Brexit and the Middle East
Dmitry MININ | 18.07.2016 | WORLD / Europe, Middle East

Brexit and the Middle East

The fallout from the referendum over Great Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is reverberating throughout the world. Because the outcome of the British vote was so affected by the wave of Middle Eastern refugees that flooded across Europe, the Brexit repercussions have even impacted the Middle East, a very sensitive region. Everything in the world is interconnected: first the US and its European allies destabilized the Middle East, then migrants from the Middle East poured into Europe and provided a second wind to the centrifugal forces at work within the European Union. And people in the Middle East are again racking their brains over what new trials might await them now that the Brits have taken their public stand.

Israel, for example, has officially expressed regret over David Cameron’s decision to step down. They note that Cameron represented the faction within the British government that actively opposed any attempts to delegitimize Israel through the BDS campaign (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). In addition, Cameron has repeatedly criticized any attempts by British academics to ignore scholars from Israel. From this perspective, the Jewish state would much prefer that the UK remain one of the EU’s most prominent members and influence the decisions of the European Union from within.

The Israelis can see for themselves the negative economic impact of Great Britain’s pullout from the EU. Israel is not an EU member, but enjoys a special associated status thanks to a series of trade agreements. The European Union represents Israel’s biggest sales market, and Great Britain is Tel Aviv’s top EU customer. Trade between Israel and the EU totaled $34 billion just last year alone, and the UK was responsible for $5.8 billion of that. Clearly a new model for the partnership between the EU and its neighbors will need to be drafted and many standards and tariffs reviewed. That process could apply to the entire Mediterranean region, including the Middle East. Israel will have to put in a lot of work to make sure that the parameters of this new partnership are satisfactory.

That country’s liberal wing, such as the newspaper Haaretz, are anxious that the British referendum could embolden fundamentalist and nationalist sentiments within Israel itself, since the same tensions that led to the split between the UK and the EU can also be found there. As Haaretz writes, the racism and xenophobia of the European far right must still grapple with «a strong bulwark of liberal ideology and humanism», but «those ramparts are being rapidly destroyed» in Israel. Unlike Great Britain, Israel needs support from the West, without which it cannot survive or defend itself against international sanctions.

Many analysts believe that the new, post-Brexit crisis in Europe is very likely to sap the ability and eagerness of EU member states to become involved in Middle Eastern issues, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Those analysts think that such a turn of events is probably to Israel’s benefit, because if Europeans are preoccupied with their own affairs, they might temporarily waive both their demands for concessions to the Palestinians as well as the implementation of some well-known international resolutions. It is also possible that since Great Britain has become more independent in international affairs, it might aspire to full-fledged membership in the Middle East Quartet. That would turn that diplomatic foursome into a quintet of international mediators, in which the forces sympathetic to Israel exert increasing influence.

One of the most visible and immediate regional ramifications of Brexit has been Turkey’s sharp pivot from confrontation to the normalization of relations with Russia, as well as with Israel, although naturally each of those processes is evolving in its own way. Both processes incorporate Ankara’s disappointment in the prospects for its integration into the EU, as well as its anticipation of new difficulties in its relationship with Europe. In fact, within the EU Britain led the way in initiating discussion of Turkey’s bid for membership. With London’s departure, Ankara is losing an important and friendly voice and must quickly find an alternative way to cooperate with the European Union. For that matter, Turkey’s behavior in Syria will offer a good clue as to whether Ankara’s intentions are serious and long-term.

London also played a central role in the EU’s Middle East strategy in regard to Arab countries, thanks to its wealth of experience and extensive business, cultural, and historical ties. After all, King Abdullah II of Jordan is half English. Quite a lot could change now. Arab governments viewed Brexit as a signal to review not only the regional strategy of Great Britain, but also of the European Union as a whole. They are presuming that in the near future London will significantly reduce or even end its participation in the «anti-jihadist coalition», which will make it an extremely unreliable partner in the battle against the Islamic State. Alluding to the close relationship between Washington and London, the Arab world has been making statements such as «the American star has been wiped off the EU flag». As the Israeli website DEBKAfile notes, for the first time since the outbreak of civil war in Syria, officials from a number of Arab capitals have begun holding meetings to discuss whether they should end the boycott of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and instead begin to work with him militarily in the fight against IS – an option that «just a few days ago would have been unthinkable».

In this context, some practical recommendations from Jeffrey Sachs, the renowned economist and special advisor to the UN Secretary-General, are worth examining. He believes that in order to lessen Brexit’s negative repercussions, first of all the wave of refugees into Europe must be halted by immediately putting an end to the war in Syria. This can be accomplished by stopping attempts by the «CIA-Saudi alliance» to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Then with Russian and Iranian support, Assad would be able to crush IS and stabilize Syria. The same applies to neighboring Iraq. As Jeffrey Sachs states, «America’s addiction to regime change (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria) is the deep cause of Europe’s refugee crisis». Once this obsession has ended the refugees will be able to return home.

This special advisor to the UN Secretary-General also proposes focusing resources – including additional aid – on economic development in low-income countries, rather than on waging wars there. Otherwise, uncontrolled migration from poor and conflict-ridden regions will become overwhelming.