The European Union’s Role for Peace in the Middle East

, by Alfonso Sabatino

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The European Union's Role for Peace in the Middle East

Nobody can easily forget the crucial crisis of summer 2006 on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. The killing and abduction of Israeli soldiers by Palestinian extremists and Hezbollah militants, the heavy military reprisals launched by Israel in the Gaza strip and in Lebanon, and the incessant shower of Hezbollah rockets over Galilee have left deep and open wounds. We should also be conscious that the participation of some European contingents in the framework of the UN UNIFIL-2 mission may have created an opportunity for working towards a just and durable peace, but certainly does not solve the problems.

However, the time for taking an initiative remains very tight. The war in Lebanon added to the worrying destabilization level reached in the region after the American invasion of Iraq, the rising of Iran as a nuclear power, and the lingering of the Palestinian question. Nor can we forget that last summer’s tragic events took place in the context of a standing and serious destabilization in the Middle East, from the Eastern Mediterranean to Afghanistan.

Now let me introduce some reflections in order to better understand what the EU should do in the Middle East.

The Role of the US

My first consideration is about the United States of America. Since the Conference for the peace in the Middle East convened in Rome on July 26, 2006, we witness an international silence on the part of the Bush Administration. This is due not only to Washington’s precautions in view of the mid-term elections of November 8 and the following victory of the Democrats. It has more profound reasons.

It calls into question the strategy chosen for facing international terrorism after September 11, 2001. It calls into question the concept of pre-emptive war, the appropriateness of overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and waging the war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Today, both countries are in a mess, Al-Qaeda has not been dismantled, on the contrary it has continued to strike all over the world. The peace process in Palestine has gone backwards. Iran, which aspires to the role of regional power, has taken the lead of Shiite political movements in Iraq and Lebanon, and strives to acquire a nuclear capacity. The idea to launch a great project, the Great Middle East, was soon forgotten.

To say the truth, the US seems no longer capable of taking upon itself an evolutionary and stabilizing project for bringing peace in the world.

The solution to the Palestinian question, as devised in the Road Map, has remained unfulfilled. To say the truth, the US seems no longer capable of taking upon itself an evolutionary and stabilizing project for bringing peace in the world. Such a project was there during and after World War II. Still in the 1990s Washington had been playing a stabilizing role in the Middle East, making possible in 1993 the conclusion of the Oslo agreements, started by a European initiative. However, that role was wearing out already during the Clinton presidency, in the summer of 2000, in the last months of his mandate. His long mediation attempt between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak failed. President Clinton was unable to impose himself over the parties, as happened previously with Eisenhower in 1956 and with Nixon in 1973.

Israel and its security

My second consideration is about Israel and its security. The Israeli political class finds itself in a dead-end street, after having tried for years to block the birth of a Palestinian State. Today the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) is certainly experiencing a serious crisis, but this does not make Israel safer. Similarly, Israel is not made safer by the issues still open with Lebanon (the Sheeba farms) or with Syria (the Golan Heights). Pursuing its security by resorting exclusively to military deterrence has proved counterproductive. The Hezbollah disarmament and the end of the Palestinian uprising is unrealistic. Instead, it is possible to lower the level of military alert if a real reconciliation process were under way. That process, however, cannot be left to the good will of the local parties only, but requires the creation of a shared political environment, protected by external powers, as happened in Europe after WWII, when the unification process was founded on the Franco-German reconciliation and was made possible by the cover provided by the United States to Europe’s security. Although such a reconciliation process shall concern, in a first instance, Israel, the PNA and Lebanon, it could not neglect, in a second instance, the other actors in the area (Syria, Iraq, other Arab States and Iran).

The Nature of Terrorism in the Middle East

My third consideration is about the nature of the terrorist movements operating in the Middle East theatre and threatening world security. After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration has adopted a strategy of global confrontation with terrorism, which has proved unsuccessful against Al-Qaeda, has helped the electoral success of Hamas in Palestine, and has blocked reforms in Iran. That strategy does not take in due account the differences in the motivation of individual players, and hence it is unable to find suitable ways as to how to face up to them. In fact, it did not take into account that Al-Qaeda is a fish swimming in the water of anti-Western resentment and anti-modernist reactions active in the Islamic world. However, its leader, Osama bin-Laden, did not succeed in his plan to stir an ever greater consent in the Islamic society (in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Algeria).

That is an important indication on the strategic plane, that allows us to isolate Al-Qaeda from the rest of other extremist movements like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iraqi factions. This movements could become political interlocutors in the presence of a serious pacification attempt in the Middle East, and when arms are laid down. In fact, it is not the first time that a political movement, after having carried out a struggle in hiding and having resorted to violence, has later peacefully taken part in the political reconstruction process once the conditions have been defined in a credible way. This happened with the European resistance, with the national liberation movements in the decolonization period, with the birth of the Jewish State too.

