By Ruba Zinati
The Middle East and the North African region have been witnessing a more direct and visible EU role in the unfolding events that the region is currently experiencing. This new activity contrasts with the role the EU has been pursuing in the Arab-Israeli conflict – a role that has been perceived by Middle Easterners as merely providing the financial support for arrangements which the US has mediated; in other words taking the back seat behind the US in the process of political intervention that aims to find a settlement for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
However, it would be unfair not to mention that the Europeans have taken some important stances in working to resolve this conflict, most notably the Venice Declaration in 1980 which enhanced the efforts as well as raised hopes to find a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict based on UN resolutions 242 and 338. The significance of the declaration lies in the fact that it recognized the need for the self-determination of the Palestinian people which the UN Charter preserves for all.
As such, the declaration transformed the Palestinian problem from a mere refugee problem into a case of self-determination that should end with an independent Palestinian state within the pre 1967 borders which can gain international legitimacy.
There are several determinants that govern and influence both the European and Arab stances towards the other and so affect the European role in the region. On the one hand the historical memory that comprises colonialism and its repercussions among the people of the region continues to impact negatively on the credibility of the EU role. On the other hand the geographical proximity between the region and Europe has played a vital role in crafting European policies and has great influence in shaping European policies and strategies towards the region.
A key strategy that the EU has crafted and employed in the region from the 1990s onwards is the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership policy and its complementary European neighborhood Policy that aims to foster social and economic cooperation and partnership between the two regions. This comprehensive strategy aims at creating political cooperation with the purpose of enhancing the efforts of conflict resolution through the social and economic frameworks.
However, EU political involvement in resolving the region’s most intractable conflict came in its best forms as a modest involvement that dealt only with the financial support of initiatives being crafted mainly by the US – this cemented the prior perception in the region that the EU lacks the seriousness to tackle the root causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The majority in the region identify such involvement as disappointing the expectations they hold about this role. They believe that the European bear a “moral responsibility” towards the Arab-Israeli conflict which requires them to undertake the main role in solving this conflict since they were identified as the central actor in planting its seeds.
Foremost, the modern European involvement in the region dates back to the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century in the colonization of the MENA region, in which the entire region was distributed between the then major powers that of England and France. Most important was the issue of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which stated that “the British government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people….while it should be clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”. The Europeans came to support that part of the declaration concerned with the establishment of Israel and supporting its well-being and security while abandoning the component that preserved the rights of the “non-Jewish communities”.
In addition to the failure by the Europeans to craft an even-handed policy towards the region during the first half of the twentieth century, these polices were crafted with the intention of serving the European economic interests especially in the oil sector without taking into consideration the repercussions of such policies on the local economies. This contributed to widening the negative image of the European presence in the region and strengthening the perception that the European did not hold good intentions in the region.
These perceptions among the people of the MENA region, accompanied by the European low-profile political strategies that were directed towards the Arab-Israeli conflict in the second half of the twentieth century, did not help in building the credibility of the European role in the region – the skepticism towards this role kept its momentum.
Nevertheless, there were a number of considerable initiatives to tackle the conflict especially in the 1980s and after; but the expected and desired EU role that would meet the requirements of moral responsibility as well as “fixing” the inherited harm of years of colonialism did not materialize. Such policies were categorized by the people in the region as “polices of abandoning”, in the sense of abandoning their historical obligations and not including any framework for dealing with these obligations in the multiple strategies that have been attempted in the region.
In most cases EU policies lacked consistency because in most they came as a direct response to multiple factors such as security concerns – whether they are regional or international. The dilemma and tradeoffs between stability and democracy are clear: resulting in sending messages about the European position contrary to what they are advocating; such as backing democratic reforms and supporting development processes. In addition the EU’s economic needs and policies contributed to drawing up intractable regulations and laws directed at the EU southern borders and MENA countries to fit the economic needs of EU. These regulations laid extra burdens on the economies of the aforementioned countries and negatively affected their economic situation, producing security concerns for the MENA countries as well as EU countries.
As such, the need for a robust EU role is now even more vital than before, accompanied by a consistent political strategy towards the region that is mutually beneficial; also, partnering with the international powers working for a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict which guarantees the two state solution and preserve the rights of all concerned parties. The time has come for this EU role to materialize in order to establish the desired Palestinian state on the borders of pre-1967 war; a solution which is longed for by all the Arab and Islamic countries. Furthermore, working to build a credible relationship with the MENA countries based on mutual cooperation and the appreciation of the culture, sovereignty and humanity of the other. Such a relationship would moreover serve their mutual interests with regard to security.
Ruba Zinati political researcher at the Regional Centre on Conflict Prevention (RCCP)-Jordan Institute of Diplomacy (JID), works on: conflict prevention; justice and peacebuilding in the Middle East and Western Balkans within EU’s Seventh framework program. Other areas of specialization: US foreign policy and Middle Eastern studies.