In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), there is a risk of the European Union (EU) falling into a disillusionment trap. With the return to the U.S. administration of familiar faces closely involved in Middle East issues during the presidency of Barack Obama, many European capitals are misguided in perceiving the era of former U.S. president Donald Trump as a parenthesis that has come to an end. His successor, Joe Biden, looks set to quickly initiate a U.S. return to the 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and engage in peace efforts to settle regional crises. Meanwhile, Europeans foresee the start of a new phase of stability and are looking for their own niche in a rekindled policy for their Southern neighborhood.
Contrary to these European assumptions, the new U.S. administration may be tempted to disengage from a conﬂict zone it considers less of a priority than its Indo-Paciﬁc focus. Yet, U.S. strategic interests are at stake in the Middle East. It is therefore highly unlikely that the Biden team will walk away from the region. But the challenges of sorting out Trump’s legacy in the MENA region and meeting U.S. obligations could push the new administration to call for more European political investment. Can the EU respond to such an invitation when its inﬂuence in the region has diminished to the point that the union appears an irrelevant player to many regional actors?
The conundrum is there for all to see. The United States would rather distance itself from the MENA region, but its strategic interests make deﬁnitive disengagement problematic. For its part, Europe would be prepared to engage more solidly, but its insufficient political and military capabilities make Europe a feeble successor to promote Western values and interests in the region. From this double contradiction, a natural complementarity may arise between the two partners, whose mutual assets could merge into closer cooperation.
Deﬁning Strategic Convergence
The EU and the United States share a goal of promoting regional stability in both the Middle East and the Maghreb. This must imply containing the increasing inﬂuence of Russia and China, convincing Iran and the Gulf countries to engage in a regional security agenda, persuading Turkey to return to the mainstream in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and urging Israel to seriously consider a deﬁnitive settlement of the Palestinian issue.
A comprehensive MENA road map, endorsed by both the United States and the EU, will require a differentiated approach, tailored to the speciﬁcs of each subregion.
In the Maghreb, the EU should lead. Effective cooperation should prioritize efforts to bring the current political discussions in Libya to a positive conclusion, in conjunction with enhanced security operations in the Sahel against jihadist military groups. In the longer term, action will have to focus on promoting strong governance in the subregion as a condition for sustainable economic and social development and proper management of migration.
In the Middle East, the United States and the EU should work side by side. The short-term priority must be to double down on efforts to end the war in Syria. The ongoing political process in Geneva and its deliverables should be the preconditions for any security arrangements and the country’s economic reconstruction. Additionally, the EU and the United States should exert joint pressure on politicians in Lebanon to sort out their domestic political deadlock and put the nation back on a stable course. As for the Palestinian question, the transatlantic partners should mobilize at the international and regional levels to press the Palestinian Authority to put its house in order and convince Israel to satisfy the legitimate rights of the Palestinians.
Finally, in the Gulf, efforts under a U.S. lead will have to incentivize Iran and its neighbors into a regional security dialogue. Meanwhile, work in this area should build on the new relationship between Israel and the Arab world initiated by the 2020 Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and a normalization agreement with Sudan.
Upgrading Europe’s Diplomatic Game
The ongoing U.S. disentanglement from the MENA region has progressively sent the message of a distancing partner and eroded the trust of many countries in the region toward U.S. commitments. Washington’s withdrawal has resulted in growing inﬂuence in the area from Russia and Turkey, which have been competing in the same military ﬁelds in Syria and Libya. At the same time, a more nimble China has steadily increased its economic presence to become the largest trade partner and foreign investor for many countries in the region.
So far, Europe has been unable to ﬁll the vacuum left by U.S. disengagement. And there is little evidence that it could do so anytime soon without strong U.S. support. Both partners should therefore make full use of their political, diplomatic, military, economic, and cultural assets for the beneﬁt of an active, complementary approach.
Yet, to be legitimate and reassure regional partners, reinvigorated collaboration between the United States and the EU in the MENA region must deliver. To that end, Europe must avoid complacency. In the absence of a clear strategy and effective action, the EU’s credibility in the region has receded in recent years. To be more convincing and win over the minds of the Biden team, Europeans urgently need to straighten up their act. This will require the EU to deﬁne a comprehensive regional strategy, overcome the cumbersome processes of the union’s machinery, encourage institutional ﬂexibility, and introduce diplomatic agility in the system. Finally, the EU will need to show steadfastness to sustain this agenda in the long term.
Looking for Priorities and Possible Results
With this imperative in mind, the EU should reach out to the new U.S. administration and propose a MENA policy to be discussed as a possible basis for a common regional agenda. Both sides will probably not agree on a full-ﬂedged road map, but they could start by focusing on some clear and urgent priorities for action. In this regard, Turkey and Iran should stand out as natural choices.
