This is why the EU lacks a position on the Middle East crises

Qatar responded to the ultimatum imposed by other Gulf countries, as the tensions in the region keep escalating. While the US is very active, the EU seems to lack the ability to have a coherent position on these developments. Why? This report shows how key European political actors have different preferences for their coalition partners in the Middle East, which leads to the EU as a whole having an ambiguous response when these regional crises occur.

On June 5th 2017, Gulf countries cut their diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed an economic and political embargo on the country. Qatar requested an extension of the deadline to answer the demands of the ad-hoc opposing coalition. These events continue to prove the region’s dynamism and provide some evidence of the fragile balance between the different local powers. Which role is the EU playing in this key strategic area?

Although there are signals of increased foreign policy coordination of EU’s Member States, the national governments still have their own strategic alliances and priorities in this particularly troubled region. This undermines the influence of the EU as a whole, which, despite its geographical proximity, is being sidelined by powers such as Russia and the US.

By drawing on our database on the voting records of EU policymakers, we mapped the different positions of the EU Member States on the strategic alliances to be pursued in the Middle East. In particular, we will show how ideological, cultural and historical ties still shape the positions of the European political families when it comes to the relations with some of the most important players in the region: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel and Turkey. We found that the political affiliation of those who are in power at a given time impacts substantially when it comes to strengthening (or straining) relations with these countries.

Developments in international relations are traditionally seen as a game between countries. However, countries’ positions are shaped by their governments, which are made up of politicians belonging to political families. A change in the political composition of a government leads to a change in the views and positions of that country. For this reason, by mapping the views of politicians we can understand and predict the positions of the Member States and the EU as a whole. The votes in the European Parliament are a unique opportunity to conduct such mapping, since on these occasions the politicians representing all relevant parties from across the 28 EU block deliver their positions on the same matters at the same time. Moreover, unlike statements who can often be ambiguous, the votes offer us the chance to see clearly where everyone stands. This is what we learned by tracking the positions of the EU political forces.

The Conservative (ECR) and Liberal (ALDE) political families traditionally support friendlier relations with Israel, whereas they are skeptical of the ongoing rapprochement with Iran. These families are in power in countries such as the UK and the Netherlands. On the other side, left-wing parties (grouped within the S&D, Greens, GUE-NGL) are more critical of Israel’s actions and support a deeper cooperation with Tehran. The S&D family is currently junior coalition partners in Germany, and main governing force in EU countries like Italy and Romania.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the leading political force in the EU, the centre-right EPP and, to some extent, the Conservatives of ECR, are less critical of Riyadh and defend closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Europe. Finally, centrist MEPs would like to preserve cooperation with Turkey, despite the deteriorating relations with Ankara. Fringe parties on the left and the right tend to take a hard line on Turkey and advocate for loosening the ties with Erdogan’s country.

Among the findings, we spotted that Central & Eastern Europeans politicians are way less critical, compared to the Westerners, when it comes to maintaining close ties with Israel.

Saudi Arabia: a strategic ally for the EPP


Saudi Arabia has been a close ally to the Western European powers all along the 20th century. The oil-rich country is a partner on which Western countries, especially the United Kingdom and France, have been relying on in order to achieve their objectives in the region. However, this alliance is currently challenged by the public backlash against Saudi Arabia’s alleged support to Sunni fundamentalist groups, as well as the rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and other players in the region, most importantly Iran. The two countries are engaged in a proxy war, by means of exploiting the tensions between Shia and Sunni communities across the sub-continent.

Some European policymakers would like the EU to be less accommodating towards Saudi Arabia, especially when it comes to its record on human rights and support for radical movements, whereas others defend the strategic partnership with Riyadh in the region. More specifically, center-right EPP and Conservative ECR tend to be supportive of close relations with Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, the parties on the left side of the political spectrum (Social Democrats, Greens and the far left), as well as the Liberals of ALDE, would like the EU to be more critical of Riyadh’s actions in the region.

In February 2016, the European Parliament voted on an amendment calling for a weapon embargo on Saudi Arabia, after the country intervened in the Yemeni conflict bombing the positions of the Shia Houthis rebellion. In this case, the EPP and ECR did not support this proposal, in an attempt to protect the EU’s relations with Saudi Arabia. The proposal was rejected by key parties currently in government in Berlin and Warsaw: the German Christian Democratic Union (EPP) and the Polish Law and Justice (ECR).

