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What does the crisis in the Middle East mean for the future of common European defence?

Foreign European Parliament
Foreign European Parliament Copyright Jean-Francois Badias/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Jean-Francois Badias/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Fortunato Pinto
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This article was originally published in Italian

Tension and conflict in the Middle East has become a major theme of the EU election campaign. International affairs analyst Francesco Petronella explains what it means for Europe.

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The situation in the Middle East remains worrying, even if the escalation is frozen at the moment. Israel continues to bomb Gaza and to clash with Hezbollah in Lebanon, but tension with Iran seems to have eased.

The European Union may yet play a fundamental role in the de-escalation in the region – but a lot will also depend on the result of the European elections in June.

“The European Union will be called upon to respond to this long-term challenge and, if possible, with a majority in the European Parliament and with a government in the European Commission capable of taking decisions that are strong and as impactful as possible on what reality is,” explains journalist Francesco Petronella, who serves as an analyst at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).

“Not only now with the war, but also later to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole,” Petronella tells Euronews.

The EU and the Red Sea crisis

The Aspides mission in the Red Sea, the Gulf and the Indian Ocean is a demonstration of collaboration between the countries of the EU in emergency situations. But in the light of the war in Ukraine and Gaza, common European defence is increasingly at the centre of the electoral campaign.

“Aspides was a good example of what a common European defence can be," says the ISPI analyst.

"Among other things, it is not the first mission that the European Union implements in crisis scenarios, many of which are, among other things, in the Middle East and North Africa, in some ways different from the one that the United States has put in place, a multilateral initiative also based on interventions in the territory of Yemen".

“We must not forget, however, that Aspides is simply tasked with escorting ships and freighters across the waters of the Red Sea, while the US and the UK have carried out air raids on the territory of Yemen. So when it comes to operations, we are complementary and at the same time very different from each other”.

Why do we talk about common European defence

“The notion of common European defence is one of those issues that periodically return the headlines, especially when there are problems within the other Euro-Atlantic defence architecture, which is NATO".

"As the American elections approach, with the hypothesis of Trump returning to the White House, it is clear that the issue of European defence is once again current,” explains Petronella.

“During his first term, Trump said several times that the Atlantic Alliance as it stands is not good. The allies, some of them in particular, should spend more of their GDP on defence, and the mere idea, the possibility – and in a certain sense the fear – that Trump may return to the White House forces them into this sort of reasoning. But one wonders how a defence could actually be formed that is complementary to NATO, not competing with it,” he adds.

Relations between the EU and the Middle East, without forgetting China

In a region where different actors' sensitivities are numerous, there are more and more governments intervening to their own benefit – not least China, which is increasingly expanding its influence in the Middle East.

“We saw it especially in March 2023," says Petronella, "when Beijing mediated the diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are historically considered to be the two greatest regional rivals, obviously excluding Israel, and who are competing in a certain sense for the Islamic camp. On the one hand, an Arab country, guardian of the holy places of Islam; on the other hand, Iran and the Islamic Republic.

“The UAE is also one of those countries that is not easy to frame according to very strict schemes of diplomacy and international politics," Petronella points out. 

"They are free agents and feel free to establish relations with Israel, with the Abraham agreements in 2020, but at the same time they can have good relations, if necessary, also with Iran. They do not allow themselves to be caged in these categories". 

“The European Union would do well to take note of these great differences that exist at the regional level, because pragmatism is the master in certain scenarios, and it is with pragmatism that we must face and approach these sorts of dynamics.”.

Rome's influence in Europe

“Historically and traditionally speaking, Italy has a privileged relationship, also with a geographical view, on the Mediterranean and on all issues concerning the neighbouring Mediterranean, but also the enlarged Mediterranean,” Petronella says, commenting on the possibility that Italy could carry greater weight in European politics after June's European parliament elections.

“From the Central European point of view, in an organisation that includes countries that are also part of Scandinavia, that are completely and geographically far from the Mediterranean, it is clear that agendas can go in different directions," explains the analyst.

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"Italy has the task of reviving these certain sensitivities and consequently also proposing decisive actions. Bringing together so many different voices, the European Union sometimes expresses itself in a way that is too interlocutory, too official, without really affecting what the decisions are,” Petronella concludes.

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