How the EU’s principled pragmatism sows strife in the Middle East

By trading values for stability the EU is actually creating instability, and countless casualties like Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi Protest London - Reuters
People protest against the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey outside the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in London, Britain, October 26 2018 [Simon Dawson/Reuters]

When Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, credible reports began almost immediately to emerge that he was murdered inside. Silence was the initial EU response to the crime, carried out within the borders of a NATO ally, on a ground reserved for diplomatic and consular services, in violation of the 1963 Vienna Convention. It took a full two weeks before the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini emerged to say that the EU “expects” Saudi authorities to conduct a “full investigation”. She added that the EU “expects and hopes” that the answer will be found with full transparency and clarity.

In a G7 statement on October 17, Mogherini also stated that she looked forward to the Saudi authorities carrying out a “thorough, credible, transparent, and prompt investigation”. Three days later, on October 20 the EU reaffirmed the same message entrusting the perpetrator of the murder, the autocratic authorities in Saudi Arabia, to investigate its own crime. By definition, the outcome of such an investigation cannot be credible or transparent, as demonstrated by the string of blatant lies released by Saudi Authorities the moment of Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance.

The European Union prides itself on its democratic credentials, its support for human rights and its contribution to a rules-based international system. The murder of Khashoggi represents one of the most egregious violations of those principles, in the most visible way possible. Further, intelligence and circumstantial evidence confirm that the decision to target Khashoggi was taken at a high level, involving Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and close members of his inner circle.

The EU’s response to those violations was slow and limited. Indeed this feeble response can be seen as part of the policy of “principled pragmatism” the EU officially adopted in 2016. That policy allows the EU to set aside its more “tender-minded” liberal values and give primacy to tough-minded “realist” interests in realms of security, economy and migration.

After the 2011 Arab revolts the EU became very concerned with stability in its so-called “southern neighbourhood“, a region predominantly made up of Arab countries. Such stabilisation was wrapped into the language of security and made possible by the logic of principled pragmatism. Values like human rights and democracy were demoted, while cooperation with repressive and autocratic regimes was elevated. Meanwhile, democratic elections in Arab countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia) had been won with a plurality of votes by Islam-oriented parties that the EU has historically viewed as a threat. Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes in the region also perceived the rise of these political forces, as well as liberal democracy, as an existential threat. They saw their grip on power and other privileges at risk. Thus, the EU quickly allied itself with the most conservative and extreme governments in the Middle East to combat the rise of democracy and liberal values. 

Khashoggi’s murder came on the heels of the “principled” pragmatic shift in EU foreign policy towards the Middle East. This shift has sanctioned unabashed cooperation with autocratic regimes as “partners” to safeguard stability and curb migration. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is an important trading partner and a close ally of the United States. The US is the EU’s most important trading partner and military ally and heads the NATO military alliance central to EU defence policy. The result is that immediate stability, security, alliances and economic interests weigh more in the calculus of the EU’s principled pragmatism than liberal values. The result is that when the EU considers brazen human rights abuses like Khashoggi’s murder, for practising a fundamental right to express his views and an assault on norms in international relations, Mogherini can offer only a feeble response that no perpetrator will feel threatened by. 

The EU stands with Washington

Mogherini’s office has confirmed that the EU stands with the US on Khashoggi’s gruesome murder. However, this begs a question that Mogherini likely does not want to answer: which US is the EU standing with?

The Trump Administration is by no means a champion of human rights or freedom of expression. Rather, it prefers to maintain a strong relationship with the current Saudi government led by MBS. Trump has shown no hesitation to accept any Saudi cover story, no matter how bald the lie.

Meanwhile, the American public, media and Congress have a completely different view than the Trump Administration. Some have even called for an arms sale boycott, while others have called openly for Saudi Arabia to pick a new leader. 

The stakes are high for Europe. Khashoggi laid out the stakes in his final column published posthumously by The Washington Post. In it, he described how assaults on freedom of expression and the press in the Arab world, “no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence. As a result, Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate.”

The consequences are broad. The security cooperation and repression of the peoples of the Arab countries may create a false, short-term sense of stability for European policymakers. This will come also with the sweetener of advantageous trading opportunities, like arms deals with repressive regimes. Such an arrangement covers up the realities of deeper, simmering social malaise in the region, and may achieve at best a short-term sense of security. 

Longer-term, that policy approach can be expected to contribute to bigger crises as the underlying social issues get worse before boiling over again across the region. When that crisis comes, the EU will have lost serious credibility in its foreign policy posturing, as its policy of principled pragmatism will have come at the expense of the people living in the region. That will weaken or completely discredit part of the EU foreign policy toolbox to deal with those crises and engage in normal relations with the region.

Meanwhile, principled pragmatism reveals the consequences of an international system run without rules, which are always constructed around values. For repressive regimes like the one that carried out the murder of Khashoggi, principled pragmatism offers an open license for reckless and aggressive actions, both at home and abroad. With this license and silence, the region and the world have been subjected to the ISIL-inspired macabre which Khashoggi endured, the war on Yemen threatening 13 million people with starvation, the large-scale imprisonment and torture of critics and human right activists, the kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister and the imposition of a blockade on Qatar (which was nearly an invasion) threatening its sovereignty.

Trading values for stability is not only morally bankrupt but also self-defeating. Those values were developed not just out of idealistic tender-mindedness, but for lasting stability that can endure systemic shocks. A security-centric approach built around support for murderous autocrats only covers over deeper problems in a young region aspiring for the freedoms they see in the West. Stability based purely on repression is not just wrong, but incredibly ephemeral, ready to collapse into chaos at a moment’s notice. In this way, the EU’s policy of “principled pragmatism” contributes both to the erosion of the liberal values the EU defines itself by and the incredible instability we are now seeing in Middle East and global affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.