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Unmasked Potential? Crisis, Cooperation, and European Foreign Policy Independence

The outbreak of COVID-19 has added fuel to the prevalent criticism of the European Union’s ability for streamlined and organised responses to crisis situations. While the criticism is certainly warranted, Brussels’ recent activation of the “INSTEX” trade mechanism as a means to deliver aid to Iran has unmasked the potential of an independent EU policy towards Tehran
June 2, 2020
By : Julian Vierlinger

A spectre is haunting Europe. Since the WHO has declared the continent to be the active centre of the coronavirus disease in the ides of March, European diplomatic efforts seem to have been reduced to a painful haggling on the trade-off between the permeability of internal borders, and the shape of infection curves. It appears as if flattening the curve would necessitate the re-erection of national borders – as the freedom of movement that flat borders meant to ensure has come to be understood as the prime cause for spikes in infection rates. By the same token have national governments each devised their own policy responses, leading to a complex patchwork of measures with varying degrees of severity, and various outcomes – at any rate, at this day and time, “success” in dealing with the outbreak is uneasy to measure, as its effects go far beyond mere infection curves and ICU saturation rates. In the midst of it all stands Brussels who urges for unity in facing the pandemic – but so far it seems as if European unity has fallen victim to the political nationalisation of a crisis whose effects are elusive and unpredictable. In a way, it appears as if the fundamental dogma of affronting COVID-19 is penetrating inner-European politics: safety has become a function of distance. Naturally, it is too early for conclusions of any kind. As Germany and France have mounted an initiative aimed at finding a European approach to a looming economic crisis of epic proportions, hope remains that at least in the realm of financial obligations, unity will persist over factionalization.


To the outside, the continent has cocooned in: “Fortress Europe” has closed its gates and equipped the sentries with facemasks. While far from resolved, the “refugee crisis” appears to be old news – even if, at the nexus of COVID -19 and migration, things look rather uncomforting While much of the MENA region is battling another phase of political instability – with Israel gearing up to annex the West Bank; with Syrian alliances shifting; with Yemen in full humanitarian emergency; with Iraq and Lebanon in the streets; and with Libya’s conflict flaring up intensively – European foreign policy in the region appears more dormant than ever. The virus has certainly not caused the ongoing regional shakedown, but it has led to a European retreat from the field. Yet, there is one lonely axis which precisely due to COVID -19 has gone through a process of revitalisation: the Tehran connection.


In March, a handful of European countries have finalised a first transaction over the controversial INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) mechanism, a tool devised to allow for non-dollar denominated trade in order to circumvent US sanctions on Iran. While originally thought up during the European effort of upholding the remainders of the “Iran Deal” in opposition to Trump’s tactics of scorched earth, the mechanism had never been used since its inception in 2019 due to American pressure. Yet, with the outbreak of the pandemic – which almost immediately brought the Islamic Republic’s health sector to its knees – the instrument allowed for a smooth framework to export much needed medical equipment to Iran. As such, INSTEX finally made its maiden voyage with humanitarian (as opposed to purely commercial) colours, perhaps serving as a rare example of an EU commitment to core values in foreign policy in times of unprecedented crisis.


Apart from the commendable humanitarian dimension, the episode unmasked an even more fundamental potential for EU foreign policy: the ability to deal with Iran on non-American terms, especially in times of crisis, when – as recent history shows – Brussels more often than not fell in line behind Washington. In a time where diplomatic fallouts with the latter (and beyond) often translate to embargoes on medical equipment and furious talk of trade-wars, the bold move to circumnavigate sanctions serves as proof for a realpolitik ability to engage into an independent foreign policy, with independent goals, over independent channels. Certainly, this first transaction is but a beginning – but a promising beginning nonetheless. It is doubtlessly high time for Brussels to approach Tehran on European terms; and if this be the silver lining of Europe’s Corona-cocoon, so be it.


In all cases, this is not to say that the Brussels’ policies towards Tehran should be in diametric opposition to Washington’s. On May 16th, an Iranian court sentenced Fariba Abdelkha, an anthropologist teaching and researching at Sciences Po Paris to six years in prison based on charges of (amongst others) “conspiring against national security”. If humanitarian values are what inspired the activation of INSTEX, those very same commitments should serve as motivation to mobilise all diplomatic measures possible to free Fariba. Research is not a crime, and free speech is a universal human right.

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