European ‘Middle Powers’ and the Middle East in the age of Trump and Brexit

This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy

The two seismic shocks of world politics in 2016– Britain’s narrow vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s bitterly-contested election as 45th President of the United States– have triggered contrasting and somewhat contradicting responses by European ‘middle powers’ toward regional policies in the Middle East. Even as the future of Britain’s relationship with the European Union has been plunged into uncertainty amid rounds of acrimonious negotiations over the precise form ‘Brexit’ will take, British, French, and German leaders have worked more closely together on issues such as the Iran nuclear agreement, the war in Yemen, and the response to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Policy responses have, to an extent, been conditioned by recognition of a shared commonality in regionwide interests in the face of the unpredictability of the Trump administration’s approach to regional and international affairs. What remains to be seen is whether the ‘E3’ troika of Britain, France, and Germany evolves into a more substantive coordination of regional policies or if the endemic bilateralism in European-Middle East relations continues to predominate in matters of trade, investment, and arms sales.

A strong streak of bilateralism has consistently run through relations between European states and their counterparts in the Middle East and North Africa. Multilateral initiatives such as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (the ‘Barcelona process’), the European Neighborhood Policy have struggled to generate political momentum that extends beyond the technocratic and policymaking enclaves of their origin. In the security sphere, a broadly similar fate befell both the Mediterranean Dialogue (launched in 1994) and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (2004), attempts by NATO to operationalize closer cooperation with states in North Africa and the Levant and in the Gulf respectively. A persistent point of friction was the fact that political and business leaders continued to prioritize national over European interests, a case in point being when Angela Merkel visited the Gulf in early-2007, ostensibly representing the EU through the rotating six-month presidency of the European Council held at the time by Germany, but used the visit to make the case for German trade, investment, and energy with Gulf States.[i]

After the Brexit vote in June 2016 it appeared initially that the British government intended to focus on securing a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a way of illustrating that Britain remained ‘open for business’ despite the uncertainty surrounding its future status outside the EU. British officials met with their GCC counterparts as early as July 2016 to begin preparatory work on FTA negotiations that would, it was hoped, provide meaning and depth to Theresa May’s vision of a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain.’ Five months later, May was the external guest of honor at the GCC’s annual summit in Bahrain, during which she told her hosts emphatically, “Gulf security is our security. I want to assure you that I am clear-eyed about the threat that Iran poses to the Gulf and to the wider Middle East.” However, the hoped-for quick movement toward a UK-GCC trade deal foundered in 2017 when the boycott of Qatar by three other GCC states (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain) fractured the organization and left it little more than a shell that existed more on paper than in practice.

Although Theresa May hurried to Washington, DC, to become the first foreign leader to visit President Trump after his inauguration in January 2017, any sense of optimism that the responsibilities of office would temper the president’s mercurial instincts dissipated almost immediately with the chaotic (and questionable constitutionality) of the ‘travel ban’ rollout later that same day.[ii] Over the course of the following months, the conflicting, and frequently contradictory, signals emanating from the White House and the broader Trump administration appeared to draw London, Paris, and Berlin closer together in defense of common interests in specific areas such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA0 with Iran, to which Britain, France, and Germany are all signatories. Coordinated E3 action to ‘save’ the Iran nuclear deal accelerated in October 2017 after President Trump declared his intent to not recertify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA and take steps to withdraw the United States from the agreement. In response, May, Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron issued a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to the JCPOA and its implementation as a matter of ‘shared national security interest.’[iii]

The October 2017 joint statement on Iran proved to be the first of many as British, French, and German leaders rallied together to seek, in vain, to prevent President Trump from withdrawing the United States from the Iran deal in May 2018. Further joint statements followed, in April 2018 reiterating their support for the JCPOA ahead of President Trump’s decision on whether to pull the US out of the JCPOA,[iv] on May 8, 2018, regretting the US withdrawal within hours of it being announced,[v] and in November 2018, this time signed by the three countries’ foreign and finance ministers and issued in conjunction with Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, regretting the US decision to re-impose sanctions in Iran and restating, again, their belief that the JCPOA ‘is a key element of the global non-proliferation architecture and multilateral diplomacy.’[vi]

In recent months the trilateral cooperation over Iran appears to have broadened to encompass other regional issues and, again, seems to have been triggered by a mutual concern for President Trump’s apparent disregard for key aspects of the international rules-based order. Following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, the British, French, and German foreign ministers called for a ‘comprehensive, transparent, and credible’ process of investigation and accountability and pointedly expressed the need for the relationship with Saudi Arabia to rest on joint commitments under international law.[vii] Also in October 2018, the E3 joined with other current and former European Union members of the United Nations Security Council to issue an ‘E8’ joint statement in support of the UN Special Envoy to Syria’s efforts to resume the UN-led political process in Geneva and achieve a sustainable solution to end the nearly eight-year long war.[viii]

The reference to a common E8 position on Syria reflects the sometimes-overlapping clustering of policymaking authority within the EU that overlies existing tensions between the prioritization of individual states’ own conceptions of national interest in maintaining separate bilateral relationships. In addition to the E3 and the E8, an ‘E4’ grouping (adding Italy to the E3 of France, Germany, and the UK) emerged in early-2018 and conducted three rounds of political consultations on regional issues with Iran in February, May, and September.[ix] Somewhat confusingly, the EU, through its European External Action Service, also held a broadly synchronous series of meetings in 2018 with officials from Iran’s Foreign Ministry as part of an EU-Iran High Political Dialogue that focused on a wide array of bilateral and regional issues, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Afghanistan.[x]

