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6th Jun 2020

Pandemic 'shock' could destabilise Middle East, EU fears

  • EU ministers to discuss potential Israeli annexation of West Bank lands (Photo: breakingthesilence.org.il)

The economic "shock" of the pandemic could aggravate crises on Europe's southern fringe, EU diplomats fear, amid other concerns on Israeli annexation.

"From a political perspective, the impact of the pandemic may exacerbate the many existing crises affecting the [Middle East and North Africa] region," the EU foreign service said in an internal report on 8 May, seen by EUobserver.

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  • EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

"The pandemic can only worsen things in the protracted Libya crisis", it said.

The Syria war "may also see another wave of refugees towards Europe", it noted. "The tragedy of the conflict only deteriorates in Yemen," it added.

Other countries in the region also risked instability due to the "triple parallel shock on [falling] revenues, from oil, tourism, and remittances", the EU report warned.

"All this may result in increased risk of social upheavals, jeopardising security and stability in the region" and create "tensions between secularists and Islamists," it said.

"The plummeting oil price will have huge impact in Algeria," it noted.

"Iraq, due to the combination of political instability, insecurity, and low oil prices stands out as a country the EU should focus its attention on," it said.

And Lebanon was on the edge, due to "growing popular discontent for months" there, it added.

"Overall, the sanitary impact of the coronavirus pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa ... region has been more limited than originally feared due to early precautionary measures," the EU report said, on a positive note.

"But it [the virus situation] may change", the report cautioned.

The three-page paper was circulated ahead of an EU foreign ministers' videoconference on Friday (15 May).

It said little on the Arab-Israeli conflict, except: "Despite strong and noticeable cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian health authorities, the Israeli occupation obviously remains a main theme."

But foreign ministers will also discuss how to react if Israel annexes Jewish settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank, as its new government has pledged to.

The Israeli move could bury the UN and EU-backed two-state solution to the conflict and prompt Palestinian unrest.

"Annexation is contrary to international law and if Israel goes ahead, the EU will react accordingly," EU foreign service spokesman Peter Stano said on Monday.

He declined to speculate on the nature of the reaction before EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell had spoken with ministers.

And member states are divided on Israel, with Hungary, for instance, often vetoing Israeli-critical EU statements.

But Borrell's predecessor in the post, Federica Mogherini, in the past listed potential sanctions to stop Israel gobbling up Palestinian land, giving an insight into EU options.

Borrell's options

The leaked Mogherini list, from 2014, included "recalling ambassadors" and "reassessing distribution of funds" to Israel.

It spoke of "actions [sanctions] vis-a-vis EU companies operating in [Israeli] settlements" and "actions vis-a-vis settlers", including EU visa bans for "violent settlers".

And it mentioned "actions reinforcing Palestinian statehood", including "support, or non-opposition, to [Palestinian] applications to international organisations; recognition."

The ministers will also discuss the wider regional issues on Friday, Stano said.

"The EU has engaged in a campaign to counter disinformation about a narrative of a self-centred and dysfunctional Europe, mostly originating outside of the region and spreading ... particularly in the Gulf," the internal EU paper from 8 May noted, highlighting another problem.

The EU already has four civilian missions in the area: one in Libya, two in Israel/Palestine, and one in Iraq.

And ministers might discuss sending more EU-hatted security experts to the region in the future, the EU report indicated.

"A further reflection could be conducted on the possible role of [EU] civilian missions in strengthening regional cooperation," it said.

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