means of intervention. You still have to want to play this role frankly, take risks and not be content with a few declamatory remarks or take shelter behind a policy of sanctions that looks more like a screen for inaction than a real effect (read : Les sanctions de l’UE contre la Syrie : à peine un cautère sur un conflit sanglant).

Take back the initiative

If the new European Commission wants to be “geopolitical” as Ursula von der Leyen says, to be “a more powerful voice in world affairs” as the new President of the European Council, Charles Michel, can be said, or to be “influential” as the proclaims the Croatian Presidency of the EU, it must tackle these neighborhood issues head on and take the initiative, make proposals, autonomously, and not take refuge behind a role of support to the UN or a virtuous role first in the ‘green deal’ class.

A high-level initiative

The situation is now so critical in these three areas, particularly in Libya, that it would justify a special meeting of the European Council. The visit of a European quintet (the German, French, Italian and British ministers with the EU High Representative) to Libya on January 7 is an interesting first step. However, Europeans must not repeat past mistakes, such as taking sides or officially meeting only certain players in the conflict, or staying in the ford without taking any initiative. In the words of the head of European diplomacy, the equation is simple: either Europe “reacts collectively with an EU policy”, or “we resign ourselves to being the playground of others” (read : Les huit préoccupations de Josep Borrell, le nouveau chef de la diplomatie européenne).

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Read as well : Menaces : une épée de Damoclès au-dessus de la tête des Européens (november 2018)

Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).