European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell gives a press conference following a EU Foreign Affairs ministers meeting on the situation in Lybia and Iran at the EU headquarters in Brussels on February 7, 2020.

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Leading European figures call for stepped-up European de-escalation efforts in the Middle East, following a series of attacks in Iraq that have culminated in the killing of  Major General Qassem Suleimani and missile attacks against US airbases.

Today, the award-winning foreign policy think-tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), published a statement calling on European governments to step up pro-active efforts aimed at de-escalating tensions in the Middle East.

Signed by leading figures of the European political sphere – including the former Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt; the former French ambassador to the  US, Jean-David Levitte; recent UK Foreign Office minister, Alistair Burt ; and the ex-secretary general at NATO, Javier Solana –  the statement notes that the Middle East is facing a moment of acute peril, with core European interests related to regional stability, ISIS and the preservation of the Iranian nuclear deal directly at risk.

It argues that Europeans cannot afford to be bystanders in unfolding developments.

As European foreign ministers prepare to meet in Brussels, on Friday, they must urgently chart a more active path, adopting tangible measures that help de-escalate tensions before it is too late.

The statement suggests that the immediate measures should include:

  • Urgently positioning European states as active mediators to de-escalate tensions. Close ongoing dialogue with the US government, as well as an invitation from Josep Borrell to Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif to visit Brussels, should represent elements of an energetic, high-level diplomatic effort to press both sides to avoid further escalation, including pressing Tehran to immediately restrain its response.
  • EU member states should find arrangements with the Iraqi government to maintain elements of the European counter-ISIS presence in Iraq. Despite heightened security concerns, demonstrated by the recent Iranian missile attacks, Europeans should explore means of providing some ongoing support for this important mission. In parallel, a rapid joint visit to Baghdad by Borrell and a number of Europeans foreign ministers – as well as the appointment of an empowered EU special envoy for ongoing anti-ISIS efforts - should be used to operationalise an ongoing European role.
  • The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HRVP) should convene a Joint Commission meeting at foreign ministerial level to contain a nuclear proliferation crisis, which remains at the heart of European regional engagement. While Iran has ceased to comply with the JCPOA, it has stressed that its steps are reversible if existing parties can provide it with economic relief.
  • With the UAE and Saudi Arabia now calling for de-escalation, European governments should coordinate their approaches with these key regional states, especially in terms of pressing Washington to genuinely invest in a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but also to protect narrow recent diplomatic openings in Yemen.

Commenting on the issuing of this statement, and the situation in the Middle East, ECFR’s Iran expert, Ellie Geranmayeh, said: “Focus should be fixed on avoiding a wider military conflict between Iran and the United States – an outcome neither side appears to want despite the current escalatory cycle – and creating space to protect accompanying European interests”.

With the clock ticking, these steps could still make a difference. Europe cannot afford to absorb the inevitable costs of more conflict in the Middle East. It is time for a pro-active European stance to protect European  interests.

Signatories of the statement are Carl Bildt, Emma Bonino, Alistair Burt, Wolfgang Ischinger, Jean-David Levitte, Andrzej Olechowski and Javier Solana. The statement was initiated by ECFR’s MENA programme.

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) is a pan-European think-tank that aims to conduct independent research in pursuit of a coherent, effective, and values-based European foreign policy. With a network of offices in seven European capitals, over 60 staff from more than 25 different countries and a team of associated researchers in the EU 28 member states, ECFR is uniquely placed to provide pan-European perspectives on the biggest strategic challenges and choices confronting Europeans today. ECFR is an independent charity and funded from a variety of sources.