The EU, the Middle East, and the Crisis of the “International Liberal Order”

3rd Apr 2023 by Simon Mabon

The EU, the Middle East, and the Crisis of the “International Liberal Order”

Guest post: Daniela Huber. This is part of our series reflecting on external powers in the Middle East. 

Since the onset of the Arab uprisings, the EU’s engagement in the Middle East has appeared ambiguous or blurred. Member states have been unable to find common positions and have even found themselves on opposing sides, as in the conflict in Libya; the EU and its member states have begun to undermine the “international refugee regime” with their border practices; and, besides the JCPOA, any larger policy of engagement has been missing as both the European Mediterranean Policy (EMP) and the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) have lost steam. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the unified, prompt and decisive EU response have exposed this ambiguity even more clearly. How, indeed, can we explain this divergence in engagement vis-à-vis what the EU defines as its “Eastern” and “Southern” neighbourhoods? To tackle this question, the essay provides a longer durée perspective on the evolution of the EU’s engagement with the Middle East to shed light on continuities, ruptures and possible more recent changes in light of COVID-19 or the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It then turns to key factors which drive the EU’s engagement in the region, including the ruptures in and division of the Arab world, US foreign policy, and a “civilizational narrative” of the EU which holds increasing sway. Finally, it concludes with misconceptions over the EU’s role in the Middle East, arguing that what we are really witnessing is not a new “geopolitical” EU as the European Commission claims, but the symptoms of the crisis of the so-called “International Liberal Order” (ILO) as the world moves towards a multiplexity to which the EU has failed to find an answer to. 

The evolution of the EU’s engagement with the Middle East 

After decolonisation in the Middle East and (North) Africa, it had been the European Community (EC) which gradually took over European foreign policy towards the region, not least also in light of the moral bankruptcy of its member states. Indeed, in between the 1970ies up until the 2000s, it has been the EC and then the European Union (EU) which came out with a stream of initiatives of engagement: the Global Mediterranean Policy and the short-lived Euro-Arab dialogue in the 1970s and 1980s; the Barcelona Process in the 1990s and the European Neighbourhood Policy in the 2000s. The Cold War and the founding of the EU was not really a rupture in this sense, but just intensified the road on which the EC had already started to move in the 1970s. The continuity throughout both the bipolar and then unipolar periods was characterized by two phenomena. Firstly, the initiatives of the EC/EU were gravitational: member states activism converged around them and Israel/Palestine is a good example of this: in 1980 with the Venice Declaration the nine foreign ministers confronted the US with what they deemed had been missing in the Camp David Agreement brokered by US President Jimmy Carter shortly before. Secondly, the convergence of the member states centred around the conviction that the European model – as a security community of liberal market democracies - should be exported. Scholarship noted how this kind of approach in a way perpetuated the idea of Europeans imagining themselves as the “exclusive bearers, creators, and protagonists” (Quijano 2000; Sadiki 2022) of both peace and democracy, whilst the overall relationship between the EC/EU and its neighbourhoods has actually remained quite asymmetric in terms of trade (Aboushady and Zaki 2021), arms trade (Wearing 2021), the movement of people (İşleyen and Fakhoury 2021), or external military interventions of member states in Iraq, Libya, or the Sahel. 

However, this overall approach to engagement with the region entered into shaky waters with the onset of the Arab uprisings in 2011. The EU did not only admit that it had made structural mistakes[1]; the uprisings and the “peoplehood” (Sadiki 2016) they embodied were also a larger ontological challenge to the whole EU vision and approach: citizens in Arab states demanded their very own model of democracy. Indeed, 2011 has represented a rupture in the stream of EC/EU initiatives in the Middle East: no new effort by the EU was developed to actually respond to these historic revolutions, as well as the new conflicts that emerged. Rather, the EU turned to a “romanticized” perception of resilience (Mourad 2020), i.e. the idea of flexible adaption to very problematic contexts such as autocratic oppression, apartheid, civil strive, global warming, or pandemics such as COVID (Joseph 2013). This approach is of course driven by strategic calculations, meant to contain what the EU frames “Islamic fundamentalism”, as well as migration, and to cater to European energy needs. A larger vision (for example a green vision) has, however, been lacking (Huber 2020). 

