Oil

An Egyptian protester waves the national flag. MAHMUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images

A protester waves the Egyptian flag (Getty)

After a decade of introspection, Europe is being forced to confront the instability on its borders, particularly to the east and the south.

At least five deeply troubled states – Mali, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine – pose a diverse series of threats ranging from a flood of refugees to the radicalisation of individuals and terrorism, to the disruption of energy supplies.

The problems in each of the five could spread to other states and regions – including Lebanon, Algeria and the Balkans. But further problems could be yet to come, if the list of unstable countries is extended to include Egypt. The risk is very serious.

A casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that Egypt has been stabilised by the election of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the removal from government of the Muslim Brotherhood. The outcome may not be exactly what was hoped for when the protesters gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo three and a half years ago, but there is order in the streets. Unfortunately that is not the full story. Egypt is financially broke and dangerously dependent on the insecure generosity of the Gulf states. The risk of violence has killed the tourist industry, which was a major source of revenue and employment. Living standards have fallen and Egypt now faces a profound crisis with a shortage of energy, water and food. 

Last week I wrote about the forthcoming independence referendum in Kurdistan. To move from events there to what is happening in Scotland is a surreal experience. In Erbil the vote will be a deadly serious matter which could create a new country for a nation which as they say has no friends but the mountains having been a victim of international betrayal and cynicism for centuries. There is no knowing whether the Kurdish referendum will end in triumph or tragedy. In Edinburgh what should be an equally serious debate about breaking the relationship with the rest of the UK is now close to a farce. 

Flying east over the mountains into the new international airport of Erbil, the administrative capital of Kurdistan, you are conscious of entering history. Times past – how many wars just have been fought around the citadel in Erbil – one of the oldest known settlements in continuous occupation in the world – over its 5,000 year history? But also current history because what is happening in Erbil now could reshape not just Iraq but the rest of the Middle East. And, almost incidentally, the world oil market. 

Premier Li Keqiang of China is due in the UK this week. Despite all the challenges and potential disagreements there is scope for much closer cooperation around joint work on big issues. Energy should be at the heart of the discussion. 

By common agreement the situation in Iraq is dangerous and deteriorating. By similar common agreement there is no appetite for international intervention to do anything about it. Neither the US or Europe or anyone else will be sending forces into the besieged cities Mosul or Kirkuk. After more than a decade of unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no public or political support for engagement anywhere – not in Syria, Libya or now in northern Iraq. Though totally understandable, I think this is profoundly wrong and very dangerous.