The pressure is on. Energy supply shocks and labor shortages threaten the drivers of European prosperity. Remedies seem simple: our immediate Southern Neighborhood is a region full of resources and young people. But when our relief-seeking eyes turn southward, from Morocco to Iran, they gaze upon a region still inextricably torn by conflict. Therefore, we are once again faced with the question of whether we might ultimately be able to form a mutually beneficial relationship with the Middle East and North Africa.

Credibility matters

The history of trans-Mediterranean relations holds a lesson for Europe in this regard: credibility matters. It’s a lesson most of Europe’s foreign policy community learned the hard way in the summer of 2021: Amid a full-scale political and economic crisis in Tunisia, the EU extended its helping hand. Tunisian president Kaïs Saïed, however, seemed to have other plans.

Almost daily, he spoke on the phone with his authoritarian neighbor, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Meanwhile, European leaders more or less had to watch from the sidelines as he dismantled what was left of Tunisia’s democratic parliamentarianism, which European experts had helped to build.

Nevertheless, Europe does not have to play the role of bystander in its Southern Neighborhood forever, nor do irreconcilable differences permanently prevent it form strengthening its credibility. Rather, future success depends on our ability to readjust our approach to the Middle East and North African region (MENA) and its people today.

map eu africa: climate change impacts

Currently, two disruptive factors complicate already existing fields of conflict. First, the consequences of Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine have made basic supplies more expensive and difficult to obtain.

Second, increasingly frequent heat waves and droughts have made everyone feel that the effects of climate change are here to stay. Societies north and south of the Mediterranean are being affected by both factors to a similar degree – they differ in nothing more than their respective starting points.

Many members of European societies still enjoy a sufficiently large share in the distribution of income and wealth. As a result, we Europeans still have a shot at fairly sharing the additional burdens of current crises. Societies south of the Mediterranean, on the other hand, can hardly mitigate the divisive effects of the many-fold crises in the same way.

The effects of war returning to Europe and climate change spiraling out of control hit home with full force. Not surprisingly, the region remains highly vulnerable – beyond the four areas of tension that already exist.

map eu africa: intrastate and intersate conflicts

First, the familiar territorial issues remain unresolved: Despite lasting mediation efforts by Europeans, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues. The Kurds living in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria are striving for more self-determination; many are demanding their own state.

With EU member states still divided on the issue of Western Sahara, the region’s status remains unclear. Morocco is not backing down from its claims on the territory, while the Sahrawis – supported by Algeria – consider it their own.

Second, Turkey continues to play an ambiguous role between Europe and Asia. On the one hand, Turkey acts as a conflict driver in the Middle East, contravening liberal values. On the other hand, it has increased its geostrategic importance for the EU and NATO in the confrontation with Russia in the Black Sea region and the eastern Mediterranean.

This is due in no small part to its ability to provide allies with modern weapons systems more quickly, cheaply, and easily than Western partners. Turkish society is also still struggling to find its inner balance, e.g., in terms of the role religion should play in everyday life, to what extent nationalism should define its identity, and how authoritarian its governance structures should be.

The EU cannot distance itself from these areas of tensions

Third, tensions between the U.S., Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia remain high despite the EU’s constant mediation efforts. Tehran and Riyadh are vying for political and military dominance in the oil and gas-rich Persian Arabian Gulf region with increasingly fierce tactics.

Some hope remains that Iraq will continue to try to engage Saudi Arabia and Iran in direct negotiations, as it has done since 2020. However, this glimmer of hope is overshadowed by clandestine warfare between Israel and Iran. Israel is apparently cooperating with Gulf Arab states to counter Iranian interventions in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen – and to secure itself from the perceived danger of the Iranian nuclear program.

Fourth, the state of governance systems in MENA countries remains a concern. In many countries, social contracts and economic models operate neither sustainably nor inclusively. This is evident in the rise of autocratic regimes, the disintegration of statehood and public order, the absence of legitimate leadership, the alienation of the rulers from the ruled, the marginalization of social groups, and the exodus of young talent.

While these dynamics have already proven difficult to alter, European efforts to diversify energy supplies add another layer of complexity. They create new interdependencies that could make implementing value-based policies in our Southern Neighborhood even more challenging.

map eu africa: governance

All this may ultimately also raise concerns about the current state of European political thought and how it has attempted to reconcile the demands for individual opportunity and the need for a secure society. It is not unlikely that we, too, will soon face similar conditions of persistent external pressure.

