On the 4th April 2019, Forward Thinking convened a meeting of the Helsinki Policy Forum’s steering group. The discussions were opened by H.E. Timo Soini, Foreign Minister of Finland, and was organised in partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland.

The meeting brought together senior government officials, parliamentarians and financial experts from over 10 countries across Europe and the Gulf-MENA region. The purpose of discussions was to create an opportunity for a frank exchange of perspectives on recent developments in the region and to foster a better understanding of what prevents progress on key crises.

Europe and the Gulf-MENA region face the twin challenges of populism and growing polarisation. In combination these trends are deepening existing crises, reopening old divisions, and promoting a zero sum approach to international affairs. Policymakers in Europe and the Middle East need to demonstrate why the approach of populists will prove counter-productive in the long-term, and show citizens they have viable alternatives. This will require more effective co-ordination and co-operation to tackle the common challenges – migration, economic development, climate change, and transnational terrorism – which are too large for any nation-state to address alone.

Unfortunately tensions between regional powers in the Middle East remain high and present an obstacle to fostering more collaborative approaches. And while Europe has the potential to facilitate greater regional dialogue, its attention and capacities are currently stretched by a diverse array of policy priorities.

Nevertheless, there are numerous opportunities to take small steps, through which trust can built and the tangible benefits of co-operation demonstrated. In time this can create momentum in the Gulf-MEMA region for greater dialogue and the development of a shared approach on some common challenges.

In addition to these macro trends, the meeting offered a space to explore specific issues in depth. In Yemen, the international community needs to sustain the process that has been started in Stockholm and to convey clearly to Yemeni partners that they must continue the talks in a positive spirit.

On Israel-Palestine, the world awaits further details of the Trump administration’s so-called Deal of the Century, but there is mounting concern that it may actually exacerbate tensions rather than make any positive contribution to a durable resolution.

The JCPOA is under strain, with mounting frustration within Iran that the deal has not delivered the desired benefits. Although Europe is seen to be trying to keep the deal alive, there are concerns that it could collapse. If this were to occur, it would be profoundly destabilising for regional security and would undermine the trust between Europe and Iran that has been built at great cost over the past decade.

As part of this steering group,  meetings of the Helsinki Policy Forum’s women’s parliamentary network and the environmental working group were also convened.  These are initiatives that have been developed in response to specific challenges identified in previous meetings of the Forum and where it is felt there is a need for a deeper and sustained dialogue.