A common challenge for the ‘middle powers’ in Europe, which they share with others such as Canada, has been one of balancing political, economic, and strategic partnerships in Middle Eastern states with human rights considerations at a time when the Trump administration’s cavalier approach to the international system appears to have emboldened leaders in several regional states, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to become rather more aggressive in their own regional and foreign policy stances. London has, for decades, been a center for Arab opposition figures and exiles and as a result has come under pressure from both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in the 1990s and since 2012 respectively.[xi] Since 2016, Saudi leadership under the assertive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has flexed its muscles against Sweden, Germany, and Canada over human rights criticism, while the UAE has launched informal boycotts of business with European states that have suspended arms sales out of concern they would be used in Yemen.[xii]

And yet, the extent of coordination among ‘middle powers’ is likely to be limited by practical issues of national consideration that move beyond rhetorical statements of commitment to multilateral agreements and international frameworks and norms. None of the European states that placed partial blocks on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and/or the UAE – Finland, Germany, Norway, Spain, and the Flanders region of Belgium – appear to have done so in coordination with each other.[xiii] Neither the UK nor French governments signaled any intent to take similar measures, which would add significant weight to the other European moves as they would come from the second- and third-largest arms exporters to Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, French policy under President Macron has focused on retaining a working relationship with Mohammed bin Salman even after the political fallout from Khashoggi’s murder, suggesting that the above-mentioned joint commitment to seeking a full and impartial investigation is more rhetorical in the French case than it might be for the German and British co-signatories.[xiv]

European states continue therefore to struggle with the balancing act of working together to augment and magnify their geopolitical strength while maintaining their own robust sets of national and regional interests. This has long been a source of ‘comparative advantage’ to partners in the Gulf, which have been known to play European states against each other to maximize political leverage and commercial terms in trade or investment deals; a recent example being in 2012 and 2013, when the British government under David Cameron lobbied intensively to secure a multi-billion-dollar contract for BAE Systems to sell 60 Typhoon fighter jets to the UAE against perceived French competition for the rival Rafale. Dozens of ministerial visits to the UAE and UK support for Dubai’s bid for the World Expo 2020, trips to Abu Dhabi by Cameron and senior members of the British royal family, a state visit to the UK accorded to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and a decision to grant Emiratis visa-waiver access to the United Kingdom were all insufficient, however, to win the contract at a time of relative tension in UK-UAE ties over the British government’s perceived (in Abu Dhabi) softness toward the Muslim Brotherhood.[xv]

While the dilemma facing European governments between acting in the national or EU interest may never be resolved, expect in the British case post-Brexit, the trend for European states to coordinate policy responses to White House decisions is becoming clearer. As the Trump presidency moves into the second half of its (first) term, the set of core assumptions that have underpinned the transatlantic alliance for seven decades continue to be questioned as never before. While this process has unfolded at a time the EU is itself reeling from a decade of Eurozone crises and Britain’s impending withdrawal, the inclusion of Britain in the joint statements with France and Germany suggests that officials in all three capitals, especially London, are exploring new ways to work together and safeguard common interests, and that the Middle East, in part because of the White House’s unilateral and unpredictable approach to the region, is a test of the European capacity to counter Trump’s actions in the remainder of his presidency.


[i] Abdulla Baaboud and Geoffrey Edwards, ‘Reinforcing Ambivalence: The Interaction of Gulf States and the European Union,’ European Foreign Affairs Review, No.12, 2007, p.549.

[ii] ‘May Tells Ministers to Raise Travel Ban With their US Counterparts,’ The Guardian, January 29, 2017.

[iii] ‘Declaration by the Heads of State and Government of France, Germany and the United Kingdom,’ Foreign and Commonwealth Office, October 13, 2017.

[iv] ‘Britain, France and Germany Agree on Support for Iran Nuclear Deal,’ Reuters, April 29, 2018.

[v] ‘UK, France, and Germany Issue Joint Statement Attacking Trump’s Withdrawal from Iran Nuclear Deal,’ The Independent, May 8, 2018.

[vi] ‘Joint Statement by France, the UK and Germany on the Iran Nuclear Deal,’ France Diplomatie, November 2, 2018.

[vii] ‘Joint Statement by the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and the United Kingdom on Jamal Khashoggi’s Death,’ France Diplomatie, October 21, 2018.

[viii] ‘EU8 Members of the UN Security Council Joint Statement on Syria,’ Foreign and Commonwealth Office, October 17, 2018.

[ix] ‘EU/E4 Political Consultations on Regional Issues with Iran,’ European External Action Service, September 12, 2018.

[x] ‘EU and Iran Hold High Level Political Dialogue,’ European External Action Service, November 27, 2018.

[xi] ‘Britain, Facing Setback in Court, Won’t Deport Saudi Dissident,’ New York Times, April 19, 1996; ‘UAE Anger at Britain Hits Business,’ Financial Times, October 23, 2012.

[xii] ‘Clash between Saudi Arabia and Sweden Escalates as Ambassador is Withdrawn,’ The Guardian, March 11, 2015; ‘Saudi Arabia Blocks Some German Business Over Rift,’ March 15, 2018; ‘US Refuses to Back Canada in Saudi Arabia Dispute,’ The Globe and Mail, August 7, 2018; ‘Norway Suspends Arms Exports to UAE amid Yemen Conflict,’ Associated Press, January 3, 2018.

[xiii] ‘Why More and More Countries are Blocking Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE,’ Forbes, September 7, 2018.

[xiv] ‘Macron to Meet MBS Despite Khashoggi Uproar,’ France24, November 29, 2018.

[xv] ‘UK’s Typhoon Deal Evaporates,’ Gulf States Newsletter, Volume 36 Issue 961, January 9, 2014, p.12.