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Happy new year to you and yours from all of us at Sine Qua Non. As January unravels and crises compound, we have asked the members of our Research Committee to answer three questions about what to expect this year: Who to watch, where to watch, and what to watch out for. At the end of the year, we will come back to our predictions and assess how they held up. Happy reading!

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January 31, 2021

By : Sine Qua Non Research Committee


Antoine Michon


Whom to watch this year when it comes to MENA/EU dynamics and why

Once again, I will be looking very closely at Benjamin Netanyahu this year. After the collapse of his coalition (on his own doing), he is going to face another difficult election in March, when he will do everything in his power to win and thus avoid facing the three separate trials he has coming up. Meanwhile, PA President Mahmoud Abbas also signed a decree announcing that legislative and presidential elections in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip will be held, as well as elections for the Palestinian National Council (legislative body of the PLO). The Israeli Prime Minister holds most of the keys to the conducting of these elections, as refusing to have Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem could be the end of this whisper of a democratic process. So many questions remain unanswered, but should these three free and fair elections take place (which I highly doubt will happen), they would be a historic moment for the Palestinian people, who did not take part in any national election since the year 2006.

Where to watch this year and why

Europeans should be watching Iran closely in 2021. The Presidential elections, to be held in June, and the campaign that precedes them will largely determine the future of several dossiers in the region. Current ‘moderate’ President Hassan Rohani is in a bad position in opinion polls, and his defeat would considerably endanger progress made during the last months in Yemen and compromise the US’ reintegration to the Vienna Accords (the ’Iran Nuclear deal) as well as any future negotiation pertaining to Iran’s regional policy, specifically in Syria and in Lebanon.

A general development you think we will see.

Apathy in EU Foreign policy. Call me a pessimist, but I really doubt the same level of efforts we saw in 2020 on reinforcing European strategic autonomy will be deployed in 2021. Despite the numerous warnings I fear that the inauguration of Joe Biden as US President will bring a feeling of “back to normal”, and discourage the most skittish countries to advance on the path of true European sovereignty in foreign affairs.

Antoine’s Twitter is @AntoineMichon2.

Viola Scordia

Vice President and Research Coordinator

Whom and where to watch this year when it comes to MENA/EU dynamics, and why

Call me obsessed but once again I’ll point in the Commission’s direction and in particular in that of two Commissioners who should be currently conducting an in-depth reflection and through consultations on the future of EU-MENA relations. These two men are HRVP Josep Borrell and Commissioner for the Neighborhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi who are working on the drafting of a joint Communication on a renewed partnership for the Southern Neighbourhood that is expected for the first trimester of 2021. The document, announced on the 25th anniversary of the Barcelona Declaration which started the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership in 1995, is presented as the opportunity to reflect on and review the Union’s strategic objectives and engagement priorities in the region. As stated by Várhelyi himself, the objective is to “creatively develop our priorities and match them with the tools that can make a difference on the ground to promote prosperity and stability on both sides of the Mediterranean in our mutual interest”

A general development you think we will see.

Not to switch topics, I believe that a general development we should observe, once the strategy will be out, will be exactly what Commissioner Várhelyi defined as matching priorities with the existing tools. As such, we all should pay close attention to how the Communication’s ambitions will be translated into country-specific action plans and programming priorities under the new instrument for the Union’s external cooperation, the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI). Yet, if the ambitions the EU has set for itself are evident, as is the opportunity to overturn a stagnating relationship, I wouldn’t be so confident in buying into such a promise. Building an ambitious partnership in the Mediterranean, as HRVP described it, requires going well beyond the mere development-cooperation approach which should be one chapter in the broader reflection on the Union’s role in the Mediterranean.

Find Viola on LinkedIn.

Julian Vierlinger

Research Fellow

Whom to watch this year when it comes to MENA/EU dynamics and why

I believe that this year we should keep a close eye on the civil societies of the Arab countries – specifically Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt. In the former two, activists are slowly finding back to the momentum gained in October 2019, when citizens across sectarian and class divisions united to demand an end to the divisive politics of clientelism and patronage. These popular mobilizations had been abruptly halted by the Coronavirus pandemic; but it did not take long until these populations realized that their governments’ lamentable handling of the crisis stands in a strong relationship with precisely the type of corruption that pulled them into the streets in the first place. The populations of Tunisia and Egypt, in turn, will “celebrate” the 10-year anniversary of the Arab Spring this year. Tunisians are already in the street, decrying the widespread corruption that seems to have replaced Ben Ali’s repression. I believe that the Egyptians will follow them soon. Exogenous shocks – pandemics, wars, and the like – render dysfunctional regimes acutely vulnerable as populations realize they are “all in this together”. This pandemic is far from over, but its side-effects have left the lower classes of these countries effectively between a rock and a hard place: disease or economic demise. The toxic mix of COVID-19, informal labour markets and the absence of viable welfare policies is, a year onwards, taking a dramatic toll. As some Lebanese protesters in the Beqaa valley were shouting a few months ago: “we’ll starve before we suffocate”.