PJvw54 Middle East votes #2{embargo} [draft3][23June2017]

Interestingly, the EPP was the only political group that did not support a resolution condemning Saudi Arabia’s corporal punishment of a dissident blogger, Raif Badawi. The EPP disagreed with some parts of the resolution, which compared the practices used by Saudi Arabia to the ones adopted by the Islamic State. Also on this occasion, most parties belonging to the EPP defended Saudi Arabia from harsh criticism, among which the French Republicans, the Polish Civic Platform and the Italian Forza Italia. However, there were some divisions within the EPP, as some parties like the Swedish Moderate Party supported the criticism against Riyadh.  On the opposite side, there were little divisions within the other political groups, which cohesively condemned the corporal punishments practiced in the Kingdom.

PJvw54 Middle East votes #1{flogging} [draft3][23June2017]


Liberal and Conservative policymakers oppose the reconciliation with Iran


Since the 1979 Iranian revolution and the country’s abrupt detachment from the West, Iran has been a sensitive topic to manage by European powers, also because of its aggressive rhetoric towards Western “imperialism” and its support for anti-Sionist forces in the region. In the late 2000s, Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s nationalist program further isolated its country from the rest of the international community. In 2013, a moderate cleric, Hassan Rouhani, became head of state and managed to conclude a nuclear deal with Western leaders despite widespread skepticism (from both sides) about its feasibility.

Although the EU previously supported Obama’s policy of rapprochement to Iran, the current Trump administration is inclined to take a less friendly position. The European governments are now in an awkward position, unsure whether they should follow the US in strengthening the relations with the historical allies in the region (such as Israel and Saudi Arabia) or pursue an independent policy aiming at warming up relations with Iran. Our voting records reveal that there are strong divisions across European political families, but also national delegations, when it comes to the path to pursue on EU’s relations with Iran.

After the conclusion of the historical deal, most EU political families groups voted in favor of a stronger partnership with Iran, except for the Conservatives and the Liberals, who voted against.

This result can also be used as a proxy to track the position of some national governments on the strategies to be adopted in the Middle East. Within ECR, the British Conservatives, which are in power in London, showed their unwillingness to get closer to Iran. On the contrary, the French Socialists as well as the Democratic Party in Italy, which were in power at the time, voted in favor of the resolution (coincidentally, Italy and France are the only EU countries visited by the Iranian President Rouhani so far).

PJvw54 Middle East votes #3 {EU-Iran relations} [draft3][23June2017]


However, criticism of the rapprochement with Iran is not only based on strategic considerations, as several critics point out at the Iranian record on human rights and treatment of political dissidents. Therefore, an amendment calling on Iran to release political prisoners raised divisions within the European Parliament, but also within the groups themselves as national parties disagreed on the attitude to adopt towards Iran. Although most of the EU parliamentarians (apart from the Conservatives, the Liberals and the far-right) rejected any criticism that might possibly harm warmer relations with Iran, the center-right EPP split along national lines when voting on this issue.

As shown in the infographic below, criticism of Iran’s records on human rights came from the Finnish National Coalition Party, the Irish party Fine Gael (in power in Helsinki and Dublin, respectively), while the Spanish People’s Party, the Hungarian Fidesz and the German Christian Democratic Union rejected it. The divisions within the groups reflect the different national positions towards Iran.

PJvw54 Middle East votes #4 {prisoners} [draft4][23June2017]

Increasing opposition to stronger EU – Turkey relations among European policymakers


Although EU-Turkey relations have been solid for several decades (Turkey is still a candidate to join to the European Union), the recent developments in Turkey and the Middle East  strained this strong partnership. Despite its traditional proximity to the Western powers (Turkey is a member of NATO), the Turkish President, Tayyp Erdogan, turned its attention to the Middle East, in a bid to increase the influence of his country on the regional stage. He has also continuously worked to strengthen his powers at home, leading to foreign criticism about the crackdown on dissidents and minorities.

Still, also in this case, EU political families look at these developments from different angles: some argue that the EU should not interfere in the internal affairs of Turkey and it should rather focus on strengthening cooperation on security, migration and economic development. Other political forces point out that the EU should stand up to Erdogan and avoid being dependent on the Turkish government to manage migration flows.

