The Mediterranean and the Middle East in the Hierarchy of the EU’s Foreign Policy Priorities


Christopher Hill

Centre of International Studies, Cambridge

Naples, 16.02.2005


Does the EU have a foreign policy?

Common not single: more a ‘foreign policy ‘system’ which represents persistent interaction but not always agreed or well-implemented outputs.

Yet there has been persistent progress since its beginnings in 1970, and no suggestion of ‘re-nationalising’ foreign policy. Set-backs occur when expectations are too high and/or major crises are at stake, but the EU has developed its repertoire of ‘soft [civilian] power’ and has always reacted by attempting to remedy weaknesses when they have become apparent. Thus – eventually – the emergence of a (modest) European Security and Defence Policy after the failures of the 1990s in the Balkans.

i.e. The EU has a foreign policy, but alongside those of the Member States (MSs), not instead of them. What is more, some MSs have even developed their own national profiles since the end of the Cold War – the ex Warsaw Pact states, but also Germany, Italy and Spain.



Its historical evolution

Ambitious beginnings: CSCE and the Arab-Israel dispute. The EC/EU has never been able or willing to avoid the great geopolitical issues of the day, despite (or because of) its limited capacity to resolve them.

Arguably European Political Cooperation (EPC) and its successor in 1993, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), have had as their main motive and driving force the need to cope with US foreign policy – and to distinguish Europe from it.

Nonetheless the military dimension was absent for the first three decades, for fear of damaging NATO and through the anti-force instincts of most of the MSs. Since trade and development policy were also ring-fenced (conditionality only became acceptable after 1990), this put a huge weight on pure diplomacy. The EC/EU had great potential as an international actor, but most of its instruments were actually unavailable. This is still true today, even if the formal inhibitions are now mostly removed. The MSs show little inclination to spend large sums on common resources (especially military), or to give up autonomy in international affairs. Enlargement and (paradoxically) a closer US interest than ever before have opened up new cleavages.



What are the goals and priorities of European foreign policy?

In the early decades of foreign policy cooperation these were rarely spelled out explicitly, except in the most general and platitudinous terms.  From 1990 on there was a more determined effort to be more specific -  the Asolo list led to the Lisbon Report of 1992, detailing what the CFSP’s new ‘Joint Actions’ should consist of.

Despite attempting to assert the EU’s regional (rather than global) priorities, it was still ambitious and highly general, focusing on the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Central and Eastern Europe, and security issues like nuclear non-proliferation in which the EU had neither competence nor capability. In the early 1990s the natural tendency to be confident and optimistic over-rode any instincts for prudence and parsimony. 

The EU has always been highly rationalist in its views of the international system, if not notably rational in allocating its own foreign policy priorities. It stresses the need for, and possibility of, peace and stability. It is committed to dialogue, to diplomacy and to multilateralism, as against force, deterrence and power politics. It was promulgating the values of democracy and human rights, both for themselves and for the way they might inoculate a country against aggression, long before the current wave of western triumphalism.

What the Europeans have been much less good at has been translating these values into actions, linking goals to instruments, and – most importantly – choosing priorities amongst their many ambitious desiderata. They have not willingly recognised the inherent tensions in international relations, for example between the principles of order and justice, between the wishes for peace and for interventions, and between a regional and a global perspective. This has been because France and Britain have been unable to resist the opportunity to revive their flagging world roles, while the others, having less recent experience of the harsh realities of international relations, tend to assume that it equates simply to a slightly more exotic version of the democratic politics they practise at home.



The European Security Strategy (ESS) , 2003

The first attempt to provide an equivalent of the US National Security Strategy; indeed, it has been aimed as much at the American as at the European audience.

Key points:

-                     conflict prevention much preferable to having to resolve or manage conflict once it has broken out.

-                     ‘Rogue states’ need to be encouraged back into ‘international society’.

-                     Those which refuse will have to pay a price in their relations with the EU.

-                     Pre-emption may still be necessary: ‘we should have tackled Al Qaeda much earlier’.

-                     The EU needs a ‘strategic culture [which] fosters early, rapid, and where necessary, robust intervention’.

-                     The EU needs a range of instruments, including military force and intelligence cooperation.

-                     ‘Strategic partnerships’ are necessary – ‘with Russia, Japan, China, Canada, and India’ – but not, NB, any particular state from the Mediterranean/Middle East.  


All this moves the EU much more to the ‘hard’ end of the soft-hard power continuum of foreign policy instruments. It also makes it clear that after 9.11. the Europeans too fear transnational terrorism on a massive scale, and will make its interdiction a priority. Other concerns, especially those of an indirect and long-term character  inevitably pale by comparison.

The ESS therefore stands as the authoritative statement of current high-level foreign policy goals. It is not, however,  either a comprehensive catalogue of the EU’s international objectives, or an exhaustive guide to what might happen in the highly unpredictable realm of international relations.


