CULTURE

Cooperation or neocolonialism? | Eurozine


In recent years, the European Union (EU) has consolidated its position as a global actor, spurred by acute challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. These crises have prompted a reassessment of the EU’s foreign policy. In the process, the distinction between domestic and international policy spheres has been blurred, illustrating how national elections and policies can have far-reaching effects on global dynamics.

A central area of interconnectedness is in the EU’s approach to migration, which is key to its foreign policy, especially since the 2015 ‘refugee crisis.’ Over 2.39 million migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe since then, prompting intense policy focus on handling migration, often framed as ‘management’, mainly involving southern non-EU and EU Mediterranean states.

Discourse around migration has surged, and a January 2024 European Council for Foreign Relations survey indicates that immigration is a significant concern within the EU. The far right has capitalized on this issue, leading mainstream parties across Europe to shift their positions on immigration to counter what has become a serious electoral challenge.

This shift has been reflected at the EU level. The bloc has increasingly adopted a transactional foreign policy strategy that revolves around externalization agreements, primarily targeting non-EU Mediterranean countries crucial as both origins and transit points for migrants, including Türkiye, Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon. Often called cash-for-control deals, these agreements financially motivate countries to manage migration at the EU’s border.

Alongside migration, the EU is also expanding its collaboration with these non-EU partners in areas such as trade, energy security and decarbonization. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is actively forging new partnerships before her mandate concludes, aiming to deepen ties. However, these efforts raise questions about the underlying political motives and the balance of benefits between the EU and its non-EU Mediterranean partners. There are also concerns that these deals could support repressive regimes by providing them with additional legitimacy and economic aid, which will be used to further entrench their power.

Syria

The war in Syria has been a significant focus of the EU’s foreign affairs policy for the past decade. The war erupted in 2011 after the government repressed peaceful pro-democracy protests, led to more than half a million deaths, and displaced around half of the population. More than a decade later, with much of the territory having been reclaimed by Syrian government forces backed by Russian and Iranian allies, the conflict persists with no end in sight.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to negotiate with resistance factions, alongside the regime’s involvement in illicit activities such as drug trafficking to support its faltering economy, further complicates the prospect of peace. United Nations-led peace efforts, including attempts to draft a new constitution, have failed to gain traction. The readmittance of Syria into the Arab League and the gradual restoration of regional ties make the prospect of ending the conflict on terms not dictated by Assad increasingly unlikely.

Today, the EU’s Syria policy continues to be guided by the Strategy on Syria, a document adopted by the Council in April 2017. Politically, this strategy underscores the EU’s stance against normalizing relations with the Syrian regime and its commitment to maintaining sanctions. On the humanitarian front, it highlights the EU’s ongoing engagement in Syria. The EU and its member states continue to be the largest donor to Syria, having contributed more than €30 billion in humanitarian and economic assistance since the war began.

The EU’s sanctions target individuals and entities linked to illicit activities and the violent repression of the Syrian people. Aimed at curtailing the regime’s financial resources and pressuring Assad to carry out political reforms, the sanctions have yet to yield the desired effects and their efficacy and impact on the Syrian population remain a topic of debate within the EU. Despite the sanctions, the EU is Syria’s biggest trade partner.

Since the war began in 2011, over 14 million Syrians have been displaced, with more than 7.2 million currently internally displaced. Neighbouring countries such as Türkiye, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt collectively host approximately 5.5 million Syrian refugees, with Germany the largest EU country of destination, accommodating over 850,000.

Now in its thirteenth year, the war in Syria has been exacerbated by economic collapse, loss of livelihoods, persistent droughts, and the devastating 2023 earthquake, which escalated the humanitarian crisis to unprecedented levels. Of 18 million people in Syria, 16.7 million are in need of humanitarian assistance; if the diaspora is included, the number exceeds 30 million. Currently, over 80% of Syrians live below the international poverty line, a significant escalation from the 10% reported before the conflict began. In 2024, significant cuts in funding by the World Food Programme have seen an 80% decrease in the number of Syrians receiving food assistance, severely affecting child nutrition and worsening the situation yet further.

Despite the ongoing humanitarian situation, several countries that host Syrian refugees and asylum seekers – including Lebanon, Denmark and Türkiye – have been attempting to return them to Syria. This is a political move that has been intensely scrutinized by civil society organizations. A February 2024 OHCHR report highlighted the suffering of returnees, whose situation ‘raises serious questions about the commitment of States to due process and non-refoulement,’ in the words of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk.

