An expert's point of view on a current event.

Europe Isn’t Realistic. It’s Weak.

The EU has committed to outsourcing its dirty work to authoritarians in the Middle East and Africa—and to confusing dependence for maturity.

By , a professor of history and director of the European Institute at Columbia University, as well as a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte and Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel at the EU-League of Arab States summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on Feb. 24, 2019. (Laurie Dieffembacq/AFP/Getty Images)
Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte and Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel at the EU-League of Arab States summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on Feb. 24, 2019. (Laurie Dieffembacq/AFP/Getty Images)

In Europe’s relations with its Arab neighbors and former colonial possessions, it is not just fraught history that is at stake. The unprecedented summit between the Arab League and the European Union in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Feb. 24 and 25 was a clash of political regimes. The EU prides itself on a values-based foreign policy that affirms democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Of the 30 Arab states it met in Egypt, only Tunisia comes close to meeting those criteria.

In the end, 20 European heads of government, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, attended, but only after two particular pariahs, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had agreed to stay away. That may have spared the Europeans’ blushes, but it only had the effect of highlighting the incongruity of the EU readily accepting the hospitality of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Sisi is a former general who overthrew the duly elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood in the summer of 2013, at the cost of many hundreds of lives. Since then, he has ruled with an iron fist, imprisoning dozens of journalists and jailing, according to Human Rights Watch, upward of 60,000 of his political opponents. Only last month, nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood were put to death. The overthrow of the democratically elected government put in place by the revolution of 2011 was initially justified as transitional. Sisi’s supporters are now pushing to entrench the general’s grip on power until 2034.

Sisi at least puts on the veneer of a modern international statesman. The Saudis do not even bother. King Salman stumbled embarrassingly through his summit speech before departing the scene. To show others the respect of listening to their opinion was beneath his royal dignity, or perhaps simply beyond the octogenarian’s strength.

Europe has become accustomed to portraying its sacrifices of human rights as the necessary wages of diplomacy in an anarchic world. That is self-flattering—but also self-deceiving. The real question is why Europe feels it is so essential to cultivate government-to-government relations with such authoritarian regimes.

The basic rationale for a meeting with the Arab League is that Europe must talk with its neighbors. That is hard to deny. Not much other than talk was achieved in Sharm el-Sheikh. But this is not without its effects. Sisi craves legitimacy. The EU confers it by accepting his invitation. It also provides Sisi with a platform for grandstanding. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, ended the meeting at an awkward press conference in which Sisi wrapped his authoritarian regime in the banner of cultural nationalism. “You are not going to teach us about humanity,” Sisi declared to rapturous applause from ranks of loyal Egyptian journalists. Europeans and Arabs, he insisted, had a different “sense of humanity, values, and ethics … Respect our values and ethics as we do yours.”

If it stands by its principles, the EU cannot in fact accept such a refusal of the universal value of human rights, certainly not from someone of Sisi’s dubious legitimacy. What independent polling we have suggests that a large part of Egyptian public opinion in fact objects to the violence of his regime.

The EU’s connivance was, one forthright former senior diplomat acknowledged, an exercise in a new “realism.” As usual, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was eager to grasp the nettle. It was time, he declared, for Europe to accept that “power” is not a dirty word. And as usual, he was ready with a folksy crack: “Sometimes you have to dance with whoever’s on the dance floor,” he said in a speech in Switzerland prior to the Egypt summit.

But does that in fact make sense? What kind of powers is it that the Europeans are dancing with? Why does Europe need to dance at all?

For sure, Sisi’s grip on power seems firm for now. It is certainly brutal. But does his regime offer Egyptians a positive long-run perspective? That is far less obvious, and as Egypt’s main trading partner, Europe actually has a say in the matter. Currently its trade share is 30 percent. It could be far larger. In courting Sisi, has the EU already forgotten the embarrassment of its dalliance with Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi or Egypt’s own Hosni Mubarak, who were dropped with alacrity when the Arab Spring began in 2011?

