September Newsletter

🌍🇪🇺🤝 Observatory on EU-MENA relations – September News 🤝🇪🇺🌍

September 2023

Hello everyone, how have you been? After a long, well-deserved summer break, we are finally back with the EST Observatory on EU-MENA Relations to uncover, grasp and explain the most important facts of the two regions.

Here is the Observatory, and we are excited to present our new newsletter! It will be published twice a month and will uncover facts and events in the Middle East and North Africa touching upon the EU’s interests.

Here we are, refreshed and re-energized, with plenty of exciting updates to share. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the latest news from the region!

What prompted the EU to sign a deal with Tunisia in July?

Source: IOM, authors’ own elaboration – Data retrieved on 25 September 2023

A migrant-proof Europe? Money is coming

News came this week that Tunisia will soon receive 127 million euros from the European Union (EU), 42 million of which is part of the EU-Tunisia ‘Strategic Partnership’, signed in July 2023. The rationale behind the migration deal is simple: the Tunisian government is in dire need of financial assistance to recover economic indicators; assistance that the EU can provide in exchange for tighter border control.

Indeed, the number of irregular arrivals has surged over the past years, overwhelming many EU member states. In 2022, 189,620 migrants reached European shores and nearly 3,000 died and/or went missing, while in 2023, as of 25 September, 199,691 migrants have already arrived in Europe.

But if the EU migration policy is far from perfect, the other side of the coin may look even worse. Behind words such as migration funds, cooperation and integration lies a dark reality of migrant criminalization and grave human rights violations. While these criticisms have long characterized EU migration policy, last week the EU watchdog – the European Ombudsman – raised concerns over the deal with Tunisia and the risks of fuelling human rights violations against migrants, especially amid reports documenting unlawful treatment (e.g., detention, torture, forced eviction). Furthermore, migration is often a byproduct of structural problems, such as political violence and persecution or poor socio-economic conditions, and border militarization might not be a suitable, efficient approach in the medium-long term with authoritarian governments knocking at Europe’s door to ask for money in exchange of postponing the EU’s problems.

Persian soup and the EU-US’ fatigue

The twilight of the Iranian summer has been fairly hot for Tehran amidst leaked hostages and prisoners swap ahead of the expiry of Western sanctions in October.

Johan Floderus, a junior Swedish Official of the European External Action Service (EEAS) – the diplomatic arm of the EU – has been in jail for more than one year, as revealed in early September by The Washington Post. The news fell silent after 5 American citizens touched down in Qatar as a prisoner swap between Washington and Tehran went successful last week. The deal also included the unfreezing of 6 billion dollars of Iran’s oil revenues stranded in South Korea.

Might this represent a promising path for future negotiations with Iran? It does, but, more realistically, it does only remove one obstacle, at least easing the rising tensions between both parties. In the light of a new timid rapprochement, it comes the UK, Germany and France (E3)’s decision to retain nuclear sanctions, while the visit of the new EU Special Envoy to the Gulf – the former Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio – to Tehran in mid-September provided no concrete results. The EU-US’ fatigue appears thus more than a symptom, and the JCPOA – the nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the EU – if not already defunct, urgently needs a save-life therapy. But while the renewal of the E3 sanctions seems to clash with renewed hopes for negotiation, the move – as suggested by the Washington Institute this summer – might reveal an attempt of avoiding an extension of the UN sanctions scheduled for October. While the latter would indeed knock out an already numbed JCPOA, the E3’s decision, if successful, could properly channel a tentatively reshaped cooperation model, but the US Presidential elections are likely to blur and postpone the process further.  Let’s keep monitoring!

A bitter reality in North Africa

Within the span of a week, North Africa witnessed two deadly natural disasters. On September 8th, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Morocco’s High Atlas Region, killing at least 3,000 people. Two days later, Storm Daniel hit the Libyan coast, causing flooding in several cities, most notably in Derna, where the torrential rain destroyed two dam walls and wiped out a quarter of the city, killing thousands of people. Although Morocco and Libya are fundamentally different as far as political leadership is concerned, the disasters uncovered one bitter reality: marginalization backfires on authorities, but citizens are the ones who pay the costs. In Morocco, the quake hit marginalized areas where basic social services, such as healthcare and public transport, are limited, sometimes non-existent. In Libya, the floods captured a natural disaster that became human-made due to fragile infrastructure, deficient governance and deep political divisions. This reality leaves many Libyans and Moroccans in dark limbo.