But faced with the numerous challenges in host countries, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who fled the war have returned home, despite the grim security and humanitarian situation that awaits them.

Türkiye

Hit by the same devastating earthquakes in 2023, Türkiye has been enduring a decade-long recession. Official inflation has reached almost 60%, placing the country fifth in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As the Turkish Lira crashed against the euro and dollar, critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan anticipated that economic hardships and public discontent would lead to a change of government in the presidential elections held in May 2023. Yet Erdogan secured another five-year term, continuing his two-decade rule.

The 2024 local elections painted a different picture, however, with the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), achieving significant victories in major cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, and capturing traditionally strong AKP cities along the Black Sea and Anatolia. The results instilled a renewed sense of hope and motivation among opposition supporters, who had been demoralized after years of defeat.

This development dealt a significant blow to Erdogan’s ambitions, particularly since he had hoped to reclaim control of cities less than a year after securing a third presidential term. In response, he vowed to rectify the key issues leading to his party’s electoral defeat, notably soaring inflation. In a gesture of reconciliation, Erdogan held talks with the leader of the CHP for the first time in nearly eight years, signalling a potential shift in Türkiye’s political landscape.

Erdogan’s tenure has seen dramatic shifts in Türkiye’s relationship with the EU. Initially, the country made strides toward EU candidacy, implementing key reforms and experiencing economic growth, making the country a valued partner. However, Erdogan’s second decade saw a pivot towards eastern alliances and an increase in anti-EU sentiment to bolster his popularity domestically. The EU’s latest progress report cited as barriers to progress Türkiye’s failure to uphold the rule of law, democratic values and human rights, as well as its unresolved dispute with Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Despite Erdogan’s attempts to link Türkiye’s EU process to other geopolitical issues, such as Sweden’s NATO membership, calls to end accession talks have grown inside the EU, including from countries like Austria.

However, broader geopolitical, economic and environmental changes have caused trade relations between Türkiye and the EU to deepen. Türkiye is actively enhancing its trade logistics with the EU, working to eliminate transit quotas and streamline customs procedures to lower trade costs and boost exports. These ongoing negotiations also aim to alleviate the high costs and restrictive visa conditions faced by Turkish transport drivers in the EU. Additionally, the EU’s Green Deal, which targets climate neutrality by 2050, is reshaping trade policies, impacting non-EU partners like Türkiye. The introduction of measures like the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) is pushing Türkiye to speed up its decarbonization initiatives.

The war in Ukraine has also impacted Türkiye-EU relations. Türkiye has attempted to maintain a neutral stance, with Erdogan highlighting Türkiye’s commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity while engaging diplomatically with Russia. His aim is to position Turkiye as a potential mediator, with a proposal to host peace talks between Ukraine and Russia.

Türkiye played a key role in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal brokered with the United Nations to allow grain exports from Ukraine amid the ongoing conflict. This agreement facilitated the export of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain to global markets, which had been previously blocked due to the war. Russia’s subsequent withdrawal from the agreement not only escalated tensions but also complicated Türkiye’s position, straining its relations with EU members. The EU, which has been critical of any actions perceived as undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty, viewed Türkiye’s neutral approach with scepticism.

Despite the strained relations, there is an emerging consensus between Turkey and the EU on the need to redefine the framework of their cooperation. While accession talks remain at a standstill, one area of continued collaboration is migration. In March 2016, the EU and Türkiye signed an agreement aimed at curbing ‘irregular migration’ to Europe. However, while hosting the world’s largest refugee population, Türkiye has faced criticism for forcibly relocating Syrian refugees to areas under its control in Syria, with deportations becoming a contentious issue, particularly during election periods. In March 2024, Human Rights Watch reported that ‘While Türkiye in the past maintained that all returns are voluntary, Turkish forces have, since at least 2017, arrested, detained, and summarily deported thousands of Syrian refugees, often coercing them into signing “voluntary” return forms and forcing them to cross into northern Syria.’

Egypt

Egypt’s political landscape has dramatically shifted since the Arab Spring, notably towards militarization under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who replaced the democratically elected though increasingly anti-secular Mohamed Morsi via a military coup in 2013. The recent elections in late 2023 saw Sisi’s re-election amid accusations of electoral manipulation. These upheavals have unfolded alongside severe economic challenges, such as record-high inflation in 2023, unrealistically ambitious infrastructure projects, and the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, which has plunged large sections of the population into economic distress.

