The President's Take

In 2023, 2022's Challenges Loom Larger

The war in Ukraine will keep testing the West, and other crises also demand the EU’s attention. In her introduction to the Watch List 2023, Crisis Group's President & CEO Comfort Ero identifies ways the EU and its member states can prevent and resolve conflict.

By any measure, the European Union (EU) has a tough year ahead. So far, along with other Western powers, it has responded well to Russia’s assault on Ukraine, backing Kyiv while avoiding escalation with Moscow. Neither cracks in that policy nor feared gas shortages appeared over the winter. Nonetheless, many of 2022’s challenges still loom large. The EU’s room for manoeuvre, meanwhile, is narrower, with budgets strained by the pandemic, the energy crisis and assistance to Ukraine. As an EU official put it, “We will have to do better, with less”. Much of Europe’s focus inevitably remains the Ukraine war (as we outline in the entry below). But it is also, in some ways, renegotiating its place in the world. With regard to peace and security elsewhere, it faces several challenges: helping vulnerable countries deal with the war’s economic fallout; watching for destabilising side effects of efforts to diversify energy sources; shoring up a strained multilateral system; managing relations with influential middle powers; helping fund soaring humanitarian needs; and developing a humane migration policy that does not skew its overall priorities. 

First is continuing to help manage the Ukraine war’s far-reaching global economic consequences, particularly in the countries hardest hit by inflation and, in some cases, worsening food insecurity. Economic hardship does not automatically provoke instability. But in several countries where discontent with ruling elites was already rife, institutions weak or politics divided, the additional suffering has already brought unrest – and more could be on the way. As it represents around one sixth of the global economy, the EU is crucial to meeting this challenge, even if it cannot do so alone. Its offers of support will be essential for reducing the danger of disorder in vulnerable places. Aid can also signal that the EU is a reliable partner at a time when the war has revealed considerable disquiet with Western policy, as I outlined in our Autumn 2022 Watch List Update. The EU can also influence international financial institutions, or at least those in which Europeans have votes, to provide necessary support to countries at risk. 

A second challenge lies in Europe’s efforts to break its dependency on Russian gas. The scramble to find extra energy elsewhere means that for European capitals some parts of the world (Azerbaijan, the Gulf, Iraq and Mozambique in this Watch List) gain strategic importance. Indeed, over the past year, the EU and member states have signed over 70 energy deals with at least 27 countries, a sharp increase over previous years. Stronger economic and energy ties are not per se a bad thing. Deeper relations with the Gulf, for example, might open space for the EU to help relaunch or accompany regional dialogue. But demand for energy can also carry risks. Azerbaijan’s assertiveness over Nagorno-Karabakh and related issues, outlined in our entry below, is primarily driven by Russia’s travails in Ukraine, which in turn hamper its ability to deter another bout of fighting in the South Caucasus. Still, demand for Azerbaijani gas plays a role. With energy security set to remain a key concern, Brussels should look out for such unintended knock-on effects. 

Third is the priority of shoring up the multilateral system. Generally, multilateralism muddled through a difficult 2022. Major powers mostly still believe the UN has value as a venue for managing crises beyond Ukraine. The EU itself handled multilateral diplomacy around Ukraine reasonably well, despite some insensitivity to parts of the Global South. For 2023, priorities include continuing to use the UN General Assembly and other multilateral forums as places to rally support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, even if that means holding back on other demands – related to justice, for example – that could attract less support. More broadly, Europeans should maintain funding for humanitarian and peacebuilding initiatives despite budgetary constraints. They should continue to work for UN-African Union funding at the UN, as I laid out to the Security Council in 2022. As the secretary-general prepares his New Agenda for Peace, Europeans should push him to be bold in sketching how the UN can best defend multilateralism in a more fragmented world. 

