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The EU must help Iraq

Article by Richard Youngs

September 15, 2006

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European qualms are understandable. But the EU could now implement a number of programmes that would make a significant contribution to improving the security situation in Iraq and creating the building blocks of democracy. Laying the foundations for a deeper European engagement in Iraq need not compromise sincerely-held convictions about the wrongs of the invasion. The Iraqi people need help to build a peaceful, prosperous and open society – it must not continue to get caught in the cross-fire of transatlantic politics.

As yet Iraq has received no convincing answer as to how it can guarantee security and build viable and democratic political institutions from the international actors best equipped to help – its Middle Eastern neighbours and regional players. Nothing more was agreed at the regional conference at Sharm el-Sheikh this week than a vague expression of support for Iraqi elections, optimistically scheduled for January 30th 2005. The EU, with its expertise in post-conflict reconstruction and strong track record in dialogue with local groups, is now the most important organisation for Iraq. And the prospects for a constructive EU plan are more favourable than previously. In June 2004, the EU agreed a common strategy paper promising consideration of further cooperation. To create a serious partnership for democracy with Iraq, it must now take this forward with concrete proposals for assistance.

The EU must first of all recognize that it can no longer legitimately criticize the US for neglecting human rights issues and focusing overwhelmingly on infrastructure and security forces training, without contributing itself to democratisation. With the notable exception of Germany, European members outside the US-led coalition have so far declined to offer any significant amount of development assistance to Iraq. This has been a source of bitter disappointment to many fledgling grassroots groups eager for non-US funding. For 2004-5, out of a total Commission commitment of 200 million euros, only 10 million euros was set aside for the construction of new democratic institutions in Iraq.

The second step is to recognize that Europe can make a unique and vital contribution to reconstruction that the US cannot provide. The US has for instance been attacked for imposing overly harsh neo-conservative market solutions on Iraq, and for focusing on high-visibility, “white elephant” projects devoid of relevance to the daily concerns of ordinary Iraqis. The EU has been particularly successful in other post-conflict zones in creating efficient economic structures at the local level and inclusive “social market” reforms, principles that could usefully be applied to Iraq.

Well-developed regional partnerships are another asset that the US cannot claim to share, and where a European contribution would have real added value. Despite the disappointing outcome of Sharm el-Sheikh, the EU should use its leverage with other Middle Eastern states to push them into more constructive partnership with the new Iraqi government. The EU has signed a trade agreement with Syria; it should use dialogue with Damascus – which Washington lacks – to push for a commitment from Bashar Assad to clamp down on the recruitment of jihad fighters from Syria. Europe must inscribe Iraq into its region-wide strategy on democracy, creating partnerships stretching across the region.

The third step is to outline concrete recommendations for European action that would make the best use of EU expertise with local groups at the sub-national level. Improving the physical security of Iraqis is the first priority. So far European nations have only trained hundreds of police officers instead of the necessary thousands. Just a fraction of the 100,000-strong security force needed in Iraq is properly equipped, and the resources allocated to this must be dramatically increased. Europe could also make a vital contribution by agreeing to train Iraqi border guards to stop the passage of foreign fighters into the country. More generally, Europeans could place greater emphasis on the democratic control of Iraqi security forces, something that is not far enough up the list of US priorities.

The disarmament of local insurgents is a major security issue that will become increasingly important as and when rebel groups choose to buy into the democratic process. European nations – including Germany – have a good record from Kosovo and Bosnia in running social, political and economic reintegration programmes for insurgents. This should be put to immediate use in Iraq, where weapons ownership among the population is rife and initiatives such as cash-for-guns sorely missing.

Non-coalition European states have also blocked proposals to make money from the EU’s large MEDA funds quickly available for Iraq. While a massive diversion of aid from other recipient countries is undesirable, there is scope for including Iraq in some of the softer social and cultural EuroMed programmes, which would be relatively low cost and symbolically important.

On the political level finally, the international media has focused on the importance of national elections. But building legitimacy through local structures is just as important – and is a longstanding European specialty. Here a more coordinated EU effort could build on the British approach in Southern Iraq of fostering citizens’ participation in local institutions. This assistance could give Iraqi citizens the perception of participation in the decisions affecting their daily lives – something they are unlikely to get from amorphous national coalition that is likely to emerge from January’s elections.

European opponents of the war have attacked the US for favouring former exiles and allowing Iraq to drift towards religious-sectarian politics. But they themselves have done nothing to help foster secular and ethnically diverse grassroots parties. The EU must move to support the development of a dense web of national institutions, such as professional associations, chambers of commerce and universities. If power is to be dispersed from US-backed former exiles, the 100-plus political parties that have emerged must be helped to develop coherent manifestos and effective election strategies.

The challenge lies in formulating a united European strategy that can reconcile the bitter differences over the invasion. Some European leaders apparently still feel that scoring political points over Iraq is more important than helping it – as the last-minute cancellation of the Iraqi president’s talks with French ministers in Paris appeared to confirm. Conversely, European supporters of the war have been insensitive to the depth of moral and political opposition to the war among other nations, which make them reluctant to contribute without qualification to the reconstruction process. But when Iraqi democrats came looking for European support during the 1990s they were rebuffed – broad strategic calculations were deemed more important than fostering Iraqi democracy. To repeat this oversight today would represent a mistake of historical magnitude.

Dr Richard Youngs is Senior Researcher at the Fundácion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE), Madrid, and Senior Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Centre. “Europe and Iraq: From Stand-Off to Engagement” is published by the Foreign Policy Centre,

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