Recognizing Egypt’s economic crisis and ongoing regional conflicts, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and several EU leaders visited Cairo in March 2024 to sign a Joint Declaration for an EU-Egypt Strategic Partnership. This agreement includes a €7.4 billion aid package intended to bolster Egypt’s economy and manage migration to Europe, alongside cooperation in low-carbon energy initiatives and educational, cultural, and youth exchanges.

The partnership also aims to enhance energy cooperation, with the EU increasing its gas and other energy imports from Egypt to reduce reliance on Russian gas. Egypt has also shown keen interest in enhancing its cooperation with the EU on the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) to support its green transition and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from heavy industries such as cement, aluminium and fertilizers.

A major component of this partnership involves measures to ‘manage migration’. This collaboration has sparked concerns about the treatment of migrants and refugees, of which there are approximately 480,000 in Egypt. The country’s lack of a legal framework for asylum, its reliance on an overstretched UNHCR, and growing hostility towards sub-Saharan African migrants have all contributed to an increasingly precarious situation for refugees.

The EU’s deal has been criticized for exacerbating pressures on refugees, especially those from Sudan, by increasing risks of expulsion and enhancing border security measures. Organizations like the Dutch Refugee Council have voiced concerns that EU funds might not necessarily improve conditions for refugees in Egypt, indicating that the focus may be more on curbing migration than on addressing the root causes of displacement and ensuring refugee protection.

The partnership has also drawn scrutiny for potentially strengthening a regime notorious for its suppression of civil liberties. Under Sisi’s rule, crackdowns on free speech, freedom of assembly and the press have intensified, especially during the presidential elections. Significant legal changes have been carried out that expand military jurisdiction over civilian life. The restrictive 2019 associations law and new regulations in 2024 further underline this tightening grip, significantly limiting the activities of non-governmental organizations and infringing on public freedoms.

During international events like COP27, the international community has openly criticized Egypt’s human rights record. While these global forums have sometimes compelled the Egyptian government to respond to criticism, substantial improvements remain elusive, casting doubt on Egypt’s commitments to its international partnerships.

Tunisia

Tunisia, once hailed as the beacon of the Arab Spring, faces uncertain political times with upcoming presidential elections yet to be scheduled for late 2024. Incumbent President Kais Saied is expected to run again. His tenure following his controversial power grab in July 2021 has seen the systematic dismantling of democratic institutions, steering the country towards autocracy amid increasing repression against journalists, political opponents and civil society activists.

Economically, Tunisia struggles under the weight of foreign debts and stringent IMF conditions, undermining its macroeconomic stability. Inflation rates hover around 8.3%, and unemployment stands at a stubborn 15%. Additionally, Tunisia has become a central node in the Mediterranean migration route, particularly after shifts in migration patterns post-2017 due to crackdowns in Libya. The country now serves as a primary departure point to Europe not only for Tunisian nationals but increasingly for Sub-Saharan African migrants.

In July 2023, the EU entered into a ‘migration management’ agreement with Tunisia. Spearheaded by key EU leaders, this deal promised Tunisia up to €1 billion in aid, contingent on various reforms and cooperation in border management. A pivotal €105 million was allocated specifically for enhancing Tunisia’s border control capabilities to prevent migrant crossings to Europe. However, despite the deal, departures from Tunisia to Europe have continued to increase steadily.

The deal has been extensively criticized by civil society, for various reasons. First, it coincided with increased repression within Tunisia itself, with the government accused of various human rights abuses, including against migrants. The EU’s focus on border control has been seen as complicit in these abuses, since substantial EU funding has been directed towards security forces implicated in them. This has in turn raised concerns about the EU’s commitment to human rights standards.

Relationships deteriorated further after Tunisia returned EU cash amid escalating tensions between Brussels and Tunis over the controversial migrant deal. The Commission confirmed that Tunisia had returned €60 million in September 2023. This came as a major blow to the migrant deal signed by the European Commission with Tunisia in July, which offered cash in exchange for help stemming migrant flows across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. The EU plans to provide up to €164.5 million over three years to Tunisian security forces. With a significant portion allocated to security and border management, the human rights implications remain critical.