These differences are shown by a vote of the European Parliament on whether the EU should pursue a deepening of the customs union with Turkey, as well as improving freedom of movement between the two partners. The parties close to the center of the political spectrum voted in favour of closer cooperation with Turkey (Greens, the S&D, ALDE and the EPP) while fringe parties such as GUE, ECR, EFDD, and the ENF voted against. However, this vote took place before the failed coup d’état in Turkey and the deterioration in the EU relations with Erdogan. Nevertheless, more recent voting records on Turkey confirm these divisions between centrist and fringe parties, with the extremes being much more hostile to deepen cooperation with Turkey.

The fact that ECR, the most pro-free trade group EU political family, voted against deepening the custom union between Turkey and the EU is extremely interesting. Indeed, in 2013, Erdogan’s party, the AKP, decided to join the party linked to ECR and the British Conservatives had been staunch supporters of Turkey’s entry into the EU for a long time. Another vote, regarding an amendment calling on Turkey to recognize the Armenian genocide was supported by ECR even though it was massively rejected in the European Parliament. This shows that, despite the Turkish governing party’s affiliation to the ECR family, this political group is often taking a hard line when it comes to EU-Turkey relations.

PJvw54 Middle East votes #7 {customs} [draft4][23June2017]

Later on, in November 2016, the EU Parliamentarians voted in favor of the temporary freeze of the accession of Turkey to the EU (the Turkish application to the EU started officially in 2005 but the process actually started in the 1960s).

Although most of the EP backed the temporary freeze of the accession process, this issue spurred some divisions within the largest political family, the EPP. As shown in the infographic below, while Christian Democrats from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands voted in favor, the Hungarian Fidesz and the Spanish People’s Party decided to abstain. It is important to notice that Germany, the Netherlands and Austria have important Turkish communities within their countries, which has a significant impact on their political views.

PJvw54 Middle East votes #8 {freeze} [draft4][23June2017]

Central and Eastern Europeans throw their weight behind Israel


Europe has always had strong links to Tel Aviv. Since the official establishment of Israel in 1948, Western countries constantly provided their support to the Jewish state enabling it to develop its presence on the international scene. The EU is also the most important trade partner for Israel.  

However, EU’s relations with Israel have always been dogged by controversies about Israeli relations with Palestine, with part of the European public opinion being strongly critical of Israeli hostile actions against its neighbor. EU citizens are polarized on this issue, as supporters of closer relations with Israel stress the importance of the cultural and economic links between Europe and Tel Aviv.

The question of the recognition of a Palestinian state is a major stake for European foreign policy. After several Israeli–Palestinian armed conflicts throughout the 20th century, the two parties signed the Oslo agreements in 1993, beginning a process that did not lead to sustainable peace. The recognition of a Palestinian state is thus a very sensitive issue that has been subject to important divisions among the EU policy makers.

While the majority of the EU political families voted in favor of the recognition of a Palestinian Statehood, therefore endorsing a two-state solution, based on the 1967 borders, ECR voted against it and ALDE was split on the matter. Interestingly, the Bulgarian Members of the EPP opposed the recognition of the Palestinian State, differently from their political group, which was in favour. Some divisions also occurred within S&D. While the Social Democrats voted in favor of the recognition of Palestine Statehood, the Hungarian Socialist Party abstained on this issue.

PJvw54 Middle East votes #6 {Palestine} [draft4][03July2017]

National differences played an important role on another vote regarding EU-Israel relations. During the previous term, in October 2012, the European Parliament passed a resolution with the aim of removing trade barriers by recognizing the equivalency of Israeli standards for medicines to the European ones, adding a protocol to the Euromed Agreement.  

On that occasion, the issue of the equivalency split the Social Democratic Group (S&D). Remarkably, also in this case, Central and Eastern European MEPs supported warmer relations with Israel.

On the one hand, the French Socialist Party, the Italian Democratic Party, the German Social Democratic Party and the British Labour Party voted against facilitating the equivalency of standards. On the other hand, Social Democrats from CEE countries such as the Czech Social Democratic party, the Hungarian Socialist party or also the Romanian Socialist party voted in favor. This also shows the impact of public pressure on policy outcome, as anti-Sionist pressure groups tend to be stronger in Western Europe.

PJvw54 Middle East votes #5 {CAA} [draft6][03July2017]



For detailed mapping of EU Parliamentarians’ and governments’ actual positions (based on actions undertaken in the EU decision-making process, not mere statements), impact analysis of Brexit, national elections or other events on EU policies contact us at [email protected].

About us: VoteWatch Europe is the think tank most followed by the Members of the European Parliament, according to an independent study. Our reports are also quoted frequently by European and international institutions and the world-wide media.