It should be mentioned here that there has been a vision for collective security with the JCPOA which might have been a first stepping stone towards collective security in the Middle East, but the EU has not been able to salvage it from the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from it (slashing secondary sanctions on the EU). Furthermore, regarding various other conflicts in the Middle East, the EU has appeared as either disinterested (Syria, Yemen) or disunited (such as on Israel/Palestine, in the Eastern Mediterranean or on Libya), whilst various member states have been part of the problem in all these conflicts. Indeed, what the Russian invasion of Ukraine exposed very clearly is that – as opposed to the “Southern neighbourhood” – in the “Eastern neighbourhood”, the EU can act in unity with concrete instruments converging around a strategic calculus. The EU had been able to respond with sanctions to the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea, as well as to its invasion of Ukraine. In stark difference to this, in the case of Western Sahara, the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights, or the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the EU has not reacted with sanctions to illegal de jure or de facto annexation, but, forced by the Court of Justice of the European Union, adopted a “differentiation policy” which it has difficulties to implement (Gordon and Pardo 2015). Furthermore, as opposed to the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015, today, the EU does not have a “refugee crisis”, as the EU has been rather united in its response to the refugee flow from Ukraine, activating the temporary protection regime. On the EU’s southern borders, instead, this regime has never been activated, illegal push-backs to Turkey or Morocco and pull-backs into Libya are frequent, and the Mediterranean has become the deadliest border in the world (International Organization for Migration 2023). How can this discrepancy be explained? What drivers for EU engagement are present in the “Eastern”, but not in the “Southern” neighbourhood? 

Explaining the lack of engagement  

A first explanatory factor might be that regarding EU policy vis-à-vis Russia, states in Eastern Europe, not least in light of their own history of being subject to Russian/Soviet imperialism, have been rather united in pressing for a unified response of the EU. Indeed, Europeans view the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “Zeitenwende”, that is a global rupture. However, seen from outside the Western hemisphere, the war in Ukraine, which all Arab states except Syria have condemned through their statements and/or votes in UNGA, is a war “over the European security order — not an epochal global conflagration”, as Indian analyst Shivshankar Menon has pointed out (in Parsi 2022). The Arab world, instead, has experienced its own ruptures in the 2000s, particularly 1) the US-led invasion of Iraq which did not only violate and harm Iraq’s statehood and fuelled conflict, but also led a growth of Iran’s power in the region; and 2) the Arab uprisings, which have accentuated fears of regime security in states such as Saudi Arabia. These ruptures have deeply divided the Arab states, the fall-out of which can be well exemplified on Israel/Palestine. Whilst there have been divisions in the Arab world also in the 1970ies, the Arab League nonetheless had shared policy positions on the Palestine question (Barnett 1998), with which it could put pressure on the European Community, particularly in wake of the 1973 oil crisis. Today, the EU finds itself in a similar energy predicament, but with the normalization deals and the resulting divisions, there are no unified Arab means of pressure on the EU.  

Another key factor is the US which has a clear interest in keeping European NATO members united vis-à-vis Russia. In the Middle East, however, the US acts more like a divider, as it drives EU member states away from multilateralism and international law, this way creating divisions amongst them. Regarding Iran, for example, the Biden administration has largely continued the policy adopted by the Trump administration of containing Iran through normalization deals, rather than binding Iran into the region through the JCPOA. The E3 (UK, Germany and France) are now increasingly unsure where they stand on the JCPOA (a dynamic which has begun before the women-led protests in Iran). On Israel/Palestine, the Council, blocked by a Hungarian veto, has been unable to adopt a strong declaration for the protection of international law on Jerusalem, when the Trump administration moved the US embassy there in violation of international consensus and law. In December 2022, various EU member states including Germany and Italy (as well as the UK) voted with the US in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) against a referral of the Palestine question to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion “on the legal consequences arising from Israel’s ongoing violation of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, its prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967” (OHCHR 2022). A couple of months before, all member states voted united with the US for a UNGA resolution ES11/4 on the “territorial integrity of Ukraine” and against attempted annexation by Russia. Similar to this, whilst EU member states have been crucial in referring Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court (ICC) given that Ukraine is not party to the Rome Statute, EU member states such as Germany have objected to the ICC’s own ruling asserting its jurisdiction on the case of Palestine, thus undermining the presumed competence and independence of the Court. 

Finally, it should also be pointed out that another driving factor is a civilizational discourse which has been growing in Europe, fostered by politicians such as French President Emanuel Macron or EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Hans Kundnani has pointed out that developments in the EU “reflect a growing tendency to think about international politics in civilisational terms. Europe increasingly defines its ‘values’ against a rising China as a geopolitical threat, and against Islam, Europe’s historic Other, in the form of migrants and terrorism” (Kundnani 2021). Whilst this civilizational turn excludes the Middle East and refugees from Syria or Iraq, it does include Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees within the EU. 

The crisis of the International Liberal Order

However, all these developments do not only explain the lack of an overall EU vision for engagement; they are also symptoms of a larger crisis of the so-called “International Liberal Order” on which the EU has been thriving; it is not by coincidence that the EMP and the ENP which embodied that order hold little sway today, both in the EU and the Middle East. The EU and its member states have themselves begun to undermine standing pillars of the ILO, primarily by violating the global refugee regime and the peremptory norm of non-refoulment; but also by undermining central institutions of the ILO such as the ICC. 

