MENA in the eye of the new EU Parliament

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivers his State of the Union speech at the European Parliament on September 12, 2018 in Strasbourg, eastern France. (Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP) (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

On May 25-26, voters throughout the European Union’s 28 member states elected the new European Parliament. The elections will determine the bloc’s direction in the next five years and the leadership of the Commission, Council, External Action Service and the Parliament. These decisions will impact the way the EU’s external relations will shape, including with the countries of the Middle East.

Contrary to the fears of many and hopes of some, the nationalist-populist “tsunami” that was supposed to shake the foundations of the EU never materialized. Although far right parties performed strongly in some countries, particularly the United Kingdom, Hungary, Poland, Italy, and France, their overall result fell far short of conferring upon them any real influence on decision-making. Their internal contradictions and competing national agendas mean that they will be dispersed across four political groups in the European Parliament. This is a far cry from the nationalist super-group once envisaged by transatlantic alt-right guru Steve Bannon.

Instead, voters entrusted the future of Europe to mainstream, pro-European parties. What happened was a rebalancing of power within this pro-European camp. The two big-tent forces that dominated EU politics for decades—the center-right conservatives of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left social-democrats (S&D)—have lost, for the first time, their combined majority. At the same time, the elections saw big gains for centrist liberals and environment-minded Greens. So, the balance of power among pro-Europeans shifted to the left, at least on civil liberties and climate policy, if not yet on economic issues. This opens intriguing possibilities for progressives to reverse the long years of conservative dominance of EU institutions.

The outcome of the elections is bad news for tougher position on Iran and its allies in Qatar, etc. With the Trump administration embracing unreservedly the Israeli-Saudi-Emirati agenda on issues like Israel-Palestine, Iran, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood, the EU was seen by these actors as an irritating outlier refusing to toe the line. The results of the elections suggest that the EU, embodied by the next high representative for foreign policy, will continue its dubious stand on Iran. It will also keep opposing the effective burial of the two-state solution on Israel-Palestine, the isolation of Qatar, and terrorist designation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

These setbacks do not necessarily mean that the Saudis and Emirates won’t be able to find new allies. French President Emmanuel Macron’s party will be the biggest national delegation within the liberal bloc. Given France’s close geopolitical alignment with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in, for example, Libya, it remains to be seen whether members of Macron’s party in the EP will follow the traditionally critical liberal line, or will try to nudge their bloc more in the direction of Paris’ policies. Should the latter proves to be the case, the UAE would benefit from it more than Saudi Arabia, since its image is less toxic in Europe. There is also a peculiarly French understanding of secularism that makes Emirati hostility to political Islam a good sell in France across the political spectrum. The strong presence of the Greens, however, will pressure liberals and socialists not to stray away from an intense focus on human rights in the Gulf.

The real challenge for the next five years is to translate the parliament’s positions into meaningful policy changes in the EU. Although the “sovereigntists” from the extreme right failed in their bid to renationalize the EU, foreign and security policy remain the almost exclusive preserve of the nation-states. That certainly is the case when it comes to the Middle East. For example, parliament’s insistent calls on member states to respect their own commonly agreed rules and stop selling arms and technology that can be used for domestic repression to authoritarian regimes in the Gulf and Middle East were ignored by the EEAS and the national governments. National military industries seem to be driving the Middle East policies of some EU members, thus undermining the EU’s collective credibility as an honest broker in regional conflicts.

Either the next five years will see a real consolidation of a common EU foreign and security policy, or it will go nowhere. At least, the fact that the Europeans participated in the European Parliament elections in record numbers—over 50 percent—and voted overwhelmingly for pro-EU parties, gives some hope that they will also demand “more Europe” in foreign policy.

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