The October 10th Parliamentary elections in Iraq certainly represent a litmus test for the interim government led by Mustafa al-Kadhimi, which only a year and a half ago took the helm of a country rocked by mass popular protests against the pervasive corruption, lack of economic opportunities, and a season of constant insecurity emanating from recalcitrant militia groups and the broader Iran-US geopolitical rivalry. But the vote will also be a major opportunity for the EU to show the real extent of its commitment to assist Iraq in its path towards improved domestic stability and economic prosperity, both of which depend on the implementation of extensive and ambitious socio-political reforms in the country. Overall, such a commitment should be aimed at strengthening the effectiveness and democratic legitimacy of Iraqi institutions and empowering Iraqi citizens, through a strategy that incorporates the aspirations and lessons from the widespread protest movement started in October 2019. This means that the Union should prioritize initiatives aimed at tackling the social grievances of Iraqi people while using its vast know-how and political capital to foster the accountability and transparency of the country’s institutions. Brussels has already done much for Iraq, especially in terms of humanitarian and development aid, but there is reason to believe that current efforts will soon be dangerously insufficient to mitigate Iraq’s challenges. While the above goals are already mentioned in the 2018 European Strategy for Iraq, the fluid dynamics that have developed since 2019 require a substantial adjustment.
A more concrete EU engagement in Iraq would be even more necessary as it comes at a time of substantial US disengagement from the country and the region as a whole, thus offering Brussels a significant window of opportunity to take on a front-row role and promote dialogue and democratic governance through a clear-cut — yet adaptive — strategy based on diplomacy and reform support. It was only in the 2010s, however, that Iraq started to gain positions in the EU regional agenda, whereas before it was mainly seen as an area falling under the US sphere of influence, worthy of attention only in case of crises with potential regional magnitude.
In concrete terms, Iraq fits perfectly in the EU foreign policy compass due to its historical and geostrategic significance in several areas.
To begin with, thanks to its huge hydrocarbon reserves – the fifth in the world – and its rank as the second-highest oil producer in the OPEC cartel, Iraq remains a crucial actor for world energy supplies and for the energy security of many European nations as well. In the energy field, for that matter, important relations also exist the other way around, with several European energy companies such as ENI, Total or Shell having played an instrumental role in the development of Iraq’s oil industry and retaining valuable interests and activities in the country.
Secondly, but just as important, the EU is Iraq’s fourth biggest trade partner, with the 2020 total trade in goods accounting for nearly €10.8 billion and representing 12,1% of Iraq’s total trade in goods in the same year, according to the last statistics provided by the European Commission. The EU-Iraq economic partnership is regulated by the EU-Iraq Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, inked in 2012 but fully implemented only in 2018, which covers a wide range of trade sectors and provides preferential elements and ample market access to European companies. Despite the severe fallout of the pandemic, which caused a 57.9% and 7.4% drop in EU imports from — and exports to — Iraq, respectively, compared to 2019 (an overall 49% plunge), Europe’s trade flows with Iraq have been following an incremental trajectory since 2016, thus suggesting a potential – if not plausible – full recovery in the short term. Two aspects deserve specific attention in this respect: first, bilateral trade remains poorly diversified and largely dominated by mineral fuel and petroleum products, which account for 99,7% of total EU imports from Iraq. Besides the trade deficit this has generated for the EU, from a perspective of sustainability and climate change mitigation as enshrined in the EU Green Deal agenda, current trade relations with Iraq are incompatible with the EU’s goals and require substantial restructuring. This step, however, has to be taken in a gradual and mutually beneficial way that, on the one hand, can help the EU to progressively diminish is reliance on Iraqi oil and, on the other hand, can strengthen bilateral trade partnerships on renewables and other goods, thus helping Iraq diversify its economy and become more resilient against future challenges such as water scarcity and desertification, among others. Second, the EU-Iraq bilateral economic partnership is still lagging behind those of Iraq with China and Turkey — Baghdad’s first and second biggest trade partners, respectively — accounting for 29% and 18% of its total trade volume. Nonetheless, an expanded EU role in the area may change this, provided that diversification and economic reforms are effectively implemented in Iraq. Such a role may also benefit from Baghdad’s admittance to the WTO, a process that is strongly endorsed by the EU (and Washington) and would help Iraq carry out domestic policies and reforms aimed at modernising its business environment and effectively integrate into the global economy.
