In this introductory article, I will examine what kind of threats and possibilities does the current power vacuum in the Middle East present to Europe. I will argue that the way the European Union can influence the region will be an indicator of whether Europe can become a great power in the XXI century.
The blame game against the West is experiencing its renaissance among many in the Middle East for supporting the corrupt and highly authoritarian regimes of many Arab states during the last few decades. While on one level this criticism can be justified, the actual situation concerning the European Union (and its predecessors) is even more severe, since European countries were only going with the flow without having a real impact on the political system of the Arab regimes. Accepting the blame is easier, because by this we can maintain the delusion that Europe still has a serious influence over its neighbors, but the reality is that the European Union has a long way to go to if it wants to put real pressure on other countries without the aid of the United States. For the time being let us consider “European influence” as a neutral phenomenon, later I will argue for its necessity.
One might say that “Europe” never had any say in the Middle East, rather individual European powers had. While this observation is true, it is still shameful that France, the United Kingdom and the rest of the EU countries together cannot assert their agenda of human rights and stability. During the Cold War, this was a less important issue, but now, during an era of emerging great powers, it will be very important whether Europe has a stable and cooperative neighborhood, or it will be surrounded by failed states and also by allies of its potential adversaries. This realization had to come during a time of a grand turmoil affecting the region from Morocco to Iran, which has shown, that the corrupt but stable Arab regimes in the end cannot provide security neither to their own people, nor to European countries. On the contrary, they are the reason behind civil war-like situation such as the ones we experience in Libya and recently in Yemen too.
This upheaval in the Greater Middle East region has provided an opportunity for many (mostly regional) powers to fill in the ever-deepening vacuum and the European Union is only one and maybe the least active player in this struggle (except for the isolated and half-hearted intervention in Libya). Our main concern should be the growing Iranian influence in the territories in question. We sat through the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Hamas’ in the Gaza Strip; but Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen are also quickly turning into battlegrounds where conservative forces have to face an aggressive Iranian expansion. The main problem with this process is not the fall of the corrupt old regimes, but the possible emergence of another, much more hostile tyranny, which has its origins in Iran. The theocratic regime has secured its grip over its own people in Iran, by crushing all opposition back home, but in the meantime, it has been preaching “democracy” abroad, when its interests dictated it. No one should doubt that peoples of the Middle East have their right to elect their own government and set their foreign policy until the point that it is not threatening others. Europe is facing a completely new security threat, where from the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the heart of Central Asia, an extremely anti-Western and hostile power is on the rise. The possibly threatening Iranian nuclear program combined with the continuing development of advanced ballistic missile systems is more than enough to make any European politician worried. A sad thing is that it seems that almost every Western and Arab leader understands the risk, but apart from increased economic pressure and numerous speeches, they do not act against this emerging threat. This European passivity and indecisiveness has become a dangerous habit.
There are other “question marks” in the region, mainly Turkey and Egypt. Turkey seems to be at the crossroads between European integration and an independent foreign policy. The former outcome could be the greatest asset for the European Union to stabilize the Middle East, counter the rising Iran and what is maybe the most important aspect, provide all the countries in the region with a vision that is democratic, highly prosperous and authentically Muslim. An independent and possibly bitter Turkey, rejected by the West, could mean an ally for Iran and counter any European attempt to stabilize the region. These are the two extreme ends of the spectrum, but it is easy to see which one is more beneficial for all the parties involved. Time will tell if the new Egypt will turn into a democratic country, which could rally the other Arab countries Nevertheless, a powerful Egypt could pose some risks too, as we could see under the Nasser regime.
At this point, we have to understand that the most threatening prospect of the current processes in the Middle East is not the new order that hostile actors could create, but rather the emerging chaos that an intensifying power struggle in the region would cause. Today our main concerns should be the spread of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, the illegal mass migration to Europe, and the eroding security of trading and supply routes together with the violence committed against the local populations: Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. The situation is bad and we do not see any sign of stabilization in the near future. With the rise of China, India and other emerging powers, combined with the steady decline of the United States (due to its unmanageable public debt and other factors), the European Union will face a completely new international situation. The resources of the Middle East will become even more precious targets for other global powers than they are today and therefore the fight for them will be even more ruthless. If Europe wants to create a vision for itself and therefore the international order, it has to protect its vital interests in its surrounding and also the civilian population against local and also global actors, because this is what the European Union stands for. The expanding integration has the potential to fulfill these tasks, but it has to make a steady commitment to certain values, not just in rhetoric, but in its actions too. This will not be an easy shift from the Cold War routine, where Uncle Sam would protect the weak Western European countries against the Soviet Union. Truly standing on our feet will be costly, but the price we all would have to pay will be much higher if we continue to ignore the threatening signs. The peoples of the Middle East and Europe need a positive vision and an increased cooperation between these actors is one of the key tools to deliver this beneficial outcome, which is a more assertive Europe that can protect itself and contribute to a stable and prosperous world order.