After the EU’s statement regarding ISIS violence in Kobane on Friday one wonders what it could actually do to help
The European Union (EU) released a statement on Friday condemning recent violence in the Syrian city of Kobane; where militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are fighting Kurdish forces for control of the city and 553 people have been killed and 200 000 have fled their homes. In the statement the EU claimed it was “deeply concerned by the security and humanitarian situation” and spoke of working with Turkey and “all other regional and international partners…to isolate and contain the threat”. The statement comes three days after demonstrators staged a sit-in at the European Parliament to protest about the Kobane violence. Many Members of European Parliament spoke with protestors and, the head of the socialist group in parliament, Gianni Pittella even promised “we will fight the Islamic State”. However, the EU’s input in, yet more, ISIS violence begs the question: what can the EU actually do?
Before violence erupted the EU’s role was clear. It had focused on improving the long-term economic well-being of Iraq; earmarking €75 million – for 2014 to 2010 – to improve human rights, rule of law, education and access to sustainable energy. It has also developed a strong trade relationship with Iraq, becoming its second largest trading partner outside the USA with bilateral trade totally €17.5 billion in 2012.
Now, the most publicised EU action has been its coordination of member states, especially through the Foreign Affairs Council. For example, on the 15th August the Foreign Affairs Council met at the request of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, to discuss ISIS. This meeting concluded with the Council agreeing to increase EU funding for Iraq from €12 million to €17 million for 2014 and Ashton spoke of a “very strong and solid discussion”.
Yet, on the whole, ISIS has become a situation defined by national negotiations led by the US and the EU has had little to offer. Even whilst brought together under an EU flag in August the Foreign Affairs Council noted the limits of the EU’s contributions when it "welcomed the decision by individual Member States to respond positively to the call by the Kurdish regional authorities to provide urgently military material". While the EU has condemned the violence and increased funding it is the unilateral actions of countries that have been important. Similarly, to some extent, even the EU’s economic contributions are minimal compared to the combined total of unilateral action by states. For example, the UK announced in August that it alone would give £23 million worth of aid, in addition to its military contribution.
Moreover, the EU response, as tends to be the case, has been slow to the point of ineffectuality. Countries started giving aid immediately as the crisis unfolded. The UK, for example, joined in airdrops to Yazidi villagers trapped in the Sinjar Mountain within days of the US airstrikes and then offered surveillance capabilities it joined airstrikes. The EU has done hardly anything.
Similarly, the initiative for dealing with Europeans going to fight for ISIS has been equally slow. This is somewhat more surprising given that the EU has been trying to come up with a counter-terrorism policy for the past 18 months. Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism chief, estimates that 3000 “freedom fighters” have gone from Europe to fight for ISIS. Yet, while the EU interior ministry, intelligence and police officials have been meeting regularly to address the issue, their attempts to “come up with a coherent policy and instruments are dogged by institutional, national and departmental rivalries and differing priorities”. For example, UK Home Secretary Theresa May, who is attempted to pursue the issue through the EU in coming day, is calling for EU-wide sharing of all passenger name records (PNR) on internal flights to track suspicious travellers. However, a majority of the European Parliament blocked the plan in April last year – concerned about its implications for privacy. Thus, it is possible May’s course of action through the EU will bring more disagreement than action and push the UK back to addressing the issue within its own borders.
The EU was a positive force on Iraq before the crisis and showed its ability to help countries with economic recovery. Unfortunately, issues such as Iraq’s energy policy, and even education, pale into insignificance when extremist militants are terrorising civilians and forcing them to convert or be executed. And so, once again, the EU is put on the side-line until the situation is good enough to re-build.