On May 25-26, voters throughout the European Union’s 28 member states elected the new European Parliament. The elections will determine the bloc’s direction in the next five years and the leadership of the Commission, Council, External Action Service and the Parliament. These decisions will impact the way the EU’s external relations will shape, including with the countries of the Middle East.
Contrary to the fears of many and hopes of some, the nationalist-populist “tsunami” that was supposed to shake the foundations of the EU never materialized. Although far right parties performed strongly in some countries, particularly the United Kingdom, Hungary, Poland, Italy, and France, their overall result fell far short of conferring upon them any real influence on decision-making. Their internal contradictions and competing national agendas mean that they will be dispersed across four political groups in the European Parliament. This is a far cry from the nationalist super-group once envisaged by transatlantic alt-right guru Steve Bannon.
Instead, voters entrusted the future of Europe to mainstream, pro-European parties. What happened was a rebalancing of power within this pro-European camp. The two big-tent forces that dominated EU politics for decades—the center-right conservatives of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left social-democrats (S&D)—have lost, for the first time, their combined majority. At the same time, the elections saw big gains for centrist liberals and environment-minded Greens. So, the balance of power among pro-Europeans shifted to the left, at least on civil liberties and climate policy, if not yet on economic issues. This opens intriguing possibilities for progressives to reverse the long years of conservative dominance of EU institutions.
The outcome of the elections is bad news for Israel’s right-wing coalition, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. With the Trump administration embracing unreservedly the Israeli-Saudi-Emirati agenda on issues like Israel-Palestine, Iran, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood, the EU was seen by these actors as an irritating outlier refusing to toe the line. The results of the elections suggest that the EU, embodied by the next high representative for foreign policy, will continue pursuing engagement with Iran. It will also keep opposing the effective burial of the two-state solution on Israel-Palestine, the isolation of Qatar, and terrorist designation of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This means that the Saudi-UAE strategy of befriending Euroskeptic and far-right forces backfired. Indeed, the voting record in the outgoing parliament suggests that these forces were among their staunchest allies, opposing resolutions condemning human rights violations in both countries (plus Bahrain) and demands to introduce arms embargoes against both Saudi Arabia and UAE for their role in the war in Yemen. The common cause Riyadh and Abu Dhabi made with these groups was based on their shared dislike of the EU as a collective body based on liberal values; a strong preference for transactional, bilateral state-to-state relations; and a hostility both to human rights and, in particular, to any manifestations of political Islam. Yet, given their result in the EP elections, investment in these forces has proved to be a failure.
The positions of Saudi Arabia and UAE were further undermined by the abysmal performance of the British Conservative Party, traditionally their chief supporters in the European Parliament. The Tories went from 19 MEPs down to 4. Accordingly, their political group—European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)—was downgraded from being the third largest in the chamber with 75 MEPs to being fifth with 63. The influence of the conservative British MEPs ensured that the ECR was arguably the most pro-Gulf group in the EP, opposing (with few exceptions) resolutions condemning human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, and even holding a bureau meeting in Bahrain in 2018.
These setbacks do not necessarily mean that the Saudis and Emiratis won’t be able to find new allies. French President Emmanuel Macron’s party will be the biggest national delegation within the liberal bloc. Given France’s close geopolitical alignment with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in, for example, Libya, it remains to be seen whether members of Macron’s party in the EP will follow the traditionally critical liberal line, or will try to nudge their bloc more in the direction of Paris’ policies. Should the latter proves to be the case, the UAE would benefit from it more than Saudi Arabia, since its image is less toxic in Europe. There is also a peculiarly French understanding of secularism that makes Emirati hostility to political Islam a good sell in France across the political spectrum. The strong presence of the Greens, however, will pressure liberals and socialists not to stray away from an intense focus on human rights in the Gulf.
The real challenge for the next five years is to translate the parliament’s positions into meaningful policy changes in the EU. Although the “sovereignists” from the extreme right failed in their bid to renationalize the EU, foreign and security policy remain the almost exclusive preserve of the nation-states. That certainly is the case when it comes to the Middle East. For example, parliament’s insistent calls on member states to respect their own commonly agreed rules and stop selling arms and technology that can be used for domestic repression to authoritarian regimes in the Gulf and Middle East were ignored by the EEAS and the national governments. National military industries seem to be driving the Middle East policies of some EU members, thus undermining the EU’s collective credibility as an honest broker in regional conflicts.
Either the next five years will see a real consolidation of a common EU foreign and security policy, or it will go nowhere. At least, the fact that the Europeans participated in the European Parliament elections in record numbers—over 50 percent—and voted overwhelmingly for pro-EU parties, gives some hope that they will also demand “more Europe” in foreign policy.