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The European Union in 2014: Challenges and Opportunities

Part II: Old Partnerships and the Potential for New Ones

By Nicholas Hager, Transatlantic Community Analyst


As argued in my previous post, the EU’s internal issues that have diminished its attractiveness to neighboring states can be remedied through vigorous efforts to reform the institution. However, the EU would do itself a disservice by becoming overly introspective and retreating from the world.  Indeed, there are numerous international projects it could seize upon that may greatly enrich the Union’s culture and economy while augmenting its diplomatic power and global influence. Two such endeavors are particularly emblematic of the myriad opportunities to establish a strong EU presence in strategically vital regions in the coming year: the intensification and solidification of the Eastern Partnership and an Iran-centric pivot to the Middle East.

The Eastern Partnership

The Eastern Partnership was inaugurated in 2009 tobuild closer political and trade relations with [strategically important] former-Soviet countries.” But, it is also meant to foster European valuesas well as [institute] the principles of [a] market economy, sustainable development and good governance.” While the Partnership is currently more of a mentorship program—the EU assists these states with reform efforts and promotes the development of a lively civil society, but it cannot impose any rules upon the partner states—there are ways it could be modified to be more mutually beneficial. The practical aims of the Partnership are to integrate these states with the EU economy and to enhance political association, ideally preparing them to meet theCopenhagen Criteriafor entry into the Union. While integration should not be guaranteed, it may make sense for the EU to augment this mentorship with more active development efforts as this would allow it to develop stronger partners and streamline the enlargement process.

This could be packaged as blanket economic incentives for demonstrated progress, or could be country-specific, such as the EU’s free wine trade with Moldova. Regardless of what form it takes, such an active investment in the EU’s economic and strategic future would reap fairly substantial rewards. The integration of these states could help the EU make strides toward energy independence—with the inclusion of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline from Azerbaijan being a real boon—and it could also become a strategic buffer, and a deterrent, against Russia’s increasingly bellicose and coercive efforts to regain regional superiority.

Iran and the Middle East

The confluence of the Geneva talks between the P5+1 countries and Iran, the intensification of Israel-Palestine peace talks, and the upcoming Syrian peace negotiations indicate that the Middle East may be approaching an axial moment it its historical trajectory. Recognizing this, the EU is at the vanguard of these initiatives, providing vast humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, and working tirelessly to incentivize parties in Syria to come to the bargaining table. It has also pledged “unprecedented…political, economic and security support to Israel and Palestine in the event of an agreement and, as EU states comprise fully half of the P5+1 states, it holds a great deal of sway over Iran. With that influence in mind, however, there are three, non-exhaustive, supplementary approaches the Union could implement to improve regional stability and cement its regional influence in the near-future.

First, the EU should seek to deepen its diplomatic ties to Iran, contingent upon a sustained and demonstrated acceptance of its new commitments. While only eight of the twenty-eight EU states do not have diplomatic missions in Iran, the EU admits there is “great [but untapped] potential for deeper relations between Iran and the EU.” Perhaps, then, it would be beneficial for the Union to supplement the individual missions of its member states with a single embassy that represents the EU as a whole. Tarja Cronberg, chair of the European Parliament’s Iran delegation, has indicated that this idea enjoys the support from both European ambassadors and the foreign ministry in Iran. While this novel approach to diplomacy could draw the ire of those who already protest the “undemocratic” nature of the EU, the potential benefits would almost certainly be worth the effort because establishing an EU embassy would significantly enhance its regional visibility, and it would also provide a platform for concerted diplomatic efforts by EU states. If successful, such an approach could potentially be exported to the rest of the Middle East, and beyond, allowing them to capitalize on the resources and leverage that such a unified diplomatic front would afford.