Where to watch this year and why

The Mediterranean! Or rather, the conceptual space between Europe and the MENA region. Will the EU keep up their policy of supporting undemocratic regimes, or will it re-ignite its commitment to democracy in the region? Or, in other words: will the EU look to the future, or remain once again stuck in an equilibrium of reaction, of crisis containment, and continue on its spiral of losing credibility? As we saw in 2020, the European voices demanding from Brussels to tackle the salient issue of democratic backsliding in the Eastern half are growing louder and louder. By now, Brussels should have learnt that the single market is no guarantee for the democratic moral order. This internal realization should be mirrored in EU external action. I will, however, make no predictions here.

A general development you think we will see.

The global pandemic has pretty much left no room in the headlines for EU foreign policy. But this will change soon enough. Once it does, I believe that the EU will have to start explaining how it’s possible that the world’s currently deadliest war, Yemen, is fought with European weaponry; how it is possible that its member states are engaging into strange forms of proto-proxy wars in the Mediterranean’s largest failed state, Libya; and how it is possible that the world’s richest economies leave children to be eaten by rats on the islands of the cradle of democracy. Post-pandemic, the EU will have a hard awakening, that is for sure. From there, two developments are possible: either it starts rebuilding its identity on its foundational principles, and grows a little more courageous in defending them – inside and outside alike; or otherwise, we’ll see the project in serious trouble. Once again, I make no predictions, but I will repeat myself: Exogenous shocks – pandemics, wars, and the like – render dysfunctional regimes acutely vulnerable. Without a thorough commitment to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, the EU is little more than a customs union on steroids.

Julian’s Twitter is @VierlingerJ.

Berke Alikasifoglu

Director of Communications and Research Fellow

Whom and where to watch when it comes to MENA/EU dynamics, and why.

I may be biased here a little, but I will have to say Turkey. A fervent believer in Turkey’s role as a key partner to the EU, I have been misled, discouraged, and at times even been repulsed by the missed opportunities from both sides. Now after a tumultuous year, January 2021 brought many positive news from that front. The week of Jan 18 came with multiple positive developments with Turkish diplomatic brass willing to engage in talks with Greece and France while FM Çavuşoğlu is expected to go to Brussels. Turkish President Erdogan also said that the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council Chief Charles Michel will be hosted in Turkey towards the end of January. Longtime followers of Turkey-EU relations would be wary of jumping the gun and celebrating an EU-Turkey friendship just yet. For nearly over three decades, every good news seems to be accompanied by a myriad of bureaucratic and political issues, issues that end up creating more rift than anything between two parties. RT Erdogan is known for his sudden rapprochement moves towards Europe when things go south back home, and Turkey is indeed in the middle of a mismanaged economic crisis on top of the global health crisis. Without being too optimistic, I will surely follow EU-Turkey relations even closer during 2021. Furthermore, we also hope to mobilise SQN’s researcher network to work more on the subject in the upcoming year, starting with a 5-year review of the migrant deal between the EU and Turkey, to be published soon.

A general development you think we will see.

Rise of disinformation. Europe is not privy to this phenomenon, even though it is often dismissed as a North American issue. Disinformation is a global issue that Europe needs to address in a unified manner. I expect more studies conducted by and for the EU in that regard. The European External Action Service has already been doing a good job with EU vs Disinfo, I recommend that all our readers regularly check the website our for the most recent disinformation campaigns the EU faces.

Berke tweets at @BAlikasifoglu.

Shanti Walde

Research Fellow

Whom to watch this year when it comes to MENA/EU dynamics and why

In light of the recently published proposition for a new EU Counter-Terrorism Agenda, including the draft for a renewed Europol mandate – this time I will pick the Commission. The agenda had initially been announced for late summer 2021 but was published in advance, in reaction to the recent terrorist attacks and the growing national security-demands that followed. Besides addressing de-radicalization both on- and offline, the Commission’s focus is clear: anticipatory risk assessment, early detection capabilities, (smart) border control, and the interoperability of EU information systems. This agenda brings the EU one step closer to more security integration, which is of course a desirable direction to take. At the same time, it raises substantial concerns over the protection of fundamental rights, data-privacy and non-discrimination both within the EU as well as on its external borders. It will thus be crucial to monitor the actual implementation of this proposal and see whether it will manage to walk the fine line between growing security-integration, national interests, and the protection of fundamental rights.

Where to watch this year and why

Clearly the EU’s external borders! What is happening there is beyond acceptable. It is unsettling to see that four months after the Moria camp has gone up in flames, nothing changed, and European governments are still abdicating from their moral and legal responsibilities. Recurring reports of violent, illegal pushbacks in the Western Balkans and the Mediterranean Sea further aggravate the picture. It is time for European governments to open their eyes, acknowledge what a place of suffering our borders have become and start finding viable, long-term solutions. And no, the Commission’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum has not provided viable and long-term solutions.

A general development you think we will see.

I really hope that we will see growing demands for a feminist European foreign policy. In November the European Parliament has set an important precedent. It adopted a report calling upon the Commission, the EEAS, and the EU Member States to incorporate a feminist approach to the design of the European foreign and security architecture. While the non-binding nature of the report limits its legislative impact, for now, it is first and foremost the symbolic dimension that matters. The EP has sent a signal, if and what action will follow, we will have to see over the upcoming months and years.

Shanti’s Twitter is @shanti_walde.


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