Everything is changing rapidly amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes are occurring primarily at the national level, affecting politics, society, and economics, but the pandemic is also having a major impact on international relations. In the case of the European Union (EU) and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, state authorities on both sides of the Mediterranean are focusing mainly on the fight against COVID-19 from a public health perspective. As a result, EU-MENA relations are largely on hold at the moment, with very limited bilateral cooperation compared to the pre-pandemic period. This situation, of course, will not last forever. Nevertheless, leaders in the EU and MENA should be prepared for the political and economic consequences, which are significant.
Both Europe and the MENA region have already been hit hard by the pandemic. The situation is particularly difficult in Turkey and Iran. The EU has its own internal problems and is facing one of the most serious crises in its history. Yet that does not change the fact that EU officials should still be in touch with their counterparts in MENA. In addition, the EU ought to provide medical and economic assistance to the most vulnerable members of society, especially internally displaced persons in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.
In this context, a new project, “Team Europe,” a global EU response to COVID-19, seems to be a step in the right direction. On April 11, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said in tweet that to fight the coronavirus, Team Europe “will support partner countries around the world” with 20 billion euros. According to a fact sheet from the EU, 12.3 billion euros will be spent on mitigating the economic and social impact, 2.8 billion euros will go toward strengthening research and health systems, and 502 million euros will be dedicated to the short-term emergency response, to be directed to vulnerable communities in Africa, the Middle East, parts of Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.
The European External Action Service declared on its website, “The coronavirus has not only Europe but the entire global community in its grip and is the world’s common enemy. An enemy we can only defeat with a global approach and cross-border coordination. And while we have to mobilize all our resources to fight the virus at home, now is also the time to look beyond our borders.” Among the beneficiaries in the MENA region, Jordan and Lebanon are to receive 240 million euros to support their citizens and Syrian refugees. Iran will get 20 million euros in emergency support. Refugees in Turkey will be provided with small-scale health infrastructure and equipment worth 90 million euros.
Impact on migration and tourism
The pandemic and its economic consequences may also lead to another wave of uncontrolled migration from the MENA region to Europe. EU officials should bear in mind that in order to secure the bloc’s borders, they will have to offer more financial and economic assistance to some countries in the region to help them recover after the pandemic.
The ongoing crisis will also hit the tourism industry both in Europe and the Middle East. Owners of hotels and travel agencies in the region have already suffered considerably. According to data from the UN World Tourism Organization, destinations in the MENA region welcomed 87 million international tourists in 2018. In 2019, MENA countries earned more than $84 billion from international tourism inbound receipts, according to the World Economic Forum. This year those figures will be much, much lower. The tourism sector in the region, however, is losing not only its European customers, but also visitors from other regions, especially from Asia. It is likely that many local hotels, restaurants, and tour operators will not survive the crisis.
Trade and consumer demand
The pandemic will likely be less harmful to bilateral trade, but there are already some warning signs. Record-low oil prices are affecting the economies of oil exporters, and the sharp decline in consumer demand in European countries is one of the main drivers of this. But the situation cannot last forever. European states are already starting to thaw their economies, with examples in Germany, Denmark, Italy, and Poland. This is a function of necessity, as economies across the continent might otherwise face the biggest recession in history. The gradual expansion of economic activity will, in turn, slowly rekindle consumer demand for oil, and this is, undoubtedly, good news for producers in the MENA region.
But what about other economic sectors? Problems within the EU and MENA labor markets will certainly reduce demand for a variety of goods. Lower incomes and a sense of uncertainty will influence consumer behavior. Citizens of MENA countries may stop buying European cars and machinery. Europeans, in turn, may purchase fewer food products and other goods made in the MENA region. Last but not least, enterprises on both sides of the Mediterranean will almost certainly reduce their investment.
Nothing will be the same as before. But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. This difficult period may result in significant reforms and changes that would be impossible to enact otherwise. European leaders and their counterparts in MENA should be aware of that and prepare for these new challenges accordingly. The first signs of solidarity, like Team Europe, are commendable and worthy of attention. It is very likely that both sides will need to consider signing a regional deal designed to secure peace and welfare in the Mediterranean and the surrounding area. The current crisis only proves that both sides need clear mechanisms and a clear roadmap as ad hoc decisions and actions may not be sufficient in the future. Historical experience suggests that critical moments can be the best time to implement changes and introduce solutions. This, in turn, should encourage EU institutions to develop a comprehensive strategy toward the broader MENA region, because the EU will not be able to enter into any meaningful talks without a coherent and realistic vision of its main objectives in the region.
Przemysław Osiewicz is a non-resident scholar at MEI and an associate professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, specializing in EU policy towards the MENA region, Iran, and Turkey. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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