What Europe does best

The EU must stop measuring its success in contributing to peace through its ability to score political points over the US.

ashton Gaza factory AP for gallery (photo credit: AP)
ashton Gaza factory AP for gallery
(photo credit: AP)
It is not difficult to understand the European Union’s determination to play a constructive role in solving the Israel- Palestine conflict.
Generations of European policy-makers have believed that a permanent settlement of this conflict on the basis of a twostate solution is not only vital for the Middle East but, in the words of former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, is “fundamental to our own security.”
They have also come to view Europe’s success in transforming its economic power into political influence in the conflict as a key indictor of its capacity to play a role on the international stage.
This has been very apparent in recent weeks when the EU’s representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, rushed to the region from Washington to shore up the floundering peace talks following criticism that she failed to raise the international profile of the recently launched European External Action Service – a new mechanism designed to give the EU a stronger voice.
Staying put in Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy very publicly announced that after a decade of US failure to bring peace, the EU could no longer act as “spectators” and could no longer “contribute money and then be outside the political process.”
Yet the reality is that both Israel and the Palestinians view US diplomacy rather than European money as the key to a final political settlement. Time and again, domestic political considerations and intra-European competition have prevented the consensus and common policy necessary for effective joint European action in the Middle East. Europe remains unable to convince Israelis or Palestinians that it has more to offer them than Washington in the role as mediator, sponsor and guarantor of peace.
ON TAKING office in 1995, Sarkozy’s predecessor Jacques Chirac demanded that the EU develop a role in the peace process independent of the US, and he pressured Yasser Arafat to lend support to his proposal for restarting negotiations with the EU on an equal footing with the US.
This diplomatic push had little practical impact. Neither did the European Commission’s demand that the EU participate “alongside” the US in negotiations on the grounds that Europe was “dwarfing the efforts of all other donors.”
By 1998, the EU accounted for almost 55 percent of all aid to the PA, compared to 11% from the US. But this was all but forgotten when US president Bill Clinton made an official visit to Gaza.
Nabil Shaath, then PA foreign minister, compared Clinton’s trip to Nixon’s visit to China, and explained that America’s special relationship with Israel, combined with its special relationship with the Palestinians, that was “best for the peace process.”
It is not surprising that by mid-2000 the French press was quoting a gloomy Chirac bemoaning the fact that “the Europeans don’t count in these negotiations...
we must not have any illusions. Clinton is running the whole thing.”
Little has changed in the post-Oslo era.
If current US peace envoy George Mitchell can’t keep the Palestinians and Israelis talking, then it seems inconceivable that there is anything the EU can bring to the table that will. So what should Europe do? Recently Marc Otte, the EU’s special representative for Middle East peace, looked forward to the day that the EU would be “a full player” in the politics of the conflict.
But the EU should stop measuring its success in contributing to peace in terms of its ability to score political points over the US, or gain a political role commensurate with its economic weight.
Instead it should emphasize its longtime position as the international community’s lead donor to the PA as well as Israel’s number one trading partner.
Though unglamorous, Europe’s budgetary support for Palestinian institutions and infrastructure, as well as its humanitarian, refugee and food aid has been hugely important to sustaining Palestinian society. It continues to be key to the state-building process.
When a Palestinian state is finally established, the EU will play a crucial role in doing what it has done best in Europe over the past half century – promoting consensus and economic cooperation among former enemies in the interests of regional prosperity and longterm stability. Europe, Israel and the Palestinians would all be well served if the EU fully acknowledged the importance of this role, not as a pretext for political influence, but as an end in itself.

The writer is director of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King’s College London. His new book Inglorious Disarray: Europe, Israel and the Palestinians since 1967 will be published by Hurst/Columbia University Press in 2011. This article is published in cooperation with the Common Grounds News Service (CGNews).