However, at this point, Europe’s political philosophy cannot offer any original concept for the design of a social contract that has not already been explored in some form in the MENA region.

In addition, external influences weaken Europe’s interests and policies in the region. The transatlantic partnership in the MENA region has lost its continuity since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. The United States is still the strongest Western military power in the Mediterranean and Gulf regions, but it is demanding that Europeans themselves take more responsibility.

Russia has increased its political and military power in the Eastern Mediterranean following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its military interventions in the civil wars in Syria in 2015 and Libya in 2018.

President Putin’s divisive logic is evident in the MENA region, with Russian soldiers and mercenaries stationed in regions through which refugees and migrants travel to Europe. Chinese foreign economic policy aims to control global trade routes and gain exclusive access to vital raw materials.

The EU in the line of great power competition

Given this persistent complexity, decisive European influence seems elusive. A prominent example was the Berlin Process, when German diplomacy helped bridge the conflicting interests of France and Italy in the Libya conflict. These efforts brought all warring parties inside and outside Libya, including financiers, to the negotiating table in Berlin.

In signing the agreement 2020, Ankara, Moscow, Cairo and Abu Dhabi even pledged to withdraw their mercenaries and cease their military support for the Libyan warring parties. Since then, however, little has happened, as Berlin and Brussels lack robust instruments to enforce written agreements and overcome resistance from the conflict parties.

Setting an example

If Europe thus wants to play a more self-determined role vis-à-vis its Southern Neighborhood, it must remain convincing. Therefore, we have a responsibility to make ourselves credible. When it comes to the rule of law, governance and a focus on citizens and their needs, EU member states also have their weak spots – as evidenced by the EU’s rule of law dispute with Poland and Hungary.

We need a shared commitment if these shortcomings are to be remedied. The same applies to consumption: the fewer resources we need to achieve an acceptable level of prosperity, the less we must compromise our values when working with countries that show democratic deficits.

map eu africa: EU intitutions and individual member state's bilateral development assistance

Honest security

We should also be honest about how much security we can provide for our Southern Neighborhood. Targeted sanctions against individual perpetrators/initiators of conflicts have proven effective. We already have appropriate mechanisms to freeze the assets of such individuals within the EU.

Beyond this, we should throw more diplomatic weight behind the promotion of regional security forums rather than risk being thrown out of the game in hard conflicts. Such forums allow for lasting dialogue between stakeholders. The more civil society organizations are involved, the better civil society actors can leverage their extensive networks on the ground.

Simpler and more transparent immigration rules

The changing geopolitical and demographic situation in Europe and the resulting migration movements have the potential for agreement on a fair and effective refugee support and integration mechanism – a win-win solution for all EU member states. In this way, EU member states could also markedly reduce public spending wherever maintaining migration barriers conflicts with our own values.

It would not be enough, however, to simply create additional exceptions to the existing regulatory maze as their implementation would only create an even greater administrative burden. For there to be real progress, the complexity of migration systems must be reduced. Simpler and more transparent immigration rules would speed up procedures without compromising their fairness. And faster processing of cases ultimately means not only more legal certainty for individual applicants but also more cases processed in the same amount of time.

Sustainable public transport

A practical step toward improving our own image would be a push for sustainable public transport that can also be used in increasingly extreme climatic conditions: European entrepreneurship is not limited to cashing in on the profits from selling European lifestyle to the wealthy few. It also means building and maintaining high-quality trains and railroads that serve all members of societies in our Southern Neighborhood.

This text is an abridged version from the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s background paper on the “Salzburg Trilogue 2022”. More information on the Salzburg Trilogue can be found here: Trilogue Salzburg  How to Heal a Torn World? Respect, Trust, Reliability and Mutual Understanding.

About the authors

Christian Hanelt is a Senior Expert for the EU Neighbourhood and the Middle East, working in the Program “Europe’s Future.” His areas of expertise include the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the EU’s relations with the Gulf region, economic developments in the Arab world, and the causes of flight and migration.

Alexander Weber studies German and International Law at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. His interests include the topics of migration, security, and the rule of law. He is a graduate of the Akademie Auswärtiger Dienst (Foreign Service Academy).

Read more on the EU’s Southern Neighborhood:

The EU and the Middle East: Exploring alternatives to Russian Energy

Putin’s War Raises Europe’s Costs in its Southern Neighbourhood

Europe’s Struggles for Influence in Africa in Light of the Kremlin’s invasion