Two ways WWII’s legacy still links Europe to the Middle East

Two ways WWII’s legacy still links Europe to the Middle East

This May 7th marks the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe (VE Day). Just a short distance away, the Middle East still remains a major source of political anguish and frustration for the European Union. How does the legacy of WWII still link one of the world’s most politically stable regions to its unstable neighbor?

The Siege of Tobruk in Libya’s Cyrenaica saw the Allies withstand multiple Axis assaults. Today, 74 years later, Libyan General Khalifa Haftar embarks on his own military campaign with the support of the internationally recognized government in Tobruk.

The EU also finds itself facing multiple challenges from the Middle East and North Africa region, ranging from terrorism to illegal migration. Its members remain intrinsically connected to the region through their geographic proximity, colonial legacy, business ties, tourism, as well as their own Muslim communities.

There are two main linkages that bridge the Middle East to Europe through the experience of World War II.

1. Economic ties and the end of colonialism

The Europeans’ colonial economic legacy cemented itself in the post-WWII order in North Africa.

During the war, the French protectorate of Morocco witnessed the development of an extensive railway system, mining, and agricultural development. Fascist Italy had control over Libya and it was the Mussolini-Laval agreement of 1935 that saw France part ways with the mineral-rich Aouzou Strip from French Chad.

The Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936 allowed the British Empire to maintain military control over the vital Suez Canal, and it was only when nationalist sentiments gave rise to Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser that they were forced to relinquish it. In the early 1950s, approximately two-thirds of Europe’s oil supplies transited through the canal.

It was also Adolf Hitler’s long term desire to seize control of Middle Eastern oil resources that led Germany to intervene in North Africa on Italy’s behalf. This move, which was countered by the British, could have prolonged the war, had it been successful.

As a sovereign nation under the French protectorate, Morocco today enjoys close relations with France. The Finance Ministers of both countries just signed a deal to allocate 43 million Euros to enhance small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) between the two countries.

The countries of the Middle East invest heavily in Europe, too. With the decline in the Euro’s value, the regional currencies, pegged to the dollar, suddenly carry more weight – especially in the southern EU economies.

In recent times, Italy and Libya remain linked through the Greenstream natural gas pipeline that crosses under the Mediterranean Sea and exports 11 billion cubic meters of gas. 21 percent of Italy’s unrefined oil imports come from Libya.

2. Refugees and humanitarian intervention

The humanitarian legacy of World War II is deeply felt in Europe.

General Erwin Rommel, known for his victories, is less widely known for the trail of anti-Semitic persecution that his victories left behind. North Africa’s Jewish community was hit particularly hard. 2,500 Tunisian Jews perished at the hands of SS Officer Walther Rauff, and the Tunisian island of Djerba’s priceless gold treasures were looted.

The Holocaust still resonates through the selective application of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The French initiated the NATO intervention against Gaddafi loyalists in 2011. The need to protect religious minorities also stands out today. The coalition against Islamic State (IS) was sparked by the desire to protect Iraq’s Yazidis, as well as the extremely vulnerable Christian communities in Syria and Iraq.

Postwar Europe also has a history of welcoming refugees. During WWII, Europe produced its own 10 million refugees who fled their homes as the Allies and Axis powers turned much of the continent into ruins. The Schengen Agreement established not just a common currency, but a protected zone that preserved and promote human rights.

Almost 150,000 Syrian refugees have fled the Syrian Civil War to the safety of the EU. Germany and Sweden lead the way in accommodating 52 percent of Europe’s Syrian refugees.

In Germany, Europe’s great economic power, there is growing support within the political elite to take on humanitarian missions to prevent the occurrence of genocide. However, despite a growing role in NATO, the Bundeswehr’s equipment and transportation is falling short of its potential capabilities.

Italy’s national conscience is still plagued by its own war time conduct with the constant arrival of migrants. The EU countries have no contact with the current Islamist government in Tripoli, making the coordination of the migrant crisis difficult. Haftar, a leading opponent of the Tripoli government, recently advised against European military action against the human trafficking networks.

Europe, for its part, faces rising nationalism paired with Islamophobia that spans across the political spectrum. This is a frightening echo of the NSDAP’s ideology of xenophobia.

‘Deal-with-the-devil’ scenario

Following the Allied invasion of French North Africa, General Eisenhower elected to keep Vichy leader François Darlan in power. The decision came as a shock to the US public, as well as the Free French Forces who viewed Darlan as a Nazi collaborator.

The deal was essential for the Allies as they maneuvered through French-held Morocco and Algeria towards Axis-occupied Libya. Darlan was assassinated a short time later. This deal-with-the-devil scenario resonates today as the United States and EU policy makers debate whether to cooperate with Assad in Syria against IS.

As the European Union celebrates the 70th anniversary of the end of the last war in Europe, the perpetual crises stemming from the Middle East will no doubt remain at the forefront of agendas in capitals across the EU.

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris