The end of the cold war brought hopes to the Arab states of the Middle East that the European Union (EU), especially since it coincided with the birth of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, would be able to act as a counterweight to the United States (US) policies in this region. As many Arab leaders repeatedly called for movements in this direction, they have been disappointed because the EU has not risen up to their expectations so far. The question one has to ask oneself here is what kind of presence the EU has managed to establish in the region and why it has not been able to establish a stronger presence. In order to answer this question, the features of the EU policy towards the Middle East will be examined in the first part of this essay. The second part will consist of an attempt to explain the obstacles the EU has encountered in the establishment of its influence in the region.
It may be a bit blunt to start the part stating the features of the EU's policy in the Middle East with the observation that it has been more or less absent from the region in many ways but it does, however, reflect a certain reality. As Olson puts it in the opening sentence of his article, “Europe's almost total exclusion from the American-led peace process has been so long standing and so institutionalised as to be accepted as a natural feature of the international landscape, sanctioned by history, reality, common practice, and expectation” . This bold statement needs to be explained, justified and nuanced a little bit as reality cannot be described to be as sharp as this opening sentence. This quote depicts a past reality, the reality which existed before Maastricht, before the creation of the EU, before the launching of the CFSP. With the birth of the CFSP, EU's foreign policy towards the Middle East has experienced some improvements; yet, the overall impression is that the EU does not play an important role in the Middle East. Saying this, however, one needs to define exactly what kind of role the EU is supposed to play and in what domain. When mentioning the presence (or absence) of the EU in the Middle East region, one almost automatically thinks of the possible role the EU could be playing in the Middle East peace process regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the EU could also play a role in the rest of the Middle East, and not necessarily a diplomatic or political role, it could be economic. The field of the role the EU is playing or could be playing in the Middle East is therefore vast and makes precision mandatory. In the case of the Middle East peace process, the EU is to be characterised by its political absence. The EU has had no important role whatsoever to play in peace talks, meetings or negotiations related to the Middle East peace process. For instance, the EU found itself given an even less influential part as it was merely asked to attend the signing of the Cairo Agreement . The list of examples testifying of the EU's political obliteration from negotiations regarding the Middle East peace process is quite exhaustive and therefore not necessary going through entirely. However, denying any role to the EU in the Middle East peace process is too extreme of a view. The EU has contributed to the political process of the Middle East peace process in a subtle way. Indeed, the EU and the EC before it, has led a consistent policy regarding the Isreali-Arab conflict, standing its ground concerning the requirements for peace ever since the Venice declaration of 1980 and has managed to impose its ideas. In Fawcett's words, the EU has “championed the view that the land-for-peace formula that underpinned the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979 is the appropriate formula for a comprehensive peace deal” . Indeed, this principle has been adopted by the UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 . Staying consistent with its traditional position, the EU has upheld other principles which it considers obligatory in order to achieve long lasting peace such as the right to self determination by Palestinians . The role of the EU has therefore been one of foundation laying. In addition to this pervasive influence, the EU, as we will see has tried to remedy to its absence by taking part in multilateral processes and economic assistance. These methods have shown some results; as Olson puts it “Europe, has become an integral (...) factor in the Middle East” .More clearly, Hollis underlines the importance of the economic role of the EU by writing that “Europe is already beginning to feature as a significant actor in the Middle East, simply by the cumulative effect of its activities in the economic sector” . Nevertheless, some people are calling for a more active role for the EU in the Middle East because the present one is “hardly noticeable” . At a multilateral level, the EU has attempted to develop its influence in different directions. First of all, it has participated in the peace process, not on a bilateral but multilateral level as it was absent from the Madrid process (the peace process) but given quite an important role when it was handed the position of gavel-holder (or coordinator) of the Regional Economic Development Working Group (REDWG) . The role of the EU was further enhanced by the appointment of the EU Special Envoy to the Middle East Peace Process (Mr. Morantinos) whose role has been to “report to the EU institutions of the developments in the Middle