The Mediterranean, the Middle East and European foreign policy, in the post-9.11 context

The ESS refers often to the Middle East, usually as a source of security problems. The Mediterranean is discussed more briefly, in terms of the need for ‘a ring of well-governed countries’ on its borders. Because of the serious ongoing problems of economic stagnation and social unrest, ‘the EU’s interests require a continued engagement with Mediterranean partners’, through a more effective use of the Barcelona process.  ‘A broader engagement with the Arab world should also be considered’.

How far is this merely the usual rhetorical nod in the direction of the Mediterranean, with little serious content?  After all, the EU displays occasional fits of enthusiasm for the region, only soon to be distracted elsewhere.

Such cynicism is certainly not true of policy towards the Israel-Palestine problem. Here the Europeans may (like all others) have failed to achieve a resolution of the conflict, but it is not for the want of trying. EPC/CFSP have an honourable record right from the start in 1970 of attempting (a) to draw the world’s attention to the gravity of the Palestinian problem; (b) to bring the two parties to the negotiating table, with the aim of brokering a compromise. Early divisions among the MSs on this issue have largely been put aside in the pursuit of a common policy revolving around a recognition of the Palestinians’ right to a homeland (of which the EC was a very early advocate) and Israel’s right to an absolute security guarantee. The Venice Declaration of 1980 is still a reference point in this respect.

Since then the weaknesses of the EU’s ‘big carrot’ policy (in Robert Cooper’s phrase)  have become apparent, with Israel sure of US support, and the Palestinians too divided to negotiate effectively. But the EU nonetheless did more than anyone to help move US attitudes to the point where the PLO could be accepted as an interlocuteur valable. The recent tragedies of the second intifada have not deflected them from the long-term commitment to peace-making, as EU participation in the Quartet has shown. The presidency of George W. Bush may have exposed the inability of the Europeans to influence Washington, but the resolution of the Israel-Palestine dispute remains the single most important foreign policy priority of the 25, and one for which they would be willing to sacrifice other goals, if necessary.


The Gulf and other unstable areas of the Middle East are also high on the EU’s political agenda. They must continue to be so, given the high energy dependence of EU states on the Gulf and north Africa, and the way that Europe will have borders with Iran, Iraq, Armenia and Syria once Turkey joins. All this quite apart from the major European investments in vulnerable Gulf monarchies, and the evident connections between conflicts in the region and the rise of anti-western feeling. No doubt the Europeans would like to distinguish themselves from the United States, so as to be seen as the human face of modernity, but as the dispute over headscarves in France, and the killings of public figures in the Netherlands have shown, this is easier said than done. Javier Solana said this week: ‘security in the Middle East has a direct impact on security in Europe. Our fates are tied together. Moreover, the Middle East is increasingly present in our city centres….violence and instability in the Middle East has knock-on effects on the streets of Europe’.

In truth, there is little the EU can do to influence events in the wider Middle East. Enlargement is a long-term process, and if extended much beyond current expectation would have be counter-productive effects. Economic inducements carry less weight in an oil-rich region, and sanctions tend to hurt the Europeans more than their targets. Only Israel is vulnerable to these instruments, and that would be dependent on the US loosening its relationship with Tel Aviv. If the EU can influence the US in that direction while showing a willingness to underwrite an Israeli-Palestinian peace both with money and security guarantees, then that would open up some space for considerable influence. It would also be costly, and commit Europeans to a new peacekeeping presence.

In relation to the two current crises, of Iraq and Iran, the EU has contrasting roles. Over Iraq it is hamstrung by the serious divisions before the onset of war, and by the unwillingness of most MSs to get deeply involved in the current maelstrom. On Iran, by contrast, the European proclivity for preventive action, and fear of yet another damaging crisis, has impelled them into diplomatic activism in Teheran. That this has been conducted by the Three rather than the formal CFSP system must be regarded as an inconvenient detail in the circumstances. If a compromise can be found between current US attitudes, and Iran’s apparent determination to plough its own furrow, it will be a major triumph for the EU. It will only take one Israeli missile, however, to leave all this effort in ruins.


The Barcelona Process celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, but it will not be a very happy birthday. Arising from hopes in the early 1990s of a Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Mediterranean (CSCM) to rival the CSCE (now OSCE), it did at least manage to get Israel to the same table with its ‘Mediterranean partners’, including Syria and the Palestinian Authority. The Euro-Med Partnership (as it is known) consists of  various mechanisms for political, economic and cultural cooperation. Unfortunately, despite the plethora of meetings and oceans of good-will, the aid ear-marked for disbursement from the EU has not been fully spent, and the sense of political momentum has been lost. Human rights issues have proved difficult obstacles, and the increasing involvement of the European Parliament in external relations means that this will not diminish. Other geographical areas, such as the Balkans, have proved more important EU priorities, while continued agricultural protectionism, and the firmly closed door to Maghrebian enlargement have caused major disappointment on the southern littoral of the Mediterranean.

It is true that Colonel Ghaddafi has finally decided to accept the EU’s hand in its policy of constructive engagement towards Libya (no doubt encouraged by the fate of Saddam Hussein), and that Malta and Cyprus have joined the EU.  Furthermore, increasing European anxieties about migration, some related to terrorism, but most to social tensions over multiculturalism, have refocused attention on the region at least since the Seville Council of 2002.

