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Nathalie Tocci is director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, Europe’s futures fellow at IWM, Vienna, and a board member of ENI. Her new book, “A Green and Global Europe,” is now out with Polity.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European foreign policy has hardly been idle.
Over the last year, the European Union has passed unprecedented sanctions, revived enlargement, offered refugees protection, approved billions in financial and military assistance, and — linked to the latter — mobilized the European Peace Facility as an EU defense procurement platform in the making. And its diplomatic efforts have revolved around the war too, whether by strengthening transatlantic ties, nudging China and reaching out to the “Global South.”
As such, it would be unfair to criticize the bloc for inaction. And understandably, this action has focused on the most devastating war on the Continent since World War II. But this doesn’t mean that other corners of Europe’s neighborhood are stable or unworthy of attention — and a potentially explosive mix is brewing in the south.
In the EU’s lifetime, North Africa and the Middle East have never really been on track to achieve peace, prosperity and democracy. War, authoritarianism, human rights abuses, terrorism and socioeconomic injustice have been the norm for decades. Yet, there are even more turbulent times ahead — and Europe should be paying much more heed.
Since the Arab uprisings, authoritarianism and repression have re-entrenched, and civil wars — though waning — have given way not to reconciliation but structural violence, while the risk of nuclear proliferation, considering the stalled Iran nuclear deal, has never been higher.
In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has tightened its grip on power, nauseatingly using the tragedy of the earthquake to do so. In Libya, the U.N.-backed fact-finding mission reported a sharp deterioration in human rights, with war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by parties including armed militias, state security forces and the Libyan Coast Guard — embarrassingly supported by the EU.
At the same time, across North Africa and the Sahel, Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group represents a gathering threat.
Moreover, the two lone cases of democracy — albeit imperfect — are now both joining the crowded club of authoritarian states too.
Tunisia, which was the last-standing survivor of the Arab Spring, turned back to authoritarianism in 2021, when President Kais Saied suspended and then dissolved parliament. Ever since then, rather than concentrating on lifting his country from the dire economic predicament it was in, Saied has directed all his energy toward concentrating power in his own hands, while cracking down on political dissent, civil society, judicial independence and media freedom.
And as Saied’s popularity plummets, with public disaffection growing, economic growth and employment languishing, food shortages and inflation increasing, and the president refusing to sign off on a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout loan, Tunisia is now on the brink of political and economic collapse.
Israel, meanwhile, long championed as the “only democracy in the Middle East,” now risks “normalizing” its presence in the region not just by establishing diplomatic ties with the Arab world but by becoming more like it.
Were the separation of powers and checks and balances in Israel to be compromised as a result of the judicial reforms currently proposed by the government, the country would simply cease being a liberal democracy. And while the relentless protests that touched all corners of Jewish Israeli life signal the vibrancy of its society, they don’t guarantee the reforms will be shelved — nor did they remotely touch upon the escalating conflict with Palestinians.
In fact, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the threat to Israeli democracy are two sides of the same coin.
The proliferation of settler violence, the growing threats of population transfers, the accelerated moves to revoke the citizenship and residency rights of Palestinians, the calls by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to erase the town of Huwara, the creation of a national guard under National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the recent raid by the Israeli police on al-Aqsa Mosque that triggered a cycle of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Lebanon, are all connected to the proposed judicial reforms.
The Israeli Supreme Court has never halted, let alone reversed, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, it has, however, slowed it down on several occasions. And this — alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial travails and the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community’s military duties — is precisely why the government wants to curb the court’s power. Meaning, the same motivation to accelerate the de facto annexation of the occupied territory is what lies behind the renewed escalation of the conflict.
All these developments are being observed by European leaders, with some — like EU High Representative Josep Borrell and Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni — furiously ringing alarm bells, most notably regarding Tunisia.
However, effective European action is paralyzed by an old divide donned in new clothing, as east and north European countries are exclusively focused on Ukraine and its ramifications, while southern countries are looking south — but in the wrong way.
Italy, for instance, seeks to shift the European spotlight onto Tunisia, but it’s doing so by arguing that Brussels and the IMF should set aside reform requirements and channel funds there regardless.
The reason for this is clear: Alongside the increasingly strategic role played by the Trans-Mediterranean Pipeline transporting Algerian gas to Italy via Tunisia, Rome is terrified that Saied’s fall could open the floodgates to new waves of migrants. And it’s a tragic irony that it’s precisely Saied who has embraced a North African variant of the “great replacement” theory, pushing African migrants out, including north toward Europe.
While the United States is becoming increasingly aware of the region’s plight, it is Europe that actually has the capability to contribute to reform and reconciliation, especially in North Africa. But in doing so, it must keep the funds flowing while becoming increasingly vocal about the growing repression and violence, investing in communication to counter disinformation, as well as — and this is the hardest nut for Europe to crack — summoning the capability and courage to provide a meaningful security presence in the region.