The year 2022 brought many unexpected changes to Europe and presented the region with novel, though often interconnected challenges. The Russian aggression against Ukraine, an energy crisis, interrupted supply chains, and rising inflation worsened the already difficult situation of Europeans recovering from the socio-economic problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, no less complicated were the problems in relations between the European Union and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. The lack of a nuclear deal with Iran, the risk of escalating tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the increasingly complex relationship with Turkey are just some of those thorny issues facing Brussels. Will the EU try to bring about a breakthrough in any of the above in 2023 and finally implement some of the bold objectives laid out in its 2016 Global Strategy — particularly, to improve state and societal resilience among the EU’s eastern and southern neighbors?
The lack of a new nuclear deal with Iran and the long-awaited lifting of the United States’ extended sanctions still pose serious obstacles for European companies interested in reengaging with the Islamic Republic. First, they do not have access to the Iranian market. Second, large European energy firms cannot buy Iranian oil, which could now help make up for the shortages caused by the ban on imports from Russia that came into force in December 2022. Although Iran is one of the few countries openly supporting Russia in its war against Ukraine, the authorities in Tehran might very well reverse this policy if offered the carrots of access to the European energy market and the ability to freely import various goods from the West. So far, however, the EU has imposed further sanctions on Iran for human rights violations and brutal suppression of social protests. Economic interests are important to European leaders, but not at the expense of making concessions to Tehran on human rights.
It must be made clear that even if an agreement is reached, the EU will not lift the non-nuclear sanctions imposed on Iran for the latter’s human rights violations and brutal suppression of popular protests. EU leaders notably eschewed such a step even in 2015, when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program was signed and the internal situation inside the Islamic Republic was incomparably better and more stable.
Meanwhile, the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel may again dim any remaining hopes of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The EU has consistently supported a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel. In December 2022, EU Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli, on behalf of the European bloc’s top foreign policy official, Josep Borell, stated, “The European Union and Member States discussed with Israel how to develop strategic bilateral cooperation, but also passed a strong message on the European Union’s commitment to a two-state solution and the need to re-open a political horizon. High Representative Borrell was clear that unilateral actions, such as continuing settlement expansion and demolitions, must stop, in order to preserve the chances of a just and viable peace. This will also be our message to the incoming Israeli government.” Yet the new right-wing Israeli government will likely not only be unwilling to make concessions to the Palestinian side but is expected to further increase the pressure on the Palestinian leadership and accelerate the process of settlement in the West Bank. This, in turn, will almost certainly force EU leaders to harden their policies toward the Israeli authorities. Already, on Jan. 28, in response to that week’s deadly Israeli military raid in the West Bank, Borrell stated that although “the European Union fully recognizes Israel’s legitimate security concerns, as evidenced by the latest terrorist attacks, it has to be stressed that lethal force must only be used as a last resort when it is strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
This year marks the 18th anniversary of the formal start of membership negotiations between Turkey and the EU. Yet those negotiations have been stalled since at least 2016 and suspended since 2018. Today, Ankara appears to be further away from membership than ever before, and the changing geopolitical situation has meant that this is not only a problem for Turkey, but also, increasingly, a challenge for the future position of the EU in the MENA region. As the war in Ukraine has once again underscored, Turkey’s geopolitical position is a critical one and creates many opportunities for action, including exerting effective pressure on the Russian Federation. Meanwhile, EU leaders will soon face a dilemma of whether to renew the negotiation process with Turkey or to completely break off talks. Last year the European Parliament (EP) rejected the possibility of resuming negotiations because the majority of MEPs claimed that Turkey is “persistently further from EU values and standards.” Although the parliamentarians appreciated Turkey’s constructive involvement in international affairs, including the attempt to mediate in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, this did not change their negative assessment regarding respect for human rights, democratic standards, and civil liberties in Turkey.
In recent months, the most visible problem in Turkey’s relations with its European partners has become the planned enlargement of the North Atlantic Organization (NATO). Ankara’s blocking of Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to NATO is strongly criticized by those EU member states that are simultaneously members of the Alliance, with the exception of Hungary. Not only Stockholm and Helsinki, but also other EU governments could use the prospect of resuming membership negotiations to put pressure on the Turkish authorities in exchange for unblocking NATO enlargement. Another negative factor is the prospect of a new large-scale Turkish military operation in northern Syria, which would further complicate the situation in the region. It will therefore be extremely difficult to achieve a breakthrough in 2023. The only chance might come if this year’s Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections result in political change. But if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) win at the ballot box, it is highly unlikely that they would modify their stance on many domestic and foreign policy issues.
To sum up, 2023 may force changes in the EU’s policies and approaches toward the above-mentioned problems in the MENA region. If the bloc really wants to play a significant role in the global international system, it must support peace processes and help stabilize the situation in its immediate neighborhood. Europe may try to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, which would presumably bring economic benefits, but not at any cost, and certainly not at the expense of concessions with respect to human rights. Dialogue with Prime Minister Netanyahu will probably be difficult, and EU leaders will still have to balance their relations with Israel and Palestine. If the opposition in Turkey succeeds in the May elections, it could present a new opening in EU-Turkish relations and allow for the resumption of accession negotiations. The only question is whether EU leaders are ready for such a change and if they would approach talks with the new Turkish leader in good faith and with constructive proposals. More likely is that the leaders of some member states will resort to any pretext to fully block Turkey’s accession to the EU. If there is a breakthrough on any of these three issues, however, Europe will be able to consider this year a success.
Przemysław Osiewicz is a non-resident scholar at MEI and an associate professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, specializing in EU policy toward the MENA region, Iran, and Turkey.
Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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