Additionally, current Syrian peace talks present a timely opportunity to pursue regional peace while advancing the relation-building process with Iran. Syria is a strategically important ally for Iran, and its disarray threatens to jeopardize Iranian interests, so offering it a place in these discussions—predicated on its behavior—could prove to be quite a potent motivator. Unfortunately, Iran has rejected the U.S. stipulation that it accept the precepts of the Geneva I communique—that is, to commit to a transitional government in Syria—before participating in the Geneva II negotiations. That said, exclusion from these talks is anathema to Iran, and some diplomats believe it is prepared “to make some unprecedented compromises [in Syria]” to avoid being left out, “including removing Assad from power…provided that alternative is credible.” This suggests that, despite its rhetoric, Iran could indeed become thepositive and constructivepartner that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon initially envisioned. One feasible method to involve Iran in the talks, while mollifying international dissent, is to incentivize Iran into accepting the precepts of Geneva I, and the EU could be instrumental in this regard.

Under the interim nuclear agreement between the P5+1 countries and Iran, Iran will halt various aspects of its nuclear program while the U.S. and the EU ease back their sanctions, allowing Iran to recoup frozen assets and to begin expanding its economy once more. This will be a welcome development for the Iranian government, but will also help it restore some normality to the lives of the millions of Iranian citizens living in poverty because of the sanctions. The EU could go one step further here and offer market access to Iran on the condition that it accepts the Geneva I preconditions. Last year, EU imports of Iranian agricultural products totaled almost one billion euros, but there was little else of note. By expanding Iran’s access to the European market for these products and others—perhaps including petroleum exports, which may also help Europe overcome its reliance on Russian natural gas, Iran’s moribund economy would receive a welcome boost and moderates in the Iranian government would be strengthened. With this should come a greater willingness to defy the hardliners who make it politically difficult to accept things like the Geneva I preconditions. Such access would need to be tied to the conditions governing sanctions relief to ensure continued Iranian compliance, but if managed correctly, it could net the West a great deal of good will and provide a compelling demonstration of the rewards Iran can expect if it continues to cooperate. Moreover, it could help stabilize the Syria talks, which have been dealt a blow by recent events, by including a party that is close enough to Assad to have his ear, but is not as devoted to his continued reign as Russia is.

Finally, the EU could expand some of its current programs that are aimed at reducing the political and cultural barriers between it and some Middle Eastern states. The EU has already exhibited, in its cooperation agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a longstanding commitment to fostering stronger political and economic relations with the region as well as contributing to its “peace and stability.” But instead of limiting this cooperation to trade and joint research initiatives, the EU should supplement it by increasing the number of cultural exchanges between the two regions. The EU took a positive step in this direction when the Council and Commission decided to add the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the Schengen visa-free entry list. Indeed, the EU already recognizes the importance of deepening cultural ties with other nations, as it has adopted measures to facilitate cultural integration efforts with more than 50 countries, including a number of Middle Eastern states. Expanding upon such a program of sustained, close personal interaction between the citizens of both regions should help cultivate a mutual affinity, the impact of which could extend well beyond politics and economics, and ensure much closer regional ties for the Union.

To accomplish this, the first step would be to confirm the UAE’s visa-free status and, from there, extend the same privilege to other GCC states, taking care to implement prudent safeguards on both ends to filter out dangerous elements. If this experiment bears fruit, and best practices are established, it could easily be expanded to the other Middle Eastern states. Of course, there are obstacles to the inception of such a program—the human rights records of some of these countries, for example—but this actually highlights the value of such a program. The process would be gradual, but such an initiative would ideally imbue those citizens who participate with alternate perspectives, allowing them to modify the political ethos, if not necessarily the structure or policy, of their home states. In short, the EU could use these cultural exchanges to forge closer political and social allies from the ground-up. 

With all of this said, it bears repeating that the suggestions in parts I and II of the foregoing analysis are merely meant to highlight the challenges and opportunities facing the EU this year. They are not exhaustive, but they do represent tangible, viable steps toward bolstering the EU’s global influence while also boosting its attractiveness. In conjunction with prudent internal reforms, such measures could help the EU improve its own viability as an institution and the stability of neighboring regions.


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