Apart from mere fact of geography, what obliges the EU to do deal with such rulers? The reference to “realism” is telltale. All too often, by suggesting the tragic necessity of dirty hands, such talk serves to foreclose questions of the “why” and the “wherefore.”

What forces the EU to seek a constructive dialogue with the Arab League is its failure to address the problem of migration at home in Europe. The Arab League is not only a source of refugees, asylum-seekers, and economic migrants, but it is also the barrier between Europe and the tens of millions in the Sahel and sub-Saharan African region who may wish to migrate north.

It is clear that the only constructive solution to this problem in the long run is peace; reconstruction in Libya, Syria, and Iraq; and economic development for the entire region. Under German inspiration, Europe has been pushing an ambitious development agenda for Africa. This is the right approach. But the scale of the problem is daunting. The sums of money being talked about are hopelessly inadequate. Even if the funds can be raised, no one has yet figured out how to make such large-scale infrastructure projects work. The whole world is currently taking potshots at China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And as Germany’s finance minister was recently brave enough to admit, in the short run, economic development may in fact make people more, not less, likely to migrate.

There is, in short, no realistic scenario in which Europe does not end up receiving a large flow of migrants from its southern neighbors. Furthermore, given its demographics, a case can easily be made that Europe needs them. But what makes this so pressing is how ill-prepared Europe has proved itself to be to handle the flow.

As the ongoing refugee crisis of recent years has revealed, Europe lacks an adequately funded and equipped coast guard. It lacks centrally funded processing centers capable of dealing in a civilized and efficient form with substantial migration flows. It lacks an equitable and rational formula for distributing migrants across the EU. And it has been slow and ineffective in productively integrating migrants into the European workforce, mapping out paths to full citizenship, and constructing a positive image of the Eurafrican future.

All of this not only will, but should cost serious money. If anything is worth investing in, this is. The EU is stunted by the absurd limit on its budget of no more than 1 percent of GDP. Far from being a bureaucratic monster, it is the opposite. And it is hobbled by the political dead end of the Dublin formula, which allows more northerly European states to indulge in the absurd fantasy that Mediterranean refugees are the exclusive problem of the frontline states: Greece, Italy, and Spain.

It is this European incapacity that forces Europe into an uncomfortable reliance on its authoritarian southern neighbors to contain and house the migrant and refugee flows. This first became evident in 2016 in the bargain struck by Merkel with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The EU would pay for Turkey to accept refugees returned from Europe. Other deals have followed with Libya. In Sharm el-Sheikh the question was never far from the surface.

In the short term, given how slowly the EU moves, such deals are an uncomfortable necessity. But to dress this up as realism is eyewash. Realist theorists assume that states have security anxieties and direct their policies accordingly. It is that concerted pursuit of security that generates insecurity for their neighbors. The result is the tragic security dilemma, a world of antagonism and rivalry in which the defense of security may require hard-nosed and, if necessary, unscrupulous policies.

But this is not the EU’s problem in relation to Sisi’s regime in Egypt, unless desperate migrants are to be treated as equivalent to a hostile state against which one must seek allies, however odious. The problem of migration ought to be what the philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls a problem of global domestic policy. It is the EU’s internal incoherence and inconsistencies that lead it to outsource the dirtiest work to its more hard-nosed neighbors. If rather than invoking Arab values as an excuse for the judicial murder of his political opponents Sisi had hurled the EU’s hypocrisy in its face, he would have had right on his side.

Talk of realism all too easily becomes an excuse for failing to explore options and avenues for action. It is one thing to be realistic about needing to work with China on climate change. There is no alternative. It is a different matter altogether to insist that you have to deal with Sisi and his ilk because Europe cannot deal with the migration problem. That is Europe’s choice. It is not realism so much as a humiliating failure of democratic governance.

Adam Tooze is a history professor and director of the European Institute at Columbia University. His latest book is Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, and he is currently working on a history of the climate crisis. Twitter: @adam_tooze