ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Kurdish university students had the opportunity to discuss the rule of law and government accountability with the European Union’s representative to Erbil on Thursday ahead of the EU’s release of its 2018 strategy on Iraq.
Some of the attendees at the International University of Erbil (IUE) seminar appreciated hearing directly from governmental officials, while others questioned what impact the West can have in today's Middle East. One man, whose salary has been cut after Baghdad's international flight ban, wanted to know what the EU is actually willing to do on the ground to mediate Erbil-Baghdad talks.
Clarisse Pasztory, head of the EU Delegation Liaison Office in Erbil, explained that the EU believes Iraqi territorial integrity is important because "this is our own world view. We believe in integration as a means of peace and stability — and not in division — but in a cooperative world order.”
The Kurdistan Region held an independence referendum in September 2017, but intended the vote to be a means to begin dialogue with Baghdad rather than an immediate declaration of independence.
Pasztory argued that borders are “sacrosanct in our understanding until they are changed.”
When borders are changed, it is done “in accordance with local, national, and international rules and mechanisms” and must be done with an eye to the long term, “not ad-hoc interest-based.”
The EU's new policy for Iraq will be "based on the rule of law and human rights" and will aim to empower institutions to hold entities accountable.
"The European Union doesn't support political parties and we don't support individuals. We support institutions. We believe in a representative democracy,” said Pasztory. “We believe in the people being able to act through institutions, elected institutions.”
Elections are meant to provide democracy, she said. "But don't mistake elections for democracy. This is a mistake frequently encountered in Iraq and in Kurdistan.”
“Elections are a part of democracy,” she explained, but rule of law is “the most important underlying part of democracy… laws that are applicable to everyone.”
The role of institutions, such as parliament, is to implement the rules and conduct oversight. "Daesh [ISIS] would have never have appeared if Iraq was a functioning state based on democratic rule of law and human rights," she asserted.
Defeating ISIS guided EU strategy in Iraq since 2014. Now that Iraq and Kurdistan are entering a new phase with the military defeat of ISIS, "there are new needs, there are new interests," said Pasztory, explaining these will be outlined on Monday when the EU's foreign affairs and security policy office releases its "new proposal to strengthen support to the Iraqi people."
Pasztory said the EU's humanitarian assistance will continue, while reconstruction assistance will increase. She estimated that they have spent close to €3 billion in Iraq since 2003 and at least €650 million since 2014.
The EU will also continue to assist the Iraqi and Kurdistan governments in the prosecution of alleged ISIS members.
Moving forward, Pasztory said Iraq "has identity issues that have certainly existed post-Saddam, maybe before, but certainly post-Saddam."
There is no common understanding among all people living in Iraq as to what Iraq is, she said. The EU is prepared to assist Iraqis "in finding this new social contract, this new understanding."
While a prosperous and stable Iraq will stem emigration and benefit Europe, Pasztory said that is not what is guiding EU policy.
"We are not doing this because we are a super-NGO, not because it’s our raison d'etre, but because we believe in you,” she said. “We want an Iraq with strong entities, with a strong Iraqi Kurdistan... with clear rights [for all]."
The EU is "very proud" it has supported economic reform in the Kurdistan Region, an "extremely important undertaking for the long-term future," she added.
Head of EU Liaison Office in Erbil Clarisse Pasztory speaks with academia at IUE on January 11. Video: Rudaw TV
Speaking to Rudaw English, Pasztory said Thursday’s event was an important exchange of ideas between the EU and students and academics.
About 50 people attended the ‘Foreign Policy of European Union in Iraq and Kurdistan’ seminar.
Sookie Hong, the coordinator of international relations at IUE and the event’s organizer, explained the students were prepared for "an open communication" because they encourage it in the classroom between professors and students.
Hong believes the Kurdistan Region could do a better job of reaching out across the world.
"The situation they are facing is one of the main reasons they have not been exporting international relations," said Hong, pointing out that the international community seemed un-informed after the referendum.
Some IUE students and faculty shared their thoughts of the conference with Rudaw English.
Hani Musa, a research student in general management
Musa worked at Erbil International Airport prior to Baghdad's introduction of the international flight ban following Kurdistan's independence referendum.
He said he was interested in attending the seminar because "the situation is very bad here in Iraq generally and Kurdistan specifically."
While still receiving some of his salary, Musa explained that he is in a “difficult situation.”
"So I wanted to know what’s the EU's policy in Kurdistan and what they are going to do for us, why especially Baghdad is doing better and has no intention of removing the sanctions.”
He came away frustrated, with the impression that the EU views the stalemate between Baghdad and Erbil as an internal problem.
"I believe that we cannot solve it by ourselves alone. We should have it mediated by the US, or the UN, or the EU — engaged in the dialogue,” he said.
Dileen Joad, a student majoring in international relations and diplomacy
Until moving to Erbil two years ago, Joad had lived her entire life in Damascus where she saw the civil war unfold first hand.
"[The international community] is doing its best to help. They will give some kinds of help, but not majorly. I didn't see anything major [in Syria],” said Joad, whose father is from the Kurdistan Region and mother from Syria.
The international relations and diplomacy major believes the West is perhaps less capable now of positively impacting other parts of the world, than previously.
"Maybe in the past they did major and great things, but now I'm sorry, this is the honest truth: I didn't see anything to say [that's good],” said Joad.
Hemin Merani, a lecturer on international and diplomatic studies
Merani enjoyed hearing and interacting first-hand from diplomats.
“It was very open. It was the first time we are hearing information first-hand from the high representative of the EU in Erbil,” he said. After opening remarks, the session was closed to the media so that participants could feel freer sharing their opinions.
Both the federal government and regional government’s complaints about the constitution were brought up in the closed-door meeting.
Merani said it was good to hear Pasztory make statements about the importance of government and institutions being accountable to the people.
“The culture norms and values of these Middle Eastern societies are quite different than in the European context,” he said. “So it’s good, it’s nice to hear these kinds of statements — in theory. When it comes to implementing, it’s really, really difficult… Can parliaments hold government and officials accountable [here]? It’s really difficult.”
Merani argued that while building institutions takes time, the Kurdistan Region only had three universities in 1991, now they have 25 public and private colleges.