The other major area of EU-Iraq relations pertains to humanitarian and reconstruction aid as well as security cooperation, especially counterterrorism. The European Union is a leading donor in Iraq and, since the beginning of the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in 2014, it has provided over a billion euros to support the country, including 506 million in humanitarian funding and, since the COVID-19 outbreak, more than 30 million euros to support Iraq’s healthcare system and facilitate access to COVID-19 vaccination for displaced people. The EU also co-organised the Kuwait International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq in February 2018, in which international donors pledged a total of $30 billion to finance Iraq’s reconstruction, including €400m by Brussels. In the security sphere, the EU has focused on capacity building and security sector reform (SSR) for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) since 2017, mainly through its civilian advisory mission (EUAM-Iraq), recently extended until April 2022. In parallel, several EU countries have troops on the ground operating in the framework of the Global Coalition against the Islamic State and providing training, logistics, and counterterrorism support to the ISF.
Concrete results, however, have so far been limited or at least insufficient to make the ISF capable of guaranteeing all-out security across the country. IS’ attacks have never ceased completely and are on the rise once again, especially in northern and North-Western provinces, with the group remaining a “well-entrenched” insurgency according to a recent US Department of Defence report. Equally relevant, Iraqi forces possess “limited ability” to control the Iraqi-Syrian border and prevent the illegal passage of weapons and fighters, despite this being a primary goal of the EUAM mission. While the pandemic has delayed and hindered the programme in the short term, the 25% reduction in the Iraqi Ministry of Defence’s resources sanctioned by the 2021 federal budget law risks undermining ISF’ structural capabilities and complicate the efforts of the EU and Western partners in consolidating the security sector. This precarious security landscape is worsened by two additional factors: on the one hand, the still limited coordination between ISF and Peshmerga units, which has granted IS militants substantial freedom of movement in a string of disputed territories bordering the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Relations between Baghdad and Erbil, though, have progressively improved since 2017 and the EU should keep pressuring both sides to settle their disputes. On the other hand, the actions of unrestrained militias, — some of which belong to the officially recognized Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) but are closely aligned with Iran — continue to target U.S. troops and hamper the joint activities between the ISF and foreign partners, including European ones. What is more, these militias exploit their political influence and wide power networks to conduct illicit trafficking as they please, while some groups with close ties to political circles have been accused of human rights violations and arbitrary killings against demonstrators and activists during the popular protests and, more recently, in view of the imminent elections, with very limited accountability. Given the close ties that figures affiliated with these groups enjoy with security institutions such as the Ministry of Interior, a key EUAM partner, Eu officials should carefully evaluate their counterparts’ reliability and make sure EU supports does not end up, in a way or another, favouring the wrong interlocutors.
Although the EU, thanks to its polyvalent and long-time experience in stabilisation and development assistance, is well-positioned to support Iraq’s efforts towards greater stability and prosperity, Brussels’ current commitment seems inadequate to solve the structural challenges the country is facing, chiefly the rampant corruption, a deteriorating economy, and a pervasive governance crisis. The reason lies in the myopic nature of the European approach towards Iraq, which remains heavily securitized and centred around the logic of crisis response and humanitarian aid. Although these dimensions are still present on the ground, there is a lack of structural, long-term planning in the EU Iraq strategy, reflecting the vagueness of the broader EU foreign policy agenda for the region. On the political front, for instance, greater efforts should be made towards initiatives aimed at curbing corruption, improving transparency and accountability within Iraqi institutions, strengthening the Rule of Law, and ensuring full respect of human rights, with more compelling standards for Iraqi political élites and decision-makers. Concurrently, EU initiatives should focus on the close correlation between a corrupted, sectarian political system and the lack of public services and jobs, as well as the rising socio-economic marginalisation of many communities, which represent some of the main reasons behind the waves of popular mobilisation occurred in recent years. That also means a reassessment of the development model followed by the Union, including how funds are allocated and spent, what did not work, and who are the partners, based on a predominantly bottom-up approach that privileges local NGOs and qualified civil-society organisations over public agencies and authorities with potentially vested interests in maintaining the status quo. This is not to say that state institutions should be bypassed, but rather that EU initiatives should carefully choose their partners and remain closely tied to the core values and principles that have inspired the Union in the first place, especially when the local institutions have a poor track record of implementing international reform projects or are perceived as inherently corrupted by the population.
More generally, for the EU actions in Iraq to be more effective, the 2018 guiding strategy should be holistically reframed around the concept of human security — wherein traditional, state-centred security is only a fraction — also emphasising the social and economic security dimensions (e.g. the empowerment of new generations and the reintegration of marginalised communities), with a view to creating a conducive environment for stability and institutional legitimacy. The deployment of an observatory mission to monitor the October 10th legislative elections is a positive yet largely symbolic step, but, as analyst Nussaibah Younis observes, in the short term the EU should prepare for a deeper and more comprehensive engagement with the full spectrum of Iraq’s population, especially leaders of the protests and civil society, while putting pressure on Iraqi politicians and making clear that they will be held accountable for any failure in reforming a dysfunctional political system.