European Affairs

The EU Should Act on Its Principles in the Middle East     Print Email
Steven Everts

Senior Research Fellow, Centre for European Reform, London

The Middle East is once again plunged into crisis, with rising levels of tension and hatred on all sides. The prospects for a comprehensive peace accord are slipping ever further away. The outside world, meanwhile, is at a loss as to how to stop the bloodshed and how to salvage something, anything, from the now defunct Middle East Peace Process.

Against this background, it is inevitable that Europeans are asking themselves what they, together with the Americans and others, can do. The answers they come up with will be important not just for the Middle East itself, but also for the future of European foreign policy.

In recent years, the European Union has been trying to assert itself on the global stage, so as to project its values and to defend its interests worldwide. Many in Europe agree that European integration is increasingly been driven by external political factors, rather than by the EU's internal economics.

But these attempts to forge a credible Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) have been fraught with difficulties, including diplomatic incoherence and military weakness. Javier Solana, the EU's High Representative for foreign policy, has said that for too long the EU was comparable to the World Bank: it was a place where people handed out money.

Despite its best efforts, the EU could never quite shake off the damning, but oft-repeated criticism, that it was an economic giant but a political pygmy. Deeply unhappy with this state of affairs, the current set of European leaders wants Europe "to raise its game." That, of course, is easier said than done.

If the EU wants to become a more in§uential global player, it has to learn how to use its considerable economic clout and the various common instruments at its disposal - such as trade policy, economic and technical assistance, humanitarian aid and so on - to support a political strategy.

The EU also has to overcome its aversion to setting political priorities for what it wants to achieve, acknowledging that it cannot do everything. And, once they have been established, it should learn to stick to its priorities in the face of inevitable opposition. Sometimes in foreign policy it is necessary to antagonize people in order to achieve your aims.

What does this mean in concrete terms for the Middle East? The first part of any European involvement will be declaratory in nature and focused on the short-term. We can expect EU leaders to continue with their habitual statements expressing "deep concern" over the violence and urging the parties to resume negotiations.

This has been the constant refrain from European leaders, including Mr. Solana during his recent trips to the region. But, while necessary and worthwhile, this part of EU strategy is unlikely to produce decisive results any time soon.

That is why the EU needs to go beyond its tradition of dealing with foreign policy by simply passing resolutions. There are two particular ways in which the EU can do just that: first by teaming up with the United States and second by unashamedly using its economic strength for a political purpose.

It is important for the EU to ensure that it does not give fresh ammunition to those Americans who see EU foreign policy as meaningless in its substance and anti-American in its motivation.

There is a whole battery of analysts in Washington that constantly pours over European communiqués and analyses almost in the hope of getting their basic fears confirmed, namely that the main driver behind EU integration is some sort of Euro-Gaullism.

This perception, of course, is nearly always exaggerated, if not groundless. And the more sensible American Atlanticists realize that a successful CFSP will provide the Americans with a more useful global partner. Still, perceptions, and misperceptions, are real in their consequences. That is why the EU has to continue to explain its precise aims and motives.

The EU should tread extra carefully as the Bush administration is still working out its own Middle East strategy. A more robust or assertive European stance could all too easily be misinterpreted, deliberately or not, as wishing to supplant, or counterbalance, American diplomacy.

In this respect it is noticeable and encouraging that European and American officials are working closely together in their fire-fighting efforts. The fact that calls to end the bloodshed are issued in virtually identical words in Washington and Brussels bears out this assumption.

The two sides are also united in their criticisms regarding the unwillingness of both Israelis and Palestinians to make the necessary concessions for peace talks to resume.

Personal relations are good, too. Mr. Solana has been in constant touch with Colin Powell, the U.S. Secretary of State, and he was a member of the expert group that produced the Mitchell Report on the origins of the violence, with suggestions on the way forward.

In sum, and unlike previous occasions when Europeans and American tended to fall out over the Middle East when tensions on the ground were high, the United States and Europe have worked closely together during the latest episode Middle East crisis.

The EU and the United States should build on this rapprochement by further strengthening their co-operation. One way to do so would be to issue a joint statement on the way forward for the Peace Process. The underlying convergence of perspectives makes it easier to agree to such a joint statement.

It is also clear that there is a shared impotence between the EU and United States, since neither seems to hold decisive leverage over the parties. But by working together in a high profile manner that could change.

In the joint document, both sides would present their common analysis, plus suggestions on confidence-building measures and an outline for an eventual settlement. All the signs are that the Middle East leaders are behaving in a destructive manner, which is why Europe and America should consider bolder, electric shock-type measures.

There are also a number of things that the EU can and should

do alone, and which are aimed mainly at the medium-term. For instance, if the Europeans are serious about their claim that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories (the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, as well as East Jerusalem) are illegal and an obstacle to peace, they should accept the consequences.

This means that exports from these settlements should not enter the EU market on the preferential terms offered to Israel in the EU-Israel association agreement. The Commissioner for external relations, Chris Patten, deserves full support in his attempt to make this clear to the Israelis.

The EU should also stress that Israeli obstruction of Palestinian exports to the EU is wholly unacceptable. The same is true for the Israeli refusal to transfer the import duties and tax receipts it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. The EU is entitled to take a hard line on these issues because of the large sums of money it gives to the Palestinians (around ó800 million a year), the benefits of which are seriously diminished by Israeli policy.

By the same token, the EU should not hesitate to use its extensive aid to the Palestinian Authority to demand tangible progress on standards of democracy, civil society and good governance. So far, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has exercised an unhealthy control over the Authority.

The EU could, for instance, strengthen the position of the Palestinian Legislative Council by insisting that it should have the ultimate say over the distribution of aid money. The EU could also support those Palestinians who strive for a constitution in which the responsibilities of the executive, legislative and judicial powers are clearly defined.

These steps will benefit the Palestinians themselves. But more importantly, an autocratic and illiberal Palestinian Authority will not be a credible partner for peace for the Israelis.

The EU can also, through training programs, do more to enhance the standards and accountability of the Palestinian security forces. And, to prepare for the eventual creation of a viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, the EU could offer financial assistance for infrastructural works connecting East Jerusalem with the Palestinian hinterland.

The point of all these individual measures is to support, in a meaningful way, the EU's overall diplomatic strategy. Both Israelis and Palestinians will doubtless denounce some of these steps. Similarly, some in Washington will assert that the Middle East is the preserve of U.S. diplomacy, that the Europeans are too pro-Arab, and that any EU involvement should be limited to providing financial support.

But the EU should have the courage of its convictions. And thankfully the majority of American officials and leaders, well aware of the failure of successive U.S. administrations to solve the region's problems, now welcome a constructive European role to put pressure on the recalcitrant parties.

The EU's approach to the Middle East is underpinned by sound principles - land for peace, non-violence, self-determination, a two-state solution and so on. The challenge ahead is to put words into action.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number III in the Summer of 2001.



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