Monday Commentary: It's time to talk!
13 January 2020

Recent events in the Middle East are the latest flare-up in an arc of crisis around Europe. The EU needs to push ahead with a structured dialogue to explore solutions, argues Dennis Sammut in this week's Monday Commentary.

The events in the Middle East in the first days of the year have shaken the world. The threat of another big war focused minds on the importance of dialogue and diplomacy. The downing of a civilian aircraft by Iran as the crisis unfolded may have been a mistake, but it reminded everyone that civilian collateral damage is a regular feature of conflict and crisis.

Yet somehow, in these January days, the tools available to the world community to avert war appeared shockingly inappropriate. In this, the latest crisis is far from being a unique event.

Around the European Union a string conflicts and crisis - some full blown, others simmering, rage in an arc violence stretching from the Sahel Region of western Africa to the Black Sea. Yet the European Union appears impotent in its ability to deal with these crisis, let alone prevent them.

It is not through lack of ambition. Federica Morgerini's Global Strategy of the EU, published with much fanfare in 2016, spoke about a proactive approach. The new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen last October referred to her Commission being a geo-strategic Commission.

These feelings were echoed this week by the new President of the European Council, Charles Michel. On Saturday, Michel was in Istanbul where he met with Turkish president Recip Tayip Erdogan. It appears that Michel will lead in the EU engagement with Turkey going forward. This is a hugely important brief. "Both presidents agreed to establish direct contact on a regular basis and whenever events dictate, in order to improve the relationship, in the interest of both parties", a statement issued at the end of the meeting said.

On Libya and Syria, Turkey and Russia appeared , on the outside at least, to be doing all the running; whilst the EU appeared to be catching up. Michel, like Morgherini has the ambition for things to be different. At the height of the crisis in the Middle East last week, Michel tweeted

"We should not only observe what the others will decide for us. I want Europe to be part of the game and to be able to promote and defend its own interests".

But how does Europe propose to do that?

The cumbersome decision-making process and the petulance of the member states is sometimes infuriating. France's recent black balling of North Macedonia's membership perspective is a case in point. Yet, on many things consensus can be found and even a fudge can have enough substance to make it interesting.

A second problem is the reflex mode on which the EU operates. This is completely dominated by process, Here the problem is not the member states, but the bureaucracy of the European Commission and the European External Action Service. It is a reflex that glorifies process over results.

Thirdly, for outsiders, EU foreign policy often appears to be crisis driven. Faced with Agamemnon the EU sometimes moves with lightning speed. When the threat does not appear to be imminent a lethargy sets in, which for outsiders appears scandalous.

None of these problems are going to go away soon, but there are ways of working around them. The heightened threat perception, the advent of a new leadership team for the Brussels institutions, and, yes this one too, Donald Trump, appears to be creating a momentum for something new and a different approach.

The EU, apart from its failings has considerable strengths, even after the loss of Britain.  It is a global economic power; has in the past made good use of its soft power; has global diplomatic reach; and has within its think tanks and universities an unmatched level of knowledge and expertise. It is good at negotiating complex agreements, and has the patience and stamina for that - something which a number of countries lack. Some of the member states have global status, others have invaluable regional knowledge. Playing on these strengths it is time for the EU to launch a major diplomatic initiative that addresses both the immediate challenges in its neighbourhood, but with a view to achieving long term solutions rather than quick fixes. The emphasis must be on the neighbourhood - Eastern Europe, the MENA region and the Sahel

There has been talk in the past of a CSCE 2 - a continent wide security conference to start addressing some of the problems of today. The Russians like the idea, but their shenanigans in Ukraine has been a major obstacle. The Russians have also been muting an idea for a Gulf regional security conference to stabilise the region. So far no one else has agreed.

Is it time for the EU to come up with its own initiative for a structured dialogue, perhaps merging the two ideas?

The time may not yet be right for a top down approach with a lot of fanfare. Instead the EU should work with other regional organisations, such as the OSCE, the Arab League, the African Union and others to convene ad hoc regional security tables to start exploring the issues and parameters. Initially these can be at Ambassador or Foreign Ministry Political Director level, but once some progress is made Ministers can also be involved. In parallel informal dialogues involving experts, think tanks and academics can be given a bit more space to think outside the box and explore more difficult issues.

These regional tables need not be launched simultaneously, but circumstances permitting. However the objective should be to have around ten of these going within a 2-3 year period covering all the main hot spots, from Libya to the Horn of Africa, from the Caucasus to the Gulf, and to have a process that is as inclusive as possible. Once progress is achieved in enough areas, the idea of a major conference to bring it all together and formalise decisions can be considered. This can open the way for the sort of game changing agreement as the Helsinki Final Act was in 1975. Remember that process lasted nearly fifteen years, but in the end was well worth it.

Ofcourse it is easy to see that these ideas can be quickly dismissed as talking shops. However given the amount of weapons shops around, a few talking shops are not only acceptable, they are even necessary.

source: source: Monday Commentary is prepared by Dennis Sammut, a member of the editorial team of


photo: European Council president, Charles Michel meeting Turkish president Recip Tayip Erdogan in Istanbul on 11 January 2020. (Picture courtesy of the twitter feed of @CharlesMichel

The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of or its partners