28th Sep 2023


The EU and Iraq: starting to find a strategy?

For the last five years, the European Union has not had a coherent Iraq policy – hardly surprising, given the divisions of 2003. What about the next decade?

Last week, Iraq's defence minister told the New York Times that his government could not take full responsibility for national security until 2018. Even that may be optimistic. He was speaking primarily for an American audience – but the EU should take note of his projections, and start putting together a team to think through what it can achieve in Iraq in the medium to long term.

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Unfortunately, international policymakers aren't inclined to take a decade–long view of Iraq's future. The US administration is congratulating itself on the short–term stability brought by its surge of troops – and that is a genuine achievement, but the Democrats most likely to take over in Washington next year are still all talking about military withdrawals.

For most of those EU governments that sent forces to back up the US, it is all over already. Virtually all have brought their soldiers home – those that still have significant numbers of personnel out there, like Poland and the UK, are in the middle of packing up.

The EU has thrown money at Iraq, or at least made lots of pledges of aid – $3.5 billion since 2003, $1 billion of it from the Commission. But in common with all funders, it has huge difficulties turning pledges into hard cash. On some estimates, for every $10 of direct aid promised, $1 or less has been disbursed. And the EU's financial commitment shouldn't be overestimated – it's still only two–thirds of that offered by Japan. Many members opposed to the 2003 war have never really engaged in funding: Germany has pledged less than the Czech Republic, and France has kept out of it almost entirely.

There seems to be little real European desire to engage in the next phase in Iraq's story. A proposal floated by Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt to appoint an EU Special Representative for the country failed to win consensus among member states.

Strategic consequences

That may have been a significant mistake. You can pull out of Iraq, but you can't make the problem go away. Unless the international community can find a medium–term strategy to build on the relative calm brought by the surge, Iraq will deteriorate back into violence before long, destabilizing the Middle East. The strategic consequences for Europe would be gigantic. Endemic instability in Iraq would reduce the chances of a diplomatic settlement with Iran, and cause Turkey to worry even more about Kurdish separatism than it does already - and concomitantly less about the domestic reform processes bringing it closer to the EU.

Efforts to create an effective EU energy security policy would be severely complicated by questions over the future of Middle Eastern oil supplies. The growing European investment in state–building in Lebanon and Palestine would be at the mercy of regional forces. And while it's hard to predict the implications for terrorism in Europe, it's also rather hard to ignore them.

So like it or not, the EU can't keep on muddling through without an Iraq policy. But, politicians and officials may reasonably respond, there is little point in attempting to formulate a plan until the next US administration is in place. But rather than passively wait to see who'll be driving Middle East policy in the Washington in 2009, EU governments should use the next twelve months as an opportunity to iron out their differences and develop new options on Iraq.

Whoever enters the White House next year, the incoming administration will probably make charting a new course on Iraq the central priority for their first hundred days. If the EU is still trying to work out where it stands at that stage, it will find it's irrelevant soon enough. If it has a package of ideas about what it can contribute – even if it is relatively limited – its initiative is likely to be welcomed, getting relations with the new administration off to a good start.

EU Options Team

To start outlining what such a package should look like, European governments should now agree to put their differences to one side, and appoint a senior political figure (or maybe two, one originally against the war, one for it) to lead a small "EU Options Team": a brains–trust of European officials and experts on Iraq, tasked with laying out a menu of potential plans for coordinated EU policies from 2009 on.

To ensure that these aren't just abstract term papers, the Team should have a cell based in Iraq – in part modelled on the EU police and civilian planning teams that have been developing policy in Kosovo since 2006. And to give the Team a sense of immediate relevance, its political chief(s) should also be directly involved in trying to sort out the dysfunctions of EU aid to Iraq.

There might be lessons to learn from Tony Blair's post–retirement work on Palestine – the former UK Prime Minister has used personal diplomacy to unblock international funds for the Occupied Territories in recent months, in spite of claims he would be unwelcome in the Middle East. Mr. Blair is probably not the man to take up the Iraq file anew, an EU–backed Envoy for Iraqi Aid could score similar short–term successes.

What longer–term suggestions might emerge from an EU Options Team? They are unlikely to be military – or at least not primarily so. There is a good case for thinking how international peacekeepers could mentor and train Iraqi forces between now and 2018, especially if the US pulls back from even this limited role. NATO already has a small training operation in place, which might be basis for future European involvement.

But the case for that involvement will only make sense if it is tied to effective political mediation and aid programs. The UN will be important to these. Last year, the Security Council authorized an expansion of the UN's mission in Iraq, which had been kept very small since it came under attack in 2003. The enlarged mission is not closely involved in politics yet – staffers have been concentrating on non–political but urgent issues like preventing a cholera outbreak in Baghdad. But after the US elections – especially if they deliver a Democratic victory – a more significant hand–off to the UN might begin.

On its own, the UN does not have the resources to handle the challenges lying ahead in Iraq. It is here that the EU may find its role: providing civilian expertise, and better–targeted funds to support a joint strategy with the UN, the US and the Iraqis themselves. There is no reason to assume that building this strategy will be easy – or to be sure that it will work. But it will be better than not having a strategy at all.

The author is a UN policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (, and a Research Associate at New York University (


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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