As the European refugee crisis has increasingly dominated public debates and policy discussions, talk has grown in many quarters about the need for EU governments to attack the root causes of instability and radicalism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), especially in Syria. The November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris have intensified this trend.

Even though the refugee crisis and the threat from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, are not one and the same problem, their root causes overlap: many of the same economic, security, and governance pathologies that drive large-scale movements of people also foster radicalization.

Despite the recent discussion, however, little clarity has emerged about what attacking the root causes entails and to what extent EU governments are already doing so. Four challenges are key to a policy more focused on root causes: maintaining support for political aid projects; defining a clearer EU role in efforts to end the Syrian war; forging a comprehensive regional strategy; and fostering governance reform in MENA states.

Progress is possible in each of these four areas. Yet significant limits constrain the EU, and even a vigorous turn toward a greater focus on root causes will not bring about any rapid or definitive resolution of the problems involved. A protracted struggle lies ahead.

Aid Priorities Beyond Humanitarian Containment

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.
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Until the terror attacks hit Paris, the main strand of European responses to the refugee surge was an increase in humanitarian aid. This increase is necessary and welcome. But it represents a policy of humanitarian containment—the use of aid to prevent a spillover of refugee pressures into Europe—not one aimed at tackling root causes like poor economic performance, bad governance, and social division.

The flow of refugees has produced a notable increase in EU external funding. A total of over €9.2 billion ($9.8 billion) has been made available from the EU budget for 2015–2016 to control the arrival of refugees and close down trafficking networks. EU member states have promised an extra €200 million for multilateral agencies like the World Food Program and the UN refugee agency to care for refugees within the Middle East.

The EU’s Madad trust fund for Syrian refugees will provide €1 billion, half of which is to come from the European Commission, half from EU member states. Starting with €23 million in late 2014, the Madad fund has increased to almost 40 times its original size since the wave of refugees that hit Europe in 2015. The fund’s projects are currently focused on providing refugees with employment opportunities and education throughout the region.

The broader amounts of money that the EU and member states are discussing for containment measures are striking: €3 billion for Turkey to manage refugee camps; €1.8 billion in an Emergency Trust Fund for Africa; funds to set up a European border and coast guard system and deploy Rapid Border Intervention Teams to deal with emergency situations on the EU’s external frontiers; and money for Frontex, the EU’s border agency, to employ extra guards to control refugee movements. Civil society organizations in Europe and the Middle East have noted wryly that EU aid is being increased dramatically as a result of Europe’s own refugee and terrorism concerns, not because of atrocities in Syria itself.

These amounts massively outweigh aid dedicated to anything that might be considered to lie at the political roots of the refugee crisis. Even before the current crisis, European aid was already shifting toward a humanitarian focus and away from more political aid projects. With so much funding now going to a combination of counterterrorism cooperation and humanitarian relief, the EU is even more stretched in its support for long-term reform projects in the MENA region.

Compared with the more than €9.2 billion for addressing the refugee crisis, the sums that member states and EU institutions allocate for underlying governance reform or conflict prevention in the Middle East are tiny—a few hundred million euros, mainly from a handful of bigger donors.

Of all European donors, only the European Commission, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and the UK have given nonnegligible amounts of governance and civil society aid, with annual contributions of at least €100 million across the MENA region over the past few years. Denmark and Sweden alone currently give comparable sums for both governance reform and humanitarian relief; and the Swedish government is now switching a significant portion of its aid budget to measures dealing with the influx of refugees. Beyond humanitarian aid, the EU is currently running only a handful of projects related to Syria—on youth, civil society networks, education, and the environment.

A key question is whether EU institutions and member-state governments will see fit to increase aid not only for humanitarian relief but also for longer-term development and reform in the MENA region. The UK will now target more of its aid budget toward tempering instability, including through conflict and stabilization initiatives specifically in the Middle East and North Africa. But in general, there are few signs that major changes in assistance amounts are imminent. An important question is whether French aid will increase from its currently low levels in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Most EU states are focusing mainly—and perhaps understandably—on beefing up domestic capabilities in surveillance, policing, border control, and intelligence. With the Islamic State now apparently expanding its activities beyond its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, these moves are justified. But resources will also be needed for a much wider international effort to temper the drivers of radicalization and emigration across the region.