East peace process, establish and maintain relations between the EU and the relevant actors involved, and ensure that the EU policies and initiatives are well coordinated” . The efforts of the EU concentrated on the actors in the peace process which were left out of the US-sponsored peace talks, thinking that peace could not be brought to the Middle East if states such as Syria, Lebanon and Egypt were not seating at the negotiation table alongside Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The EU has emphasised the need for a global comprehensive approach so much that it has set up programs for cultural exchange, mutual understanding and confidence-building measures between the parties. For example, the EU, through its Special Envoy, has facilitated contacts between Israeli and Palestinian legislators . It has also recognised the role of civil society in conflict resolution and has therefore sought to increase contacts between Israeli and Palestinian academics, journalists and businessmen . Another major multilateral attempt by the EU to impose its presence in the Middle East has been the Barcelona Process launched in 1995. This very ambitious program seeks to bring together the states situated around the Mediterranean into a political, economic and cultural forum . The Barcelona Process is important to mention because the US and Russia were absent from its negotiations, hence demonstrating a clear attempt by the EU to enhance its profile as an international actor . The Barcelona provided Middle East states with a forum where they could meet. It could not, however be separated from the Madrid Process as it did not seek to replace peace talks . Indeed, the purpose of what came to be known as the EuroMed Partnership was to establish a “Euro-Mediterranean Zone of peace and stability” through economic and social development and modernisation . The state of the Madrid process inevitably has had an influence on the state of the Barcelona Process but was still a major breakthrough as it has been the only forum where Israel and Syria have met and talked regularly . A big part of the Barcelona Process concerns economic cooperation. The latter represents the most important feature of the EU's policy towards the Middle East for two reasons. First of all, economy and most financial issues have been handed over to the EU by the member states, making financial aid to the Middle East a supranational matter . Secondly, the world has undergone several changes which have changed the definition of security and the requirements to achieve it. As a matter of fact, globalisation has provoked a “decline in the importance of traditional geopolitics and a more economic definition of security” . As a result, the EU has put in place schemes to promote economic cooperation between the Middle East and itself, as it is the case with the Barcelona Process, or has provided financial help to the peace process. Regarding the Barcelona Process, the EU has made some great financial efforts in order to bring about economic cooperation between itself and its 12 Mediterranean partners. According to Olson, the Barcelona Process is an ambitious “multibillion dollar” partnership which could be compared to the US Caribbean Basin Initiative which promotes a “regional vision of political and economic development” . The price of such a far-ranging program is quite high. For instance, in 2004, the EU had to pour into the program about one billion euros . The impact of the Barcelona Process was meagre in spite of the economic effort of the EU as it has been too dependent on the Madrid Process. The main concern now is economic and financial assistance independent of a multilateral framework because as we will see, while the “multilaterals fell far short of expectation” , the strictly economic policies yielded some positive results. The most important EU economic policy towards the Middle East has been the financial assistance provided to the Palestinians. Over the years, the EU has become the single most important donor to the Palestinians . The logic commanding such and aid is the belief that “external economic assistance would trigger sufficient private sector investment flows to bring the living conditions of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip up to acceptable levels” . Following this logic, the EU has contributed to peace by granting the Palestinian Authority ECU 168 billion from 1994 to 1997 . This large amount of money comprises the ECU 17 million the EU provided for the organisation and monitoring of the first Palestinian elections in 1996 . This assistance has shown good results as the claim that it is thanks to the EU's economic and financial help that the peace process was kept alive when it reached dead ends several times . Overall, the influence of the EU in the Middle East, mostly in the form of economic assistance but not only (the EU is, for example, the first trading partner of Israel ) has grown considerably up to the point where sometimes, the EU outweighs economically the influence of the US in some states . The policy of the EU towards the Middle East has been characterised mostly by political abstaining, an attempt to break through on the political stage at a multilateral level and a more influential economic presence. Nevertheless, the EU has not managed to carve out a role for itself in the Middle East for reasons that can be traced back to the EU itself or to external sources in the international system.
