A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Ring of Instability


Brexit aside, Europe faces crises to the south and east, with instability threatening to spill over into all EU member states. Addressing these trouble spots will require long-term planning and sustained commitment.


© REUTERS/Edmund Blair

Stabilizing the southern neighborhood is imperative for the EU. The Arab Spring, a regional power vacuum, and international intervention – particularly in Iraq and Libya – have all contributed to the emergence of a ring of instability, a zone of failed states reaching from Libya to Iraq and from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa. Now this instability is fueling crises within Europe: the arrival of massive waves of refugees, the horrors of domestic terrorism, and growing radicalization within Europe’s population are all putting Europe’s unity and ability to shape its environment to the test.

What can we do about it? Long-term, durable solutions can only be found if we address the problems at their roots and build local capacities that are sustainable. This requires us first and foremost to tackle the region’s key security and economic problems comprehensively. Here there are no easy fixes: progress will require clarity of purpose, the concentration of resources, and, clearly, time. And any steps taken must be taken with full political buy-in from the regional states; we cannot simply impose change.

First, we have to revisit our approach to economic development. Last year the EU spent €80 billion on development assistance. For that assistance to be truly effective, it is essential to continue monitoring how it is spent, making sure it is used in a way that builds sustainable local capacities in critical areas, reinforces governance, creates knowledge and jobs, and helps align our development objectives more closely with our security needs, including those related to migration control.

Second, we need to concentrate more on how to make countries and their societies more resilient to threats posed by terrorist groups and radical ideologies. The EU is unlikely to wage war against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria or Iraq itself; it is not the right instrument for that. But it has a wide toolbox to help contain the spread of the plague that ISIS represents by stabilizing the adjoining neighborhood and helping countries like Lebanon and Jordan become more resilient. And when territory is liberated from ISIS in countries like Iraq, we need to provide assistance and help build local capacities so that the local population can take care of its own security and improve its own economic situation. Instability and bad governance create fertile ground for radical groups and terrorism.

Third, we need to support regional initiatives aimed at addressing key security concerns. This is what we are trying to do, for instance, in the Sahel. The Sahel-G5 countries’ initiative, which creates a framework for Mauritius, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad to start working together more on common threats – including terrorism, radicalization, and organized crime – is something we need to support.

And fourth, we have to make sure that we are using all the tools available within the EU toolbox, which among other things include development assistance, humanitarian assistance, trade, and Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). The EU’s unique strength lies in what we call the “comprehensive approach” – a great concept, but one yet to be fully implemented. Working collaboratively to minimize the presence of “silos” and remove the walls that separate these instruments requires a true change of mindset, which, as experience shows, is no easy task.

Security and Development

A concrete case in point is the nexus between security and development. It is a bond that everybody agrees exists: a state cannot function properly if it cannot provide security to its citizens. A lack of core capacities in defense may also put our investments in other sectors in jeopardy, including education, health care, and infrastructure, as the state itself may collapse. Despite this obvious link, defense capacity-building projects are currently not eligible to receive support from the European budget – even if they are limited in scope to civilian or dual-use equipment, such as boots, tents, radios, and generators. Keeping our security and development goals entirely independent of one another as if they belonged to completely different universes is hardly sustainable and does not help us achieve our overall objectives. To implement the nexus between security and development and to make real headway in what the German government used to call “enable and enhance” requires a change not merely on the European level, but on the national level as well.

There are a number of things still to be thought through. If we do not want to put boots on the ground to combat ISIS, we have to work through partners in the region. But how can this be done effectively? Or take migration and the need to work with countries of origin and transit: For them, stemming migration flows is not a priority – but it is for us. How can we convince the governments concerned to tackle this problem?

An example of the first dilemma is Jordan, which is willing to play a bigger role in the war against ISIS but has quite serious problems of its own – sheltering 1.8 million refugees, servicing a considerable foreign debt, and so on. One way the EU could help is through infrastructural investments and debt relief to enable the Jordanian government to redirect its resources to mobilize moderate groups and step up its efforts to fight ISIS more aggressively – which would serve both regional and EU interests.

This will require substantial funds (though it is worth mentioning that the Valletta Fund, the EU’s emergency trust fund to tackle the root causes of irregular migration in Africa set up last November, is worth €1.8 billion by itself), yet we lack the capacity to spend that money in a way that really changes the reality on the ground. That feeds into a general problem of European politics: How can we move away from our reactive mindset, which is geared more toward putting out fires after they have started rather than getting rid of kindling beforehand? How can we plan ahead more, and thus shape the environment proactively before crises develop?