It would be counterproductive if new powers to keep terrorists out of Europe were also used to keep refugees out—in the name of political agendas that have nothing to do with what happened in Paris. Yet there are points of crossover in the external dimensions of these two policy areas, and both require the EU to invest resources well beyond humanitarian aid.

Conflict Resolution

Another challenge for the EU as it seeks to tackle the root causes of Middle Eastern instability is to define the EU’s role in ongoing international efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict. On November 14 in Vienna, the United States, Russia, and other powers agreed to work on defining an inclusive transition and on implementing a ceasefire. Some see this as a decisive breakthrough; critics point out that no Syrians were at the negotiating table and that many details were left undefined, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future role or the question of which armed groups will be allowed to participate in the process to reach a political settlement.

The understanding will set new parameters for EU policies. EU documents have been calling for an inclusive transition in Syria for quite some time without tightly defining what that might mean. The Paris attacks and the refugee crisis have made most European governments more willing to reach a negotiated settlement with the Assad regime. France and the UK have diverged somewhat from other member states since 2013 in refusing to contemplate a solution that involves Assad. Their position may now be shifting, unlocking new areas of cooperation on the ground and also stiffening EU unity.

European policymakers also hope that the Vienna understanding will make it easier to fund projects inside Syria, especially through the Madad fund, for a wider range of resilience-building purposes beyond humanitarian aid. It is at this level that EU and member-state initiatives could make a difference, to flank high-level regional diplomacy.

The joint pressures of the Paris attacks and the refugee surge seem to have encouraged compromise from both Russia and Western states. All powers appear to agree, at least rhetorically, on the need for an immediate focus on striking the Islamic State now within both Syria and Iraq. In the best-case scenario of talks progressing, the question will be whether discussions do indeed address the root causes of instability and radicalism. However strong the case for negotiating with the Syrian regime, it is worth recalling that the outflow of refugees and the growth of radical groups have both been caused principally by Assad’s actions. While several European donor agencies talk of the need to support conflict-ending elite bargains, the academic evidence is that these rarely embed peace over the long term.‬

In general, European governments are still not inclined to engage in significant military intervention. Only five EU member states—Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and the UK—have participated in the coalition carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. Taken together, these states have contributed a small fraction of the level of airpower provided by the United States. Before the Paris attacks, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands were struggling to find additional funds to continue their involvement in the coalition.

European governments tend to stress that they see no military solution to Syria’s violence. Only France and the UK have undertaken military action within Syria. In September, France became the second Western country to join the United States in carrying out manned air strikes in Syria. Yet France is for the moment more heavily engaged in operations in Mali and the Central African Republic than it is in Syria or Iraq. Despite launching more air strikes and halting defense cuts, France is still well short of contemplating a large-scale military engagement, especially one involving ground troops.

In the UK, debates over extended military operations have gathered pace as a reaction to the Paris atrocities, the refugee crisis, and the June 2015 terrorist attack against British citizens at a Tunisian tourist resort. The UK government has agreed to extend air strikes in Iraq until at least March 2017. Britain’s involvement in Syria has so far been limited to surveillance flights, drone strikes against British Islamic State fighters, and covert operations. London has promised to increase funding for special forces and to double the number of drones the UK operates in Iraq and Syria. The government has announced its intention to ask for parliamentary backing for air strikes in Syria very soon. Yet, senior military figures are downplaying the likely scale of UK operations.

In short, the refugee crisis does not appear to have made any large-scale European hard-security involvement in Syria imminent. Notably, even though Germany announced on November 26 that it would contribute noncombat support services, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has been openly hostile to any military engagement in Syria.

Germany has most heavily stressed the need to work with Russia on fashioning some kind of political settlement, even though the short-term consequence of Russian involvement in Syria is almost certainly an increase in refugee numbers as more people flee the turmoil in the region. The UK and France may now be slightly more open than before to supporting international mediation efforts but still doubt that the Islamic State can be curtailed while Assad is in power—because until he leaves office, the opposition will be focused on him and not on the radical jihadists. The Russian line is that the Syrian regime needs boosting to deal with the Islamic State. Some EU member states seem to have positioned themselves between these standpoints.