Among the obstacles the EU has encountered in its quest for a role in the Middle East is one which came with its strategy. Indeed, the EU, when trying to make a place for itself in the Middle East decided to implement an economic policy, did not realise that an economic policy does not necessarily open the door to political influence. Although the economic policy proved to be a powerful instrument in some cases (the ratification of Israel's partnership agreement with the EU was held up until 1996 to signal EU's dissatisfaction with the policies of the Likud government ), there is a general agreement among European leaders that the EU's role should not be limited to economic and financial assistance , less so to be only the “paymaster” of the peace process . This idea is shared by the EU's partners, such as the Gulf states with who relations worsened in the 1990s, in the context of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-EU dialogue, because they insisted on the fact that “close relations could not be based on a strong trade and investment foundation alone” . This role of the EU in the Middle East might remind one of the saying “economic giant but political dwarf” which used to be applied to the EU in different circumstances. This difference between a rather well developed economic policy and a quasi-inexistent political policy towards the Middle East has led to the rise of the “player” vs. “payer” concept . Some scholars argue that being a “payer” has finally granted a “player” role to the EU in the Middle East but most academics favour the view that the economic weight of the EU does not make a “player” of it because it cannot back this role with a coherent foreign policy, in turn because this domain of politics has remained in the “realm of national sovereignty” within the EU . Therefore, the EU would lack sufficient policy instruments to be a unified actor . One needs indeed to keep in mind the limited capacity of any intergovernmental framework in general . In addition, the resources allocated to the EU's foreign policy are often limited and the EU then must prioritise, meaning, chose in between enlargement or a stronger Middle East policy for example . However, to say that the EU has not been playing an important role in the Middle East mostly because of its structure would be a mistake. Scholars have agreed to say that the EU possesses the necessary skills “for building regional structures, facilitating second-track and people-to-people diplomacy” within the framework of the CFSP. The reason then for which the EU has been unable to develop an effective role in the Middle East is because of a lack of political will to use its leverage with regional actors . What many scholars have noticed is that there has been a considerable gap between the EU's apparent potential to act and declared ambitions and its actual performance . The EU seems to have been going through some kind of confidence crisis as its own member states have appeared to believe in its capacity less than the outside world . One of the main reasons to explain the apparent lack of political will of the EU regarding the Middle East is that the member states have been competing with each other mainly for arms sales. For example, France has been selling arms to Israel while UK has been doing business with Saudi Arabia, at the expense of the Eurofighter, an European project . These differences of opinion became more and more visible with the emergence of the situation in Iraq which witnessed the EU being divided with the UK and Spain following the US and France and Germany refusing to do so. Therefore, there seems to be no European dynamic for which member states would be ready to give up their national interest regarding the Middle East. Another issue which needs to be mentioned and can be included in the lack of political will of the EU is the fact that the EU has been advocating democratisation and liberalisation, ideals which first of all are not necessarily part of Middle east culture but which most importantly are antagonistic . The problem of the EU is that it focuses too much on international law and western values and does not consider enough the regional specifics. Nibock argues that the EU should rather promote a “good governance” approach and “stability based on popular acceptance” . It looks like the EU could have a much more effective role in the Middle East than it does today, if only it was willing to use the tools at its disposal and modify a little bit its doctrine. This last conclusion will help to shed some light on the last part of this essay. In this part, what is set to be examined is the relationship between the EU and the US in the Middle East. The common view on this issue is one which presents the US-EU relation as one of domination and submission with the US excluding the EU from high politics in the Middle East by reviving instead the US-Russia Geneva formula . Some of these assumptions are not false; they just have to be nuanced. It is true that President Carter declared the Gulf security a “vital interest” and that elder President Bush and President Clinton were both “geopolitical” presidents, to put it in Furtig's words, who believed in US military superiority and hegemonic role in international affairs . For this reason, the EU has not been not given a part to play in Middle East diplomacy as it has mainly been conducted by the US. However, the interests of both the EU and the US are too important for one of them to follow the other unquestioningly, especially in the Gulf where the EU has interests in oil even more crucial than the US . The EU has recently proven that it would not give in to the US when it felt it did not have to with the resistance to the containment policy imposed by the US on Iran. Instead, the EU decided to implement a policy of “critical dialogue” . On the other hand, the EU has not had a conflictual approach to US policy in the Middle East. Risking to disappoint many Arab leaders, the EU has always upheld the view that it had no intention of counterbalancing US policies in the Middle East . As a matter of fact, the EU has acknowledged that it is not in the best place to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict when the Special Envoy assured that he would not compete with but support American efforts . The EU has not had enough leverage to be able to free itself from US “tutelage” as its performance in the Quartet launched in 2003 has shown. Indeed, without American leverage, the EU finds itself powerless to resolve the conflict . Last but not least, the EU does not dispose of military capability. This is an important factor because the Middle East is an unstable region. In the case of the GCC member states, the Gulf War convinced them that their security was primarily threatened by invaders coming from outside the Arabian Peninsula (mainly Iraq and Iran). Consequently, they tend to rely more heavily on the US who has proven that it can guarantee their security . Serfaty sums up the idea very clearly: “Every country in Europe wants to be the “Arabs' best friend” but none can guarantee the protection they need to seal that friendship: only the US can.”
The state of the EU policy towards the Middle East could be summed up in the following way: the EU has principally emphasised its economic influence in the region and has been limited by its own institutional capacities, lack of political will and agreed deference to the US in some fields. Sjostedt identified two characteristics which must be fulfilled by any entity which seeks to be an international actor. As the EU possesses autonomy (as has been seen, especially in the economic area), it does not dispose of capability . It is possibly in this direction that the EU needs to work in order to strengthen its presence in the Middle East, with for example, the creation of a European military capability.
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