EU and NATO responses to the immediate and direct MENA threats

Our security is also deeply affected by the security situation in the Middle East and North Africa, which has deteriorated significantly across the whole region. Terrorism, particularly as perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)/ Da’esh, has risen to an unprecedented level of intensity, reaches into all of Allied territory, and now represents an immediate and direct threat to our nations and the international community. Instability in the Middle East and North Africa also contributes to the refugee and migrant crisis.

(North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2016, para. 5)

Heightening the sense of threat in 2015-2016 was a new toxic cocktail mixing the terrorist attacks launched or inspired by ISIL in Brussels, Paris and Berlin with the unprecedented influx of migrants and refugees driven primarily by the civil war in Syria. The EU’s failure to control its external borders and find a way of distributing the many people arriving primarily in Greece and Italy among its member states led several EU states to reintroduce border controls and put up border fences. It also prompted fears that terrorists could to slip into the EU undetected. In the UK, 33% of the leave voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum indicated that their main reason for wanting to leave was that it ‘offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders' (Lord Ashcroft, 2016). For the EU, the situation did constitute the ‘existential threat’ that its Global Strategy characterised it as (European External Action Service, 2016, p. 7).

The EU countered the threat in a comprehensive manner using virtually all the tools at its disposal (see Box 10.4). The first priority was to reduce the number of people coming to the EU. The principle tools employed to this end were strengthened border controls, direct targeting of criminal networks involved in migrant smuggling and, most important of all, two agreements with Turkey and the internationally recognised government controlling parts of Libya to stop people coming into the EU front their territories. Another key instrument was a new form of partnership agreements - so-called migration compacts - with MENA and African countries to reduce the number of people migrating to Europe and to increase the returns of rejected asylum seekers to their countries of origin. In addition, the EU also enhanced its dialogues with MENA partners to improve counter-terrorist cooperation by means of capacity building and security sector reform. Compared to the MENA partnership approach employed by the EU prior to 2011, the new one was far better resourced, more comprehensive, better coordinated and far more assertive. Thus, the EU began to make development assistance and other forms of support contingent upon cooperation with respect to fighting migration and terrorism.

Box 10.4 EU counter-terrorism and migration measures adopted since 2015


  • • European Asylum Support Office renamed EU Agency for Asylum and strengthened to enable it to better assist member states in crisis situations and monitor how national authorities apply relevant EU legislation
  • • Hotspots: operational support to Greece and Italy helping to identify, register and fingerprint incoming migrants

Border control:

  • European Travel Information and Authorisation System to keep track of visa-free visitors entering the Schengen Zone
  • • Frontex renamed European Border and Coast Guard Agency and strengthened
  • • Passenger Name Record directive obliging airlines to hand over passengers lists when entering or leaving the EU
  • • Schengen Data Base checking all persons crossing external borders
  • • Operations Hera, Indalo, Minerva, Poseidon and Triton in support of Greece, Italy, and Spain
  • • Rapid reaction pool: 1,500 border guards deployable at short notice to assist members in emergencies at EU's external borders

Capacity building in partner countries:

• Security sector reform-associated measures, such as strengthening the rule of law, improving the governance of security providers, improving border management, reforming the armed forces, and training law enforcement actors

Counter-terrorist financing:

• Rules seeking to prevent the use of the financial system for the funding of criminal activities and strengthen transparency rules to prevent the large-scale concealment of funds

Cooperation with partners in MENA and Africa:

  • • EU-Africa trust fund: €2bn to help deport unwanted migrants and prevent people from leaving in the first place
  • • Enhanced bilateral Counter-terrorism Political Dialogues with Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan: bilateral high-level meetings to strengthen cooperation on counterterrorism and build capacity to deal better with terrorist threats, including foreign fighters
  • • New bilateral partnership agreements (migration compacts) with Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, and Senegal leveraging all EU instruments to reduce flows of illegal migration and increase return rates
  • • Libya agreement: €200 to Libya's internationally recognised government to stop migrant boats leaving the country's territorial waters. EU provides training and equipment to the Libyan coastguard and support for the voluntary returns of people to their countries of origin
  • • Turkey agreement €6bn to stop asylum seekers from crossing, by sea, to Lesbos

Law enforcement (EUROPOL):

  • • European Counter-Terrorism Centre (ECTC) providing operational support for investigations following terrorist attacks; tackling foreign fighters; and sharing intelligence and expertise on terrorism financing combats terrorist propaganda and related violent extremist activities on the internet
  • • European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC) targeting and dismantling criminal networks involved in migrant smuggling