Syrian opposition groups complain that they lack the weapons that radical jihadist groups are able to obtain; and yet, EU member states in general still refuse to supply the opposition with arms—even if French President François Hollande claims that France has been providing some weapons. The European Commission and Germany have made efforts to connect different opposition groups, but only on a very modest and low-profile scale. Some limited amounts of EU aid are being directed to support local governance and the restoration of basic services in opposition-held territory. There is scope for the EU and member states to do much more in these areas, apart from high-level international talks and debates about military action.

Before the 2015 influx of refugees, Libya was the principal gateway into Europe; yet similar caution applies here as well. The European External Action Service, the EU’s foreign policy arm, has proposed options for engagement in conflict resolution in Libya if a UN proposal for a unity government were to be accepted by the Islamist-backed government in Tripoli and the internationally recognized administration in the eastern city of Tobruk. Such options include €100 million in aid; the restarting of an aborted border mission; and possibly a very limited peacekeeping mission, consisting of civilian monitors and mediation experts. This represents some change, but still on a very small scale—even if the ideas are eventually agreed to and implemented, which is by no means certain. Nothing the EU has offered has yet been sufficient to persuade the Tobruk administration to sign up to the unity accord.

Regional Dynamics

To tackle the root causes of the refugee crisis, the EU would need to fashion a more comprehensive regional strategy that links together different challenges and actors across the MENA region. Senior EU officials do indeed talk about a return to security dialogues across the broader Middle East and the need for the EU (among other players) to support a regional security framework. Yet it is not clear how far member states are in practice willing or able to move in this direction.

The EU’s focus has been on the recently published review of its European Neighborhood Policy—a partnership forum that unhelpfully includes Syria but not Iraq—rather than on encouraging a region-wide foreign and security policy framework. Governments certainly have no desire to reconsider the borders of today’s Middle Eastern states as part of a pan-regional approach, even though many analysts believe a rethink beyond the century-old Sykes-Picot Agreement that effectively defined those borders may at some point be unavoidable.

While the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is keen to upgrade its dialogue with the Mediterranean, diplomats admit that there is now little prospect of the long-touted Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Mediterranean. A truly holistic approach would also entail linking policy responses in the MENA region to political trends in sub-Saharan Africa, as the latter is the likely source of even bigger refugee flows in the future.

The tentative agreement reached in Vienna appears to represent a significant change in regional dynamics. Under concerted U.S. and Russian pressure, Iran and Saudi Arabia both signed the accord. EU diplomacy may not be a directly determinant factor in Middle Eastern geopolitics, but it could exert indirect leverage at the margins to incentivize powers to cooperate.

Indeed, tackling the root causes of the region’s broader constellation of security challenges would mean reining in Gulf states over their support for radical groups. To date, European governments appear reluctant to do this—although Sweden has stressed concerns about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Qatari roles in backing radical groups are still opaque and of persistent concern beyond the fate of the Islamic State.

Iran’s role in regional diplomacy is hard to determine. Some analysts fear a Moscow-Tehran-Baghdad axis in an increasingly tense standoff with Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Yet Iranian officials insist they want a regional security forum and that the EU must lean harder on Saudi Arabia to accept Iran as a legitimate player within such an initiative. Iranian diplomats also maintain that they could support the EU in backing democratic elections and political reform as part of the solution in Syria as long as Assad’s resignation were not a prerequisite. This would, they suggest, open the way to wider regional cooperation that would help meet EU security fears. It remains unclear whether the EU wishes to significantly increase its offers of cooperation with Iran and test how genuine such offers of rapprochement are.

Governance Reform

A further factor is that EU support for security capacity building in the Middle East has failed to gain traction. This is in large part because such support has not been aimed at fundamental governance shortcomings.

