Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s return to the Arab League this spring signalled the end of eleven years of political isolation in the region.

Yet this recent normalisation among neighbours has not extended westward to the EU. Despite a donor pledge of €9.6 billion in dedicated grants and loans for Syrians earlier this month, EU chief Joseph Borrell reaffirmed there would be no thawing of EU-Syria relations.

Speaking at the 7th Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria on 14 June, Borrell was clear that any sanctions against the Syrian government would remain and the isolation of the Assad regime would continue.

But as humanitarian groups cite the politicisation of borders as a restriction on vital aid corridors – highlighted during the recent earthquake response – the question now is whether the EU’s long-standing position of Assad fits with Syria’s new reality.

Not all in the European Parliament share Borrell’s views, however, and while the majority of voices in the parliament are critical of the normalisation of Assad in the Arab League, some are simply reiterating long-held support for Assad’s rule through unofficial delegations, comments on social media, and through their votes in the parliament.


Assad and the MEPs

Fringe MEPs have for many years argued for a political compromise with the Assad regime. The most established of these voices is that of French far-right National Rally MEP and frequent visitor to Syria, Thierry Mariani.

In 2019, Mariani, along with fellow far-right French MEPs Nicolas Bay and Virgine Joron, attended a trip in Syria paid for in part by the Syrian government.

Later in 2021, two years before Assad was welcomed back into the Arab League, another group again led by Mariani travelled to Syria to meet Assad this time the group included fellow French National Rally MEP Herve Juvin.


The itinerary outlined the ‘Project program for the visit of French MEP Thierry Mariani member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament’. That same year Mariani also attended an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow, including business class flights and a stay at the Kremlin-favoured President’s Hotel.

Mariani has met with Assad at least six times and is in direct opposition to French President Emmanuel Macron and his policies on Syria. He is a vocal supporter of Syria in the parliament and his voting record is a consistent endorsement of Syrian government interests, including the lifting of sanctions. Along with Mariani, Estonian Centre Party MEP Yana Toom has also met with Assad.

Images of MEPs Javier Couso Permuy (Spain), Tatjana Zdanoka (Latvian Russian Union), and Toom with Assad sparked outrage in Brussels in 2016 with many claiming the group were misrepresenting EU interests in Syria.

The trip which Toom described as a ‘‘business trip’ was reportedly organised by the Syrian embassy in Spain. Speaking in an interview shortly after, Toom said, “For me, doubtless, this was a business trip. I intend to definitely talk about what I saw at a meeting of my faction, of the impressions and the proposals. I believe I will find supporters to that approach”.


In 2017, Toom did find supporters in members of the Syrian Peace Process Support Group of the European Parliament, which included previous visitors MEPs Javier Couso Permuy and Tatjana Zdanoka, but also Andrejs Mamikins (Lativan Russian Union), Fabio Massimo Castaldo (Five Star Movement), and Stefano Maullu (Brothers of Italy) who travelled with Toom to Syria.

These MEP audiences with Assad have been an ongoing source of embarrassment for legislators in Brussels who have been battling disinformation gathered abroad by MEPs for several years.

In 2013 far-right former MEP Nick Griffin from the British BNP (British National Party) visited Syria weeks after the Ghouta chemical attacks and continues to maintain that chemical attacks in Syria were ‘false flags’.

The number of trips carried out by rebel politicians also highlighted the blurred line between an official and unofficial EU visit and whether ‘rogue’ MEPs are misrepresenting these trips as official EU positions when they travel.


A spokesperson for the parliament told The New Arab that MEPs are free to travel in a personal capacity but must declare any payments received and clarify they are not working in an official capacity.

“MEPs are independent and can organise [their] own initiative travels to carry out official duties beside official missions. When travelling in a private capacity, MEPs do not represent the Institution,” they said.

“Members shall disclose their attendance at events organised by third parties where the reimbursement of their travel, accommodation, or subsistence expenses, or the direct payment of such expenses, is covered by a third party.”

MEPs declarations, while revealing, do little to clear up the confusion about what is or isn’t an official visit. For Assad, whose domestic news agency Sana carries images of all visiting European politicians and omits the clunky ‘unofficial’ terminology, these visits undoubtedly add a veneer of legitimacy and bolster the idea that the EU is far from united in its views on Syria.


It is also unclear if MEPs are using their official emails to organise these trips, and due to privacy and data protection, the European Parliament will not disclose details on individual expenses unless MEPs themselves decide to do so.

This leaves a lot of reporting up to the politicians themselves, which, according to one former MEP, is far from the best option. Speaking on condition of anonymity to The New Arab, they described a trip to an Asian country mired in human rights abuses as part of an official EU delegation.

“There was open access to political aids who offered food, wines, and on occasion scantily clad women brandishing bottles in the guise of hotel assistants. I guess the idea is to get you on their side and then just work on you. It was pretty obvious we were being fed propaganda but I suppose some people fall for it,” they said.

Travelling to the other end of the political spectrum, two left MEPs in the parliament, who have long touted Assad as a socialist alternative to the US, have been visiting his regime since 2017.


Irish Independent 4 Change (I4C) MEPs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace are frequent visitors to Syria and through their social media and widely shared speeches in parliament they have become some of the most prolific opponents of sanctions.

Despite their efforts, earlier this year the EU increased sanctions against Assad’s relatives and inner circle. A statement in April by the Council of Europe claimed several of Assad’s relatives are responsible for turning Syria into a fully forged narco-state.

The sanctions, which targeted 25 people and eight entities, included two of Assad’s cousins who were specifically accused of trading in Captagon, an amphetamine produced in Syria which is believed to generate billions in revenue for the regime.

Shortly before the announcement of additional sanctions against Assad’s relatives, MEPs Francesca Donato (Italy Independent), Gunnar Beck, (Alternative für Deutschland), Clare Daly (I4C), Stasys Jakeliūnas (Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union), Gilles Lebreton (National Rally), Thierry Mariani (National Rally), Mick Wallace (I4C), and Tatjana Ždanoka (Latvian Russian Union) put forward a motion to remove sanctions against the Assad regime.


The kaleidoscope of far-right and left politicians, many of whom have visited Syria and all of whom voted against an EU motion declaring Russia a terrorist state, bar Jakeliūnas, who abstained from the vote, is becoming a common occurrence.

Migration, Russia, and the wars in Ukraine and Syria are creating a strange alliance between Europe’s radical left and right fringes.

Mounting EU assistance to Syria, now estimated at 30 billion since 2011, is a statistic unlikely to be ignored by those in these fringes vying to keep their seats in the next election.

Add to that the code of ethics and its loose implementation and there lies an embarrassing and incendiary conflict at the heart of the EU’s current policy of Syria’s political isolation.

The New Arab