Fourth is grappling with activist and mostly non-Western “middle powers” – including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey , to name a few – whose influence and autonomy the Ukraine war has shone light on. Generalising about diverse countries, let alone about European policy toward them, is hard. Turkey, for example – which has largely balanced its NATO membership and ties to Moscow, while usefully helping with last year’s deal to get Ukrainian grain onto global markets – is pivotal to European migration policy, its counter-terrorism and several crises on Europe’s southern flank, plus now on Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO bids. Nor do such powers form a coordinated bloc. But what such powers share is increasing influence in the international system, a reluctance to pick a side over Ukraine and, while few welcome big power rivalry, determination to defend their own interests in a multipolar system. Europe, as it redefines relations with such middle powers, and indeed with others in the Global South, will likely struggle if it aims to do so solely through a lens of competition with Russia or China. 

Fifth is the imperative of continued European generosity in meeting the world’s humanitarian needs, which have spiralled partly thanks to the uptick in deadly conflict, plus the Ukraine war’s fallout, coming atop stresses from the pandemic and climate change. Officials voice concern about maintaining the significant levels of support the EU and member states provided in 2022 to struggling countries around the globe. Some funds have been front-loaded to respond to needs in Ukraine – the EU has already spent money it had envisaged saving for future years, in other words. Reserves that the EU tapped in 2022 to cope with humanitarian crises are gone. The EU Commissioner for Crisis Management rightly advocates for burden sharing among international actors, as only ten donors provide over 80 per cent of humanitarian funding. Even so, European leaders should do everything they can to ensure that humanitarian aid organisations get the backing they need in responding to emergencies. Some initiatives that Europeans champion by diplomatic means, like cross-border aid in Syria, remain underfunded.

Relatedly, unprecedented levels of displacement merit a stronger European response. In 2022, the number of people forced to flee war and persecution worldwide surpassed 100 million for the first time. It has only risen since. Only a tiny fraction of the displaced make it to the EU, given the scarcity of safe, legal pathways. Indeed, an average of five people a day died or disappeared crossing the Mediterranean in the first half of 2022. Yet some EU states have outlawed and obstructed efforts by civil society organisations to save lives at sea, while others reportedly used force in blocking migrants trying to reach the EU through the Balkans. The support shown to Ukrainians seeking shelter shows what EU solidarity can look like; indeed, the contrast between Ukrainians’ treatment and that experienced by people from other parts of the world is particularly galling to capitals in the Global South. The EU’s Temporary Protection Directive applies only to those fleeing the Ukraine war. A more generous policy would help others escaping violence and oppression elsewhere. Urgent support is needed for Afghans under Taliban rule, in particular women and girls, who, according to the EU Agency for Asylum, are in general at risk of persecution. 

The uptick in arrivals in Europe has made migration policy a greater priority, which could affect other EU foreign policy areas. For example, proposals by European capitals and the Commission suggest tying preferential trade terms, like tariff-free EU market access, to countries’ willingness to cooperate on migration and readmit migrants the EU sends back. Trade benefits – a tool the EU traditionally uses to encourage reforms toward freer, more inclusive and, as a result, usually more peaceful societies – risk being used as a counter-migration measure. Moreover, Crisis Group has documented in the past how EU policy aimed at curbing migration, in Niger for example, can inadvertently fuel conflict risks. In Libya, EU money has reportedly been diverted to networks of militiamen, traffickers and coast guard members who mistreat refugees and migrants and contribute to the country’s insecurity. Much as it should do with energy policy, the EU should watch for unintended side effects of a foreign policy disproportionately guided by stopping people from coming to Europe. 

Beyond the broader trends, this year’s Watch List, while not exhaustive, identifies some specific crises where Europe can help prevent and resolve conflict. Some entries, such as those on Ukraine, Armenia-Azerbaijan and Mozambique, highlight ways that the EU can, in places it has already invested political and financial capital, best use the role it has carved out for itself. Others, such as those on Sudan and Iraq, outline small but potentially important windows for the EU and member states to step up engagement after periods of deadlock. Some entries, in particular those on the Gulf and Brazil, highlight a wider regional role for the EU, which may in turn help de-escalate individual conflicts. Some, notably Afghanistan and Myanmar, examine how Europe can engage when repressive governments severely limit space. All the entries have one thing in common: they show that European efforts to help prevent, resolve and mitigate conflict are still badly needed in 2023.

Comfort Ero, President & CEO, International Crisis Group

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