Written by Beatrix Immenkamp
On 14 June, the European Parliament library hosted a round-table discussion on transformations in the Middle East and North Africa, chaired by MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET), Chair of the Delegation for relations with the Maghreb countries (DMAG) and the Arab Maghreb Union, and member of the Democracy Support and Election Coordination Group (DEG). Experts from the European University Institute (EUI, Florence) conducting research on the ground in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Members of Parliament and representatives of European institutions discussed developments in the EU’s southern neighbourhood over the past five years since the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, including the EU’s response.
In his welcome speech, Anthony Teasdale, Director-General of the European Parliament Research Service (EPRS) pointed out that this round-table was the fourth of a series being organised in cooperation with the EUI.
In his introductory remarks, Mr Panzeri called on EU Member States to move towards a more unified external policy as a means of responding with one voice to the issues at stake in the Middle East and North Africa. He noted that the EU had not yet taken decisive steps to fill the gap left by weaker US engagement in the Middle East. He attributed this to lingering uncertainty over the strategy that the EU should adopt, and the fact that the EU’s 28 Member States still set their own foreign policy agendas rather than formulating a unified response.
During his keynote speech, Professor Olivier Roy, Chair in Mediterranean Studies at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies and the Political and Social Sciences Department, presented his theory that the global phenomenon of jihadi terrorism is distinct from the conflicts in the Middle East and not a form of ‘spill-over’ from those conflicts. He said that the conflicts currently playing out in the Middle East were rooted in the history and the dynamics of that region. Professor Roy conceded that the spread of ISIS in Syria and Iraq might appear like the beginning of an ‘ideological, borderless state’, but he predicted that ISIS would not survive much longer. Blocked in its regional ambitions, the movement was exporting a global form of jihadi terrorism. Nevertheless, he maintained that the global jihadist movement had to be considered as a global youth revolt, attracting large numbers of converts and second or third-generation Muslims in the West, rather than a Middle East import.
A panel discussion followed with Professor Brigid Laffan, Director at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the EUI in the chair. Agnès Favier, a Senior Research Analyst at the EUI currently based in Beirut, and Virginie Collombier, a Research Fellow at the EUI, presented the results of their respective research in Syria and Libya. Ms Favier highlighted the gap between the situation on the ground in Syria and the efforts of the international community to put an end to the conflict. Even though Syria was now divided into four distinct areas, including areas controlled by the regime, opposition forces, Kurdish forces and ISIS, the framework of the peace talks did not correspond to military developments on the ground. She warned that, with every passing day, these developments on the ground were destroying prospects for a lasting political solution. She also spoke of the strategic errors of the anti-ISIS coalition, which could spawn new armed conflict along sectarian and ethnic lines. Ms Favier noted that Syrians wanted the EU to play a political role in the crisis, rather than just provide humanitarian aid. Ms Collombier said that the main challenge in Libya was to re-establish a single legitimate political authority. She noted that hopes for the new, UN-brokered government of national accord to play that role had not yet been fulfilled, and Libya still had three rival governments with varying degrees of control over territory, people and Libya’s main institutions. Efforts by the international community to break the political deadlock should no longer focus exclusively on the ‘big political players’ at the national level, but pay far greater attention to local actors – armed groups, elders, notables, business people, and civil society activists – who derive legitimacy from the fact that they provide local communities with security, protection, material support and services.
The EU’s response
A second panel discussion followed, chaired by Etienne Bassot, Director of the Members’ Research Service at EPRS, with Mr Panzeri and Michael Docherty, Head of Sector for Syria, Jordan and Lebanon in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR). Mr Docherty reviewed the implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy – the policy by which the EU seeks to achieve closer political association and economic integration with its southern and eastern neighbours – in the countries of the southern neighbourhood over the past five years. He noted that an in-depth analysis of developments in the region and the situation in individual countries would be needed if the EU wanted to respond effectively to developments in its southern neighbourhood. Speaking about democracy support the EU has offered Tunisia over the past five years, Mr Panzeri stressed the crucial role of the Tunisian Parliament for democratic reforms in the country, at a time when the gap between the people and state institutions was widening. He said that the European Parliament had developed a partnership with the Tunisian Assembly of Representatives, within the framework of the Democracy Support and Election Coordination Group (DEG), of which he is a member. In this respect He noted that the EP was organising a ‘Tunisian week’ in the second half of 2016, to which a significant number of parliamentarians and civil servants from Tunisia would be invited.
Listen to the audio recording of the round table
Discussant Beatrix Immenkamp, Policy Analyst at the EPRS, asked how, in light of the fragmentation of both Syria and Libya, the EU should interact with the many different actors on the ground to help bring about a political solution. Armelle Douaud, Head of the Secretariat of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, noted that the EP sometimes questioned whether the EU’s tools were adequate to respond to the quickly evolving challenges in the Middle East and North Africa – ranging from economic and social challenges, to the fight against terrorism and radicalisation, to migration – and whether the existing instruments allowed for the necessary degree of flexibility. Luigi Narbone, Director of the Middle East Directions Programme at the EUI, concluded the discussion by stressing the need for the EU to better understand local dynamics and local actors, especially in the conflicts in Syria and Libya, to respond to the ever-changing situation on the ground, develop appropriate policies to help resolve the conflicts and eventually assist in the reconstruction process.
Recent selected publications:
Libya after Gaddafi: A challenging transition (At a Glance, EPRS)
Syria: Turning commitments into action (At a Glance, EPRS)
Jordan: A protest movement eclipsed (At a Glance, EPRS)
Egypt: A failed revolution? (At a Glance, EPRS)
Tunisia: Democracy in transition (At a Glance, EPRS)
Transformations in the Middle East and North Africa (Topical Digest, EPRS)
Inside Wars: Local Dynamics of Conflicts in Syria and Libya (E-book, Middle East Directions; RSCAS; EUI)