However, as the ILO appears in crisis, so does the EU. Already before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU tried to find a new compass for itself as the world moves towards what Amitav Acharya has termed “multiplexity”, differentiating it from “multipolarity” which denotes the competition between European empires of the past (Acharya 2022). Rather than staking out a path for the EU into multiplexity, however, the Von der Leyen Commission has claimed to be a “geopolitical Commission” which indicates a return to that past, rather than the future. European High Representative Josep Borrell has not only argued that “Europeans must deal with the world as it is, not as they wish it to be. And that means relearning the language of power”, but has also equated Europe with a “garden” and the “rest of the world” with a “jungle [which] could invade the garden” (Borell 2022)As long as this orientalist (some would say, ignorant and offensive) attitude prevails, EU-Middle East engagement will remain in a deep predicament which – in a multiplex order – might eventually turn out be more problematic for the EU and its claim to power, than for the Middle East which can engage with various other powers, regional and global. 

[1] Then Commissioner of Enlargement Štefan Füle argued that “we must show humility about the past. Europe was not vocal enough in defending human rights and local democratic forces in the region. Too many of us fell prey to the assumption that authoritarian regimes were a guarantee of stability in the region. This was not even Realpolitik. It was, at best, short-termism —and the kind of short-termism that makes the long term ever more difficult to build” (Füle 2011).


Aboushady, Nora, and Chahir Zaki. 2021. “Assessing EU-Middle East Trade Relations.  Patterns, Policies and Imbalances.” In The Routledge Handbook of EU - Middle East Relations, edited by Dimitris Bouris, Daniela Huber, and Michelle Pace, 432–46. Routledge.

Acharya, Amitav. 2022. “The Return of the West?” The Multiplex World (blog). June 5, 2022.

Barnett, Michael N. 1998. Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order. Columbia University Press.

Borell, Josep. 2022. “European Diplomatic Academy: Opening Remarks by High Representative Josep Borrell at the Inauguration of the Pilot Programme | EEAS Website.” European Union External Action Service.

Füle, Štefan. 2011. “Štefan Füle European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Speech on the Recent Events in North Africa Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET), European Parliament Brussels, 28 February 2011.”

Gordon, Neve, and Sharon Pardo. 2015. “The European Union and Israel’s Occupation: Using Technical Customs Rules as Instruments of Foreign Policy.” The Middle East Journal 69 (1): 74–90.

Huber, Daniela. 2020. “The New European Commission’s Green Deal and Geopolitical Language: A Critique from a Decentring Perspective.” IAI Papers 20/06.

International Organization for Migration. 2023. “Missing Migrants Project.” 2023.

İşleyen, Beste, and Tamirace Fakhoury. 2021. “Migration and Refugees in EU–Middle East Relations.” In The Routledge Handbook of EU - Middle East Relations, edited by Dimitris Bouris, Daniela Huber, and Michelle Pace. Routledge.

Joseph, Jonathan. 2013. “Resilience as Embedded Neoliberalism: A Governmentality Approach.” Resilience 1 (1): 38–52.

Kundnani, Hans. 2021. “What Does It Mean to Be ‘pro-European’ Today?” New Stateman, 2021.

Mourad, Sara. 2020. “AFTERSHOCK.” Rusted Radishes (blog). August 16, 2020.

OHCHR. 2022. “Commission of Inquiry Welcomes General Assembly Resolution Requesting an ICJ Advisory Opinion Relating to the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Territory.” OHCHR. 2022.

Parsi, Trita. 2022. “Opinion | Why Non-Western Countries Tend to See Russia’s War Very Differently.” MSNBC.Com. April 11, 2022.

Quijano, Anibal. 2000. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America.” Translated by Michael Ennis. Nepantla: Views from South 1 (3): 533–80.

Sadiki, Larbi. 2016. “The Arab Spring: The ‘People’ in International Relations.” In International Relations of the Middle East, edited by Louise Fawcett, 325–55. Oxford University Press.

———. 2022. “Decolonising Democratic Knowledge in Euro–Mediterranean Relations: Towards New Pedagogies.” In Decolonising (knowledge on) Euro-Mediterranean relations, edited by Daniela Huber and Lorenzo Kamel, 65–74.

Wearing, David. 2021. “Their Violence or Ours? EU-Middle East Arms Sales and Military Cooperation.” In The Routledge Handbook of EU - Middle East Relations, edited by Dimitris Bouris, Daniela Huber, and Michelle Pace. Routledge.


Daniela Huber is Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department of Roma Tre University. She is scientific advisor of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa Programme at IAI, which she had led from 2019 to 2022, and co-editor of The International Spectator.