Visible multipolarity: the MENA joins the BRICS

The BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) has extended an invitation to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates during the last BRICS Summit in South Africa in late August. At the time of writing, the UAE has accepted, and Iran and Egypt are expected to do so in the months to come, as they are supposed to formally become members from January 2024.

But what brings together such as a heterogeneous group of countries? Interestingly, this group does not revolve much around the geopolitical differences and international disputes that these countries may show internally. Rather, the BRICS has served as a counterbalance to the G7, formed by Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US, strongly concentrated on “Western interests”. According to some experts, this move is consolidating the world’s multipolarity, a term used to describe the fall of a world dominated by the Western allies, and especially the US as a hegemonic power. As for the MENA region, its increasing presence in the BRICS would mean an increasing voice for the Middle East, at least for Iran and Saudi Arabia, especially if they succeed in putting their differences apart and further differentiating their international relations.

Nagorno-Karabakh: the effects on the MENA

Last Tuesday, Azerbaijan launched a military operation in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. In the international arena, Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized to be part of Azerbaijan, but the territory has long been under the control of a separatist, independent state, home to thousands of ethnic Armenians who are now fleeing the region.

After almost three decades of tensions and clashes, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, declared that the separatist military groups had surrendered, while Armenia said it would not intervene. Some say that Armenia’s immobilization comes from the dwindling presence of Russia as an ally for Yerevan, whereas Western powers could step in, such as the US or the EU. However, the practice is much more complicated, and beyond considerations of political influence, there are major geopolitical and energy interests in Azerbaijan, but what effects for the MENA?

As for the Middle East, the end of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence brings back memories of the Armenian genocide in 1915 that both Turkey and Azerbaijan refuse to recognize. Although the former has publicly supported the Karabakh operation, Recep Erdogan, the President of Turkey, has denied any Turkish involvement.

Furthermore, Iran has accused Israel of taking part in the military operation in favour of Azerbaijan, but this seems to be mostly connected with regional power politics rather than actual evidence.

Enlarged MED: the French withdrawal from Niger and the EU

Niger is certainly not part of the MENA and of the European Neighbourhood – the EU’s principal policy framework through which the EU engages with the Middle Eastern and Northern African countries – but July’s military coup d’état requires overcoming sharp, rigid geographical divisions. And it demands it even more after France – the principal European actor in the Sahel and in sub-Saharan Africa – has announced last week the withdrawal of its diplomatic representatives and troops from Niamey.

Paris’ decision should come as no surprise. Immediately after the coup, Niamey recorded streams of people taking to the streets to celebrate the military takeover and calling Niger’s elected President Mohammed Bazoum “a puppet for French interests”. Tensions between with new military Junta had escalated further in the following weeks amidst unfulfilled ultimatums and regional military alliances.

However, France has almost 1500 troops located in the country, and it is still not clear how Paris’ future in the region will look like. Will it be a complete disengagement from the Sahel – after the withdrawal from Mali in November 2022 and the deterioration of relations with Burkina Faso? Or will France relocate its forces to Chad? And how will this affect the EU’s presence in Niger?

Brussels has indeed three active CSDP missions in the country – the last of which was recently launched in January 2023 – and reconsidering the EU’s approach and stance in Niamey in the light of the French disengagement seems crucial to avoid dangerous power vacuum at the borders of the EU.

Now, a bit of a cultural part…

In this section, we uncover some of the most listened and watched musicians, writers or youtubers of the Arab world or new publications, articles or books either from or on the region. If you have any suggestions, you’re always welcome to tell us via our email!

Lebanon became one of the most turbulent Middle Eastern countries in October 2019 after people decided to take the streets in what came to be known as the thaura (revolution). It was an episode where the Lebanese people had the hope to change a crumbling political and financial system that was affected by deep corruption and religious sectarianism.

However, a few months after its start, as people started to lose hope, Médéa Azouri and Mouin Jaber, two journalists from Beirut, decided to start a project where they could invite the most influential and prominent voices of Lebanon and all the Arab world. In their podcasts, they can talk about the Arab identity and its language as they can have episodes where the families of the victims from the Beirut port explosion of August 2020 come to explain their feeling of injustice with the judicial system. All in all, ¨Sarde¨ has become the manifesto of a generation and serves as a glimpse of hope for the future of the Arab youth generations.

Have a look: Shabjdeed: Poetry, Rap and A Journey from Ramallah to Beirut | Sarde (after dinner) Podcast #118

DON’T MISS IT OUT! The Observatory is looking for new members with a background or interest in research or communication! Don’t miss it out and have a look at the call:

Deadline: 11 October, 23:59 (CET)

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See you in two weeks, inshallah!

The Observatory