EU role in the Middle East peace process

The pitfalls of the European Union (EU) policy towards the Middle East are symptomatic of an overarching problem affecting the EU itself: the persistent absence of a political strategy, comprehensive of both short term and long term policies, that would empower the Union to deal with its needs and goals. Strategy, defined here as a programmatic vision including values, goals and means to achieve them, is the natural precondition of a decision making process. This stands for human beings in their everyday life, as well as for collective bodies such as political institutions. Javier Solana, the first high representative for the EU common foreign and security policy, made an attempt to formulate a coherent EU foreign policy, which culminated in the 2003 European Security Strategy. On the contrary, Catherine Ashton, empowered with enhanced tools by the treaties   to shape the EU external action, was openly against the very idea of strategy. The fact that Federica Mogherini committed since her first day in office not only to revise the document of 2003, but also to produce a new and global strategy, clearly shows that this vacuum needs to be filled in.

The absence of strategy has a disruptive effect on the EU’s ability to play a role beyond its borders. For instance, the military intervention of certain European states in Libya in 2011, which denied to Europe the possibility of acting united in such a predicament, completely lacked any political follow-up, by either member states or the EU. More recently, the attempt to outsource the managing of refugees’ flow into Europe with a political deal with Turkey has once again demonstrated the inability of European states to stick together and face their own difficulties. It also shows a tendency to sacrifice the definition of strategic relationships, such as the one with Turkey, to the desire to find shortcut solutions to impending problems. Beyond single cases, the final outcome, paired with very poor results when it comes to protect European interests, is a state of profound confusion, which undermines the chances of the EU to play a global role at all. A recent study by an American think-tank has recently asked authors from Europe’s Southern neighbourhood to give assessments of the EU’s foreign policy toward their countries: they all defined it as “confused” but in two cases, Palestine and Libya, where it was described as “unconstructive.”

As France attempts to resume the talks on the Palestinian question, it is interesting to use the EU role in the Middle East peace process for further analysis. On June 3rd, Mogherini declared that the Middle East peace process remains a priority for the EU foreign policy towards the region, and remarked the centrality of dealing with the conflict in Palestine to increase regional stability. The EU has indeed led the way to recognize statehood rights to Palestinians, while keeping strong ties with Israel at the same time. This represents a geopolitical unicum, whose potentialities for peace mediation should not be underestimated. Thus, Europe is clearly not just a player when it comes to Palestine. However, the reluctance of European states to openly use its leverages vis-a-vis Israel has tamed European efforts to promote a two-state solution, and resulted in the inability to fulfil the vacuum left by the political disengagement of the United States in the region. Yet, as we get closer to the next U.S. presidential elections, it is increasingly crucial for the EU to define its approach to the peace process, as both Clinton and Trump clearly support only one side of the conflict.

The EU has the possibility to act in more than one front to contribute to resume peace talks, and pave the way for a solution to the conflict, that could bring increased security to Israel as well as justice to the Palestinians. First, the EU should put its efforts to shift the costs-benefits calculation of the Israelis in continuing the occupation longer. The EU can impact on Israeli public opinion by actually implementing its policy of passive enforcement, which differentiates between Israel and the settlements. It should also react when Israel destroys EU-funded projects, and work on new channels for aid, in order to directly reach civil societies, stimulate Palestinian ownership and agency, and avoid the risk of uplifting Israel of its own economic obligations towards occupied territories under international norms. Secondly, the EU should use its privileged “middle-ground-role” to revive the Arab Peace Process, by strongly framing the Palestinian dispute as a key tassel of the broader security puzzle in the Middle East. New dynamics and new threats, such as Daesh, create new needs for cooperation between Israel and the Arab world. This changed context can be exploited to spur a new momentum for the peace process.

This is just an example of how a clear, and bolder, strategy would increase the ability of the EU to follow up words with actions, while regaining its dignity before its citizens and credibility in the international arena. In fact, lacking of a clear foreign policy line, European policy makers are less obliged to be faithful to their own statements and less accountable to public opinion. The definition of a strategic external action is an effort of political willingness and means giving substantive meaning to provisions found in the treaties. The current revision of the global strategy is taking place in a time of great turmoil and uncertainty, and the importance of the Middle East and the Mediterranean has revealed its full magnitude by hitting the very heart of Europe. This paradoxically represents an incredible opportunity. European states may finally get to the basic understanding that when it comes to the European states ‘my weakness is your weakness’ and the stakes are simply too high to back off.

Laura Basagni

Trainee at the Brussels Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States