As for migration, let us take the example of Niger, a major transit country for migrants making their way to Europe. We know that migrants are coming in large numbers from western Sahara and that there is a major trafficking group at work. Human smuggling generated a revenue of €4 billion last year. Why would Niger be willing to tighten controls on migrants crossing its territory and heading north when the migrant stream has become part of the nation’s business model? And why would the authorities stop the flow, which would entail keeping more migrants in the country instead of simply letting them pass through as quickly as possible? The question is how to change the business model, how to come up with offers that are more attractive – and at the same time ensure tighter control of the flow.

First, we need to listen to what the needs of the countries in question are, then put together packages that include both robust incentives in areas that are important for them and measures that are important for us. Such packages, with clear conditions for support, would have a better chance of producing the desired effects.

Broad Strategies

We need broad regional strategies, coupled with country-specific implementation. If we treat the region as a monolith, we will not arrive at the right solutions; implementation should always be tailored to the specifics of each country. But it is just as important to have strategies that take into account the larger regional context – the Middle East and North Africa cannot be understood without taking into account the complex network of interests, various proxy wars, and the roles played by key regional leaders, like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Unless we look at the wider region and understand its dynamics, we cannot get the answers right.

Diagnosis is one step, and treatment is another. A core question is: How can the EU help establish better governance at the local level? The EU is probably best placed among international actors to build democratically accountable institutions and ensure that there are proper mechanisms in place linking these institutions with the wider public – this is, after all, the EU’s bread and butter.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Take Somalia, which splintered into entities that have acted more or less autonomously. There is a federal structure and a federal government that the international community supports, but it lacks real power. So the big question is: How do we help build proper government structures that will function at the local level and cooperate at the federal level? How do we incentivize the traditional Somali clan structures and clan-based militias to work toward empowering federal structures? How do we ensure that the development of the Somali National Army and Police reinforces multi-clan arrangements and not a clan-based separation? The key is to understand what the local capacities and needs are and provide assistance in a way that builds on local ownership, promotes the strengthening of federal structures, and takes into account a multitude of other bilateral and multilateral support programs. This presents a daunting challenge.

However, we should avoid raising the bar too high when we discuss governance. Any improvement will be incremental, requiring patience and the acceptance that deeply rooted traditions may not change overnight. This does not mean abandoning European values, but it does mean calibrating our expectations.

We need patience, a resource in short supply after so many missed opportunities. During the Arab Spring, many thought that democratic change would unfold quickly across the entire region, comparing it to the wave of revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe. Today, the picture is different. However, though our high hopes have not been fulfilled, we should not turn away – we simply need to adjust our strategies.

And we should not forget: We in Europe have also committed mistakes in the south, from which we should learn. Iraq and Libya are cases in point. There are and there will be situations when, after all other options having been exhausted, the use of military force against hostile regimes becomes inevitable. But if we go down that road, we must stay the course, investing in rebuilding societies and states that can properly function afterwards. It is not enough to use force to remove a regime that we find threatening and then turn around and leave without giving much thought to what is left behind. It is not enough to achieve military victory, disband local security forces – and only then consider the repercussions of failing states, large ungoverned spaces, and the emergence of radical, armed groups. The brunt of the job comes after the military intervention.

Long-Term Commitment

Engagement in security and defense almost always requires long-term commitment. Take the example of the security sector reform the EU is increasingly engaged in, both on the civilian and the military side. Such reforms cannot be completed within two or three years. Once we make a decision to commit, we cannot simply turn away; we must stay and ensure that the reforms indeed get implemented. The often-heard argument that, despite advice given and heavy investment made, actual implementation does not follow and there is no proper local ownership in the process is simply not convincing. Local ownership is something that in most places we have to work for and not take as a given. Ukraine is one example.

There is a great deal of talk of the EU being under heavy pressure today, with some speaking of an existential crisis for the union itself. I prefer to look at the current situation optimistically: this pressure may also be seen as an opportunity, an opportunity to lean in and, after a great deal of hesitation, finally commit to doing the right thing, as in so many other instances in the history of the European integration process. If we wait much longer, we may soon be overwhelmed with our present and future problems. We need clear leadership in Europe, and the countries that have acted as the engines of European integration have a special responsibility to take the European process forward.

Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – July/August 2016 issue.