The Middle East and Mediterranean having been the region where President Donald Trump most blatantly broke with established international consensus, European countries rejoice over the prospect of an end to four years of inflammatory rhetoric and disruptive policy turns that left Europe’s southern flank at constant fever pitch. At the same time, they are painfully aware that many of Trump’s blunt moves cannot be undone easily or at all.
While most European governments will breathe a sigh of relief over the United States’ return to a more traditional brokerage role in Israel/Palestine by bringing the Palestinians back to the table and restoring aid, they will not expect any deeper reversals here. The Biden administration will reverse neither the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem nor the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan, respectively, is seen in Europe as one of the few positive outcomes of Trump’s presidency. Deeply worried that this normalization came at the expense of the Palestinians, however, European countries look forward to the Biden administration putting Palestinian rights and concerns firmly back on the agenda.
The most obvious joint priority for Europe and the Biden administration in the Middle East is putting relations with Iran on a healthier footing, starting with the United States returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which it left in 2018, as Biden has repeatedly pledged to do. That said, Europe does not live under the illusion that a Biden presidency would resemble an Obama third term. Most European capitals are aware that the basic idea underlying the JCPOA—isolating the nuclear dossier from broader regional issues with Iran—is over. They do not expect the United States to rejoin the agreement without conditions or further demands for renegotiation. Regional issues will be on the table; the question is about when and how. Widening the scope of dialogue with Iran needs to be carefully sequenced, bearing in mind the country’s presidential election is set for June 2021, and the related margin and preparedness of negotiation of any subsequent Iranian government. Policymakers are juggling different options for sequencing quick mutual freeze deals (sanctions relief for nuclear compliance) between Biden’s inauguration in January and Iran’s presidential election. Given the Trump administration’s refusal to collaborate with Biden’s transition team and the fact that the next administration’s priority will be mending things at home, there is reasonable doubt as to whether Biden will be able to make the necessary moves at the right time. Thus, from a European point of view, while a Biden presidency will not necessarily mean a return to the JCPOA as it stands, it most certainly—and more importantly—means a return to joint transatlantic diplomacy toward Iran.
A second area where European countries hope for teamwork with the Biden administration is on taming a volatile Turkey, whose aggressive forays from the Aegean Sea to Nagorno-Karabakh a divided EU has been unable to contain. The ongoing dispute between Turkey and Greece over maritime delineation in the Eastern Mediterranean, which brought the two NATO allies to the brink of direct military confrontation this summer, remains of particular concern for European countries. In pre-Trump times, disputes between Turkey and Greece were typically resolved by a firm U.S. hand, most recently in 1996 when frenetic shuttle diplomacy by U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke diffused the risk of military escalation. Over the last couple of years, however, long-standing disputes in Aegean Sea morphed into a complex bundle of intersected conflicts involving various sovereignty issues, gas exploration, the Libyan civil war, and broader geopolitical dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the face of this metastasizing challenge directly involving two of its member states, the EU has been scrambling over the best strategy to get Turkey in line without putting at risk the 2016 migration deal with Ankara or the integrity of NATO.
Concerned over any erosion of NATO’s ability to deter Russia, the Biden administration might seek to take a more hands-on approach on the conflict between Athens and Ankara in the context of a reviewed Turkey policy. Biden’s advisors have underlined the resolution of the Eastern Mediterranean quagmire as a fundamentally transatlantic problem that must be tackled jointly. The degree of active U.S. leadership on this issue is less certain, however, not least given that the new administration’s leverage over Turkey will ultimately be limited, especially if it moves forward with sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system early on. Therefore, even a more active and cooperative role by the United States is unlikely to be a game-changer.