This has not, however, led to a revitalisation of the multilateral diplomacy of the Barcelona process. Rather, the EU is now concentrating even more on bilateral deals with individual Mediterranean states through its new ‘neighbourhood policy’, as the result of security concerns and the need to stabilise its external frontier. Conversely, its Mediterranean partners now have the opportunity to play off the EU and the United States, since the latter has recently launched at least two major diplomatic initiatives of its own in the region.  They will be motivated to do so by having noted that the neighbourhood deals are clearly a poor substitute for the accession which can be dangled before their equivalents in eastern Europe and seem unlikely to hasten on the stated goal of a single Euro-Mediterranean economic space. Proximity makes the Mediterranean a major foreign policy priority of the Union, but it is hamstrung in its means of handling the region by its own enlargement policy, agricultural protectionism and by the wish to create a hard external frontier. Even its own southern MSs are anxious about contradictions between the Barcelona process and the neighbourhood policy, not least in terms of finance.



Serious choices


There is a basic defensive-assertive dialectic in EU foreign policy. That is, the main concern has to be defensive and self-protective, because of an historically-induced caution, and the lack of a superpower’s capabilities, but we can also observe a regular slipping into more assertive and interventionist activities, often driven by the demands of allies or of domestic politics.


The defensive aspect involves concern with borders, and their vulnerability to economic migrants and the small but dangerous groups of terrorists eager to exploit Europe’s otherwise open societies. It also relates to the need not to involve populations weary of war and high arms expenditures in new adventures which might incur heavy costs in both lives and money.


The assertive aspect is implicit in the ethical foreign policy which the EU pursues, with a strong emphasis on human rights and on the obligation to prevent genocide. Interventionism must sometimes imply the use of force, or at the least sanctions and diplomatic conflict.


Europe has a basic tendency to wish to be all things to all states, and an admirable desire to be constructive. Thus it hopes to be inclusive towards the states of both eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. It wishes to export democracy while also respecting diversity and other cultures. It sustains an alliance with the USA while subtly trying to differentiate its foreign policy from that of Washington. Up to a point these are the normal balancing-acts of international politics. But the EU constantly finds itself in difficulty through its inability to decide on priorities and to make hard choices, of which the endless indecision over Turkey through four decades is the ebst example.


In the context of the Mediterranean and Middle East, the EU faces four particularly big choices. They are structural, even if they only present themselves indirectly.


The first is that between regionalism and globalism. Do Europeans now wish to re-enter the global arena, after a long period of reconciling themselves to a withdrawal from empire? Activism in Africa, concerns about Cuba and North Korea, and the talk of strategic partnerships with India, China and Japan suggests they do. The ESS talks the language of security-globalisation: ‘the EU is inevitably a global player..’..’distant threats may be as much a concern as those that are near at hand’. But does the EU have the will and the capability to follow up this rhetoric? And what are the costs for the area of its own neighbourhood, which is supposed to be a particular priority? 


The second is between south and east. For all the language of ensuring a balance between the southern and eastern neighbours, the fact is that more of the latter have acceded to the EU or have hopes of so doing.  Indeed, the more states that are let in, the more the expectations of the next set of eastern neighbours rise. Meanwhile disillusion and resentment in the south grows, in young, populous and muslim countries where the only option for the ambitious seems then to be that of personal mobility towards the north. The EU will need to do more than talk the talk in relation to the south over the next decade; it will need to make a serious and sustained set of commitments towards real economic partnership, if it is not to have a set of new crises closer at hand than would be comfortable. Algeria has already sustained the most appalling tragedy over the last decade, for the most part watched in silence or ignorance by its neighbours in the EU.   


The third is between multilateralism and bilateralism. The EU is itself both a multilateral actor and a set of bilateral relations. In its dealings with the Mediterranean and Middle East it has created the overarching framework of the Barcelona process but has increasingly worked through bilateral association agreements which give it leverage on individual countries. The rhetoric of collective partnership thus rings hollow. If the EU really does wish to sustain a regional forum it will need to invest more political capital in it, and attempt to create something which resembles the old, activist CSCE, perhaps under the auspices of Chapter VIII of the UN Charter.


The fourth is between hard and soft power. Since St. Malo the EU has aspired to have both at its disposal, and real if modest progress has been made in relation to EU-badged force deployments. But the US 6th Fleet still dominates the Mediterranean from its Naples base, with the help of airforce bases elsewhere in Italy and Turkey, and the UK air-bases/listening-posts in Cyprus. The EU must decide if this situation is inevitable and/or desirable for the foreseeable future, or whether  it wishes to build on its current responsibilities in the Balkans to achieve a significant military presence in the Mediterranean, which is a potentially more dangerous zone than that of eastern Europe.



In conclusion, it is clear that while the EU has never overlooked the importance of the Middle East, it has tended to take the Mediterranean for granted. This is paradoxical given the unavailability of the instrument of enlargement and the consequent need to look at the region through the lens of foreign policy. Complacency here is a high-risk strategy.