The logic of humanitarian containment is driven by fear of an uncontrolled wildfire of conflict spreading across the region. One of the most cited phrases in policymaking and think tank circles describes the EU’s neighborhood as a raging ring of fire. This widely used metaphor is somewhat misleading, however. Beyond the Syrian war, Libya’s implosion, and low-level fighting on a small part of Ukraine’s territory, the rest of the neighborhood is not beset by open conflict. Its problems are quite different. Most of the neighborhood could be described more accurately as a ring of stagnation than a ring of fire. It is made up of countries in which reforms continually fail to materialize and long-present problems drag on without being addressed by feckless and self-serving regimes of different political hues. Turgid immobilism reigns, rather than fiery drama.

In this sense, the roots of the refugee crisis and of radicalization lie in the pathologies of a governance-security nexus—that is, in the opaque and unaccountable governance processes through which Middle Eastern regimes manage their security forces and strategic challenges. The nature of the EU’s security engagement has so far erred in neglecting this governance dimension of security cooperation. Policies are needed that approach security through the prism of societal reconciliation and the tempering of identity politics.

A core focus of EU strategy has been to boost local actors’ capacity to fight the Islamic State. Several EU member states have already been helping build the security capabilities of forces combating the group. Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the UK have between them provided hundreds of military trainers to Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iraqi security forces in the last year. France and the UK have stepped up training for Syrian rebels since summer 2015.

However, the need is not just for stronger security forces but also for better-managed security sectors across the region. Two examples demonstrate this. It appears that under Tunisia’s Nidaa Tounes–led government, heavy-handed security may be one factor that is driving fighters from the country to join the Islamic State. In Egypt, the growing power of the Sinai-based radical groups that are believed to have brought down a Russian Metrojet flight on October 31 is linked to the country’s drift to military-led authoritarian repression. In such circumstances, European security assistance is unlikely to be effective if it is simply about sending more trainers or equipment. This has been done, and it did not prevent the refugee exodus.

If the EU is to succeed in addressing the root causes of the refugee surge and transnational terrorism, its foreign policy will need to help mold the political conditions that produce stability in the Middle East. Member states remain divided on what this entails. And if anything, the overall EU and member-state engagement with underlying political trends in the region has been diminishing in the last two years—not increasing.

Some EU-supported security governance work has taken place at a low level during 2015; this will need to be stepped up. Local community projects that improve the governance of security and services will be necessary to help build alliances with the local actors that will be key to pushing back against the Islamic State—as Sunni tribes turned the tables against al-Qaeda in Iraq in the mid-2000s.

The EU is expending diplomatic leverage with third countries to increase the return of illegal migrants (so-called readmission agreements), displacing any focus on governance-security reform. Moreover, member-state arms sales are on the rise to key MENA states like Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. In Bahrain, the UK is building its first permanent naval base in the region in forty years. To think that these kinds of military provisions offer a convincing route to security would ignore some cardinal geostrategic lessons from the last three decades.

Instability in Iraq is about not just the Islamic State but a whole series of institutional weaknesses and tribal fault lines. The EU has pressed for more inclusive governance and promised to support Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to the extent that he advances with democratic reform. European Commission initiatives are currently running in Iraq on religious tolerance, media freedom, and human rights—each with around €1 million of funding. Yet such support remains at a limited scale and cannot be said to represent a major assault on the root causes of the refugee surge.


Notwithstanding European leaders’ relatively unrestrained rhetoric, it remains unclear whether member-state governments will contemplate radical changes in their Middle East policies as a result of the Paris attacks and the refugee influx. To date, EU policy constitutes putting a big Band-Aid on the region’s challenges. Realists argue that military engagement in Syria would rebound against EU security interests far more than the refugee surge does. Letting the conflict stew is, according to this line, still the least bad option.

Member states may protest that they do not adhere to this view, but in practice their actions suggest a relatively limited willingness to get involved. While the EU has moved to reflect more on the regional dimensions of radicalization, it still has a long way to go to make this a notable and effective part of its response. The EU, along with other international actors, has struggled to convince all powers in the region that weakening the Islamic State is the main priority and that the group is not merely a tool to be used in battles against other actors.

On the back of panic over the refugee surge and anger at the Paris killings, the EU will need to redraw its long-term external strategies if it is to have any impact at all on the MENA region’s underlying problems.

Jake Gutman is a junior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program.