  • • EUBAM Libya plans for a possible non-executive CSDP mission providing advice and capacity building in the fields of border management, law enforcement and criminal justice
  • • EUCAP Sahel Mali helping the national police, the national gendarmerie and the national guard to implement security reform
  • • EUCAP Sahel Niger supporting the Nigerien authorities in preventing irregular migration and combating associated crimes
  • • EUNAVFOR Sophia captures and disposes of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers; trains the Libyan Coastguard and Navy; and helps to enforce the UN arms embargo off the coast of Libya
  • • EUTM Mali provides military training and advice to the Malian armed forces to counter the terrorist groups operating in the country

Foreign fighters:

Rules criminalising the undertaking of training or travelling for terrorist purposes, organising or facilitating such travel and providing or collecting funds related to terrorist groups or activities

Arms control:

• Measures enhancing traceability of firearms and preventing the reactivation or conversion of firearms

Strategic communications:

• Arab StratCom Task Force producing positive messages about the EU's involvement in the MENA region

Compiled from EU Factsheets and official documents, available at: www.consilium.

The EU succeeded in stemming the inflow of people. The agreements made with T urkey and Libya led to a dramatic drop in the number ofpeople arriving to the EU by sea in the Mediterranean (Darme and Benattia, 2017). The downside was the creation of a humanitarian crisis in Libya. Human rights organisations strongly criticised the EU for doing too little to assist the many people stranded in Libya, and of closing its eyes to serious human rights violations committed by the Libyan authorities with which the EU was cooperating (Amnesty International, 2017). From a liberal perspective, the EU sacrificed human rights and its liberal values on the altar of self-interest. From a realist perspective, the EU put its own interests first using all its instruments of power in a legitimate attempt to achieve them. From a constructivist perspective, the EU response suggested a move away from the civilian power identity that the EU had espoused until then.

This new, more assertive approach employed by the EU to elicit more cooperation from its MENA and African powers has had mixed results. These countries have little interest in preventing their citizens from migrating to the EU or in taking them back, because it reduces the flow of remittances, which make up a considerable portion of their national income. The African countries are, therefore, demanding that the EU make it easier for their citizens to migrate legally to Europe, demands that have very little support in the EU member states (Scazzieri and Springford, 2017). Yet, even if these countries did cooperate fully and in good faith with the EU, it would not solve the root causes of terrorism and migration in the foreseeable future. The huge differences in the standards of living and the demographic pressures driving migration will increase the migratory pressure on the EU in the decades ahead, no matter what the EU does.

Box 10.5 NATO counter-terror and migration measures since 2015

Capacity building in partner countries:

  • • Counter IED training provided to Iraq
  • • Counter-terrorism training courses to Egypt
  • • Counter-insurgency training to Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia


  • • Establishment of a new joint intelligence and security division
  • • Establishment of 'Hub for the South': 100-person strong focal point collecting, assessing and analysing information on threats from the MENA region and countering them in cooperation with partner nations


  • • AWACS surveillance flights supporting the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL
  • • Maritime force in the Aegean Sea to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of illegal crossings, in support of Turkish and Greek authorities and the EU's Frontex agency
  • • Operation Sea Guardian contributing to maritime situational awareness, counterterrorism at sea, and maritime security capacity building in the Mediterranean

Compiled from NATO Factsheets and official documents, available at:

Compared to the EU, NATO played a marginal role in addressing the more direct threats from the South. It has supported EU operations in the Mediterranean and the US-led coalition of the willing fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and launched new small capacity building missions in MENA (see Box 10.5). Three factors explain the Alliance’s limited involvement in MENA. The first is that the threats emanating from MENA come from many different sources. It has proved impossible for the most affected southern NATO members to agree on a common course of action, because they perceive the threats differently. The lack of agreement among the southern members puts them at a distinct disadvantage vis-à-vis the Eastern members, who all view Russia as a direct military threat necessitating a robust symmetric military response. Second, there are no obvious military responses to most of the MENA threats. The less than successful NATO operations in Afghanistan and Libya have left little appetite for new major operations in MENA. This makes it difficult for NATO to add value to what the EU is already doing. Third, the eastern members facing Russia are actively seeking to keep NATO’s involvement in MENA to a minimum, fearing that it will divert scarce resources away from the Eastern front. While they are willing to pay lip service to the need to address the threats from the south, they have made minimal contributions to Alliance activities there (Jakobsen and Ringsmose, 2018).

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