Turkey: The Uneasy Ally
In striving to resume a conﬁdent dialogue and close coordination with the United States on the Middle East, the Europeans need to prioritize Turkey, as they increasingly face the challenge of Turkish interference across their neighborhood. In a similar vein, it is assumed that the Biden administration will want to coordinate its Turkey policy with the EU. While human rights will be a strong common concern, security and defense issues will likely be the main focus of any EU-U.S. discussion on Turkey.
In this context, four issues of major importance on both sides of the Atlantic could shape a collaborative agenda for immediate action: the Russian S-400 missile system, military procurement, military operations, and a settlement in Cyprus.
First, Turkey has hindered NATO’s missile-defense architecture by deploying Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles. On December 14, 2020, Washington decided to apply a mild selection of sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in a way that is consistent with Europe’s interests. More generally, a broad and precise discussion of Turkey’s role in NATO will be needed to clarify Ankara’s current bipolar attitude toward the alliance.
Second, Turkey’s military procurement led France and Germany in 2019 to impose sanctions related to the manufacture of the Turkish Altay battle tank. More sanctions are possible in the face of Turkey’s substantial military buildup, which consists of helicopter carriers, submarines, frigates, armed drones, missiles, helicopters, and unmanned naval vessels. Such a buildup needs joint EU-U.S. action if Turkey continues to implement its foreign policy and external military operations in a manner that is hostile to Western countries.
Third, in operational terms, Turkey has conducted its military operations in Azerbaijan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria not only without a dialogue with Western partners but also in a way that, directly or indirectly, has enabled a stronger role for Russia. Despite strong divergences between Ankara and Moscow, Russia played Turkey well against NATO and Europe—for example, by gaining from Turkey the right to overfly Anatolia, thus considerably shortening flight times between Moscow and the main Russian air base in Syria and subsequent operations in eastern Libya, or by obtaining from Trump the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeastern Syria, thus allowing Russian forces to immediately take over abandoned U.S. infrastructure. Another thorny issue relates to Turkish challenges to the maritime borders of Cyprus and Greece, whose political stability is of great importance to both the EU and the United States.
Fourth, Turkey declared in November 2020 that the negotiation process for a comprehensive settlement on the divided island of Cyprus had become futile. Instead, Ankara proposed to pursue a two-state solution, which runs directly against the EU and U.S. positions. In conjunction with the United Nations, both transatlantic partners should step up their efforts to rekindle the Cypriot negotiation process.
Iran: The Key to Regional Stability
The EU has relentlessly kept the door open to a return to the 2015 international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program ever since the United States withdrew from the accord in May 2018. Contrary to their hope, the Europeans have not gained much credit in Iran for upholding the deal. Their inability to stand up to U.S. sanctions on Iran and compensate for the economic fallout has stirred bitter criticism in Tehran.
Yet, the EU’s patient diplomatic outreach to Iran in the last two years has established a dialogue that today represents a useful asset as the Biden administration reﬂects on how to engage with Tehran. Productive EU-U.S. collaboration could stem from cross-fertilization between U.S. goals and constraints, on the one hand, and the EU’s experience of the Iranian leadership’s short range of ﬂexibility, on the other.
The purpose of this cooperation should be to shift from pressure to dialogue and build conﬁdence in incremental steps. This coordinated action will need to encompass two strategic features of the current Middle Eastern situation.
First, on top of Iran and the United States coming back into full compliance with the nuclear deal, the transatlantic partners need to enlarge their discussions to cover regional security issues that are not directly related to the Iranian nuclear program but have fed the long-standing confrontation between Tehran and its Gulf neighbors. This should include topics such as overall security in the Gulf area, with emphases on the nonuse of force, freedom of navigation, Iran’s ballistic-missiles program, and the crises in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; possible economic cooperation; and people-to-people contacts.
Second, the direct or indirect involvement of many other state actors in discussions on Iran is essential to restoring trust, as these nations have increasingly developed vested interests in the region. To begin with, renewed negotiations need to stick to the previous format and keep Russia and China in the room. But at a later stage, talks should include the Gulf nations, Israel, and, probably, Turkey. And in due course, discussions should also envisage the contributions of India, Japan, and other nations potentially dedicated to stability in the MENA region.
With these constraints in mind, U.S.-EU collaboration could deﬁne and implement a comprehensive diplomatic pathway. This would include successive sequencing and incremental steps, such as the progressive lifting of sanctions, gradual recompliance with the nuclear deal, informal regional security discussions followed by an all-embracing regional conference, and, when needed, crisis mediation talks. The purpose of the whole process would be to engage all parties in a political initiative that can build trust in a sequencing of phases that is as realistic as possible.
The challenges brought about by Turkey and Iran are only two of the many issues the EU should start discussing with the new U.S. administration. But in their own ways, these priorities illustrate the ambitious scope of this renewed dialogue and the spirit of complementarity that both partners should try to achieve. With the Middle East in disarray, close cooperation between the United States and Europe represents a genuine opportunity to restore hope and conﬁdence in the whole region.