While the EU’s engagement with Tunisia has centred on migration, its focus is also expanding towards energy diversification, particularly under the REPowerEU initiative, to transition from reliance on Russian gas and other fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources such as hydrogen. Tunisia is positioning itself as a crucial partner in this transformation, planning to initiate exports of renewable hydrogen to Europe via pipelines as early as 2030. The country aims to deliver 6 million tonnes annually by 2050, placing it alongside Morocco, Algeria and Egypt as potential key suppliers of hydrogen to the EU.

However, these ambitious plans have sparked significant controversy. Critics, notably from Corporate Europe Observatory, have called the strategy a ‘neocolonial resource grab’. They question the appropriateness of using North Africa’s limited renewable resources predominantly for Europe’s benefit. The feasibility of scaling up hydrogen production to meet these targets is also under scrutiny. Concerns have been raised about the high costs and low energy efficiency of producing hydrogen for export, which could neglect essential local environmental needs, undermining the regional sustainability agenda.

Lebanon

Lebanon has been under tremendous strain due to multiple crises. The ongoing war in neighbouring Syria since 2011 has driven approximately 1.5 million refugees into Lebanon; with a total population of 6 million, this gives the country the highest refugee per capita rate globally. This situation has been exacerbated by a devastating economic crisis that started in 2019 and was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, plunging about 80% of the Lebanese population into poverty, with 36% living below the extreme poverty line.

The crisis deepened on 4 August 2020, with the Beirut port explosion, which killed 218 people and caused extensive material damage estimated at up to $4.6 billion. The disaster impacted over half of the capital’s healthcare centres and 56% of its businesses.

Lebanon’s governance is plagued by corruption and inefficiency, ranking 149 out of 180 on Transparency International’s corruption index. Its political system, based on power-sharing among various sectarian groups, has failed to function effectively, with no budgets passed in over a decade and frequent allegations of vote buying and election interference. The ongoing political deadlock has left Lebanon without a president since late 2022 and the country currently operates under a caretaker government with limited powers.

The refugee population in Lebanon faces a dire humanitarian situation. Refugees, including approximately 815,000 individuals registered with the UN, struggle with harsh living conditions characterized by inadequate shelter, limited access to healthcare and rampant food insecurity. Overwhelmed by economic and political crises, the Lebanese government halted the registration of new refugees in 2015, complicating support efforts.

But numbers are expected to grow as more asylum seekers arrive from Palestine and other ongoing wars in the region. According to Human Rights Watch, ‘recent decisions by many EU member states to suspend funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which provides assistance to 250,000 Palestinians in Lebanon – 80% already living under the poverty line, have put even more strain on Lebanon’s refugee population.’ Lebanon also received only 27% of the required global funding for its Syrian refugee response in the previous year, significantly impacting the ability to maintain basic services for these displaced populations.

In response to these crises, the EU concluded a deal in early May 2024 to provide Lebanon with €1 billion over three years. This aid aims to stabilize the Lebanese economy and control the rising number of refugees heading to Europe. However, this agreement has raised concerns over the EU’s approach to migration management, which often prioritizes border control over human rights protections.

Human rights organizations have raised alarms about the treatment of Syrians forcibly returned to their home country. Reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Syrian Network for Human Rights detail systemic abuses by Syrian security forces and government-affiliated militias. These include arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings, often targeting individuals perceived to have affiliations with opposition groups merely because they sought refuge abroad – a clear breach of the principle of non-refoulement, a cornerstone of international law that prohibits the return of individuals to countries where they face serious threats to their lives or freedom.

Union at a crossroads

Today, the European Union is at a foreign policy crossroads. The EU’s partnerships with Mediterranean non-EU countries, while complex and multifaceted, continue to be influenced by a historical neocolonial mindset that prioritizes strategic interests over equitable partnerships. This critical juncture presents the EU with a stark choice: continue its current tactics of one-sided trade and resource extraction or shift toward genuinely cooperative relationships that respect the sovereignty and economic progression of these nations.

In the realm of migration, the EU faces a similar dilemma: either persist with border externalization strategies that often compromise human rights or adopt a more holistic approach that addresses the root causes of migration and displacement. This moment offers an opportunity for the EU to reassess and realign its policies to better uphold its self-proclaimed values of promoting peace, stability and prosperity.

However, the potential of a more rightwing parliament after the election poses a substantial risk of deepening these inequitable practices, perpetuating the legacy of exploitation in modern guises. The recent approval of the EU Migration Pact, which encourages the use of surveillance and monitoring technologies, also suggests that externalization policies will intensify, leading to a morally compromised and strategically flawed approach.



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