Actually, the water where Al-Qaeda is swimming can only be drained in a long time, with an evolution of Islamic societies freed of colonial ties; instead, the water where Tehran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Iraqi factions are swimming can be drained in shorter times, inviting the sensible forces to the peace table and putting forward concrete conditions for a common shared future.

UN Resolution 1701

My fourth consideration is about the UN SC’s Resolution 1701, welcome by many as the return of the United States to multilateralism. My opinion is that Resolution 1701 is just the attempt to bring about a cease-fire, with all the ambiguities it implies. It does not at all guarantee peace for the future.

However, there is to appreciate the factors for a positive turn that the Resolution can bring. Resolution 1701 strengthens the United Nations in the first place, as the institution symbolizing the world political unity, and its interventions in favour of peace. In addition, it strengthens the UN because it created the gap which the mobilization of European countries for the Lebanese crisis managed to get through, pushed ahead by Italy. But in this case too we must be aware of the slippery terrain on which the protagonists are moving.

The Ambiguity of the EU

The Italian government, keeping in mind the vital interest it has in stabilizing the Middle East, understood that the US could not ensure the security of that area, and that the UN moment had come. Its pledge to send a sizable Italian contingent was a sign of both a strong political will, and an awareness of its own weakness. Coherent with these premises, the Italian government tried in any possible way to put its participation in the UN mission under the protective umbrella of the European Union, with a result, here too, partial and ambiguous.

Also the EU Council of Ministers of August 25 in Brussels, which invited the UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan, gave questionable results, partly positive and partly disappointing. The Council did not commit itself directly; it limited itself to acknowledge the willingness of the member countries to reinforce the UNIFIL mission. The positive result of the European countries’ commitment is then the deployment of European troops, amounting to more than half the UNIFIL force, and the upcoming considerable financial contribution to the Lebanon’s reconstruction. The disappointing aspect is the absence from that theatre of the EU as institution. The Solana document of 2003, stating the Union’s duty to intervene in international crises and in situations of “serious world insecurity” is not mentioned, nor has the rapid intervention corps, contemplated in the Helsinki agreements of 1999, been mobilized. However, there is still to stress that for the first time since the end of WWII the European countries have taken a strong autonomous initiative outside of the NATO framework.

Therefore, we are at a turning point. In such a context, the presence of Italian, French, Spanish, German, Belgian, Finnish troops requires that the European Union becomes rapidly aware of the challenges coming from that region and then that it finds political solutions to them.

What kind of political initiative?

My fifth consideration is about the political initiative itself. It is necessary to urgently reconvene the Rome Conference on the Middle East, this time with all the protagonists, and put in the agenda: 1) the Palestinian question; 2) the reconstruction of Lebanon and Iraq, and 3) the Iran’s nuclear program. In such an uncertain and very dangerous context, the individual European States have tight and dangerous room for maneuver. The key problem remains the reduction of the offensive capabilities of both parties, and of course there is to place under joint control, in the interest of all mankind, Israel’s nuclear arsenal and Iran’s nuclear capability under development. So, the problem is political, and on that ground any international agreement shall be sought. A military, or rather a military policing, intervention is of a complementary nature and must be supported by a strong and courageous international initiative aimed at building a Kantian-type peace.

At this point it is clear that we are confronted with a serious impasse. The political initiative and the military and financial burden necessary to ensure a definitive peace in the Middle East cannot be taken by any individual European State. Instead, they could be taken by the EU, because it represents the only international actor that is considered credible by all the conflicting parties; but it is not prepared for tasks of peace keeping, peace building and peace enforcing, nor is it endowed with institutions to carry out its foreign policy. In particular, the EU has no instruments for giving a European democratic legitimacy to the use of military force, even in the framework of UN missions. Incidentally, two important observations can be added. First, the EU can operate in the framework of the “Quartet” that signed the Joint Statement in Madrid on April 10, 2002, following the Beirut Declaration of the Arab League Council of March 28, 2002, which made an overture to negotiations with Israel. That declaration is becoming topical today in Arab government offices, working to make possible an Al Fatah-Hamas coalition government in Palestine willing to talk to Israel. Secondly, it is to be underlined that the EU is at present the only member of the “Quartet” not represented in the UN Security Council, where instead France and Great Britain sit as permanent members and other European countries as rotating members.

This is the reality that Europeans, political classes and citizens, have to be aware of and react to, in order to give to the Union a government able to act, represented internationally, and ready to deal with the problem of putting into effect the Constitution for Europe.

Despite its limitations, the EU and its member States can, however, already launch some initiatives. There is to give a sign that opens the way to an institutional strengthening at home and starts a diplomatic action abroad for peace, security and UN strengthening.

The first initiative can be taken by the countries that have adopted the Constitutional Treaty. A meeting should be convened of the EU countries that have ratified it and those who intend to ratify it shortly. There is to decide on the entry into force of the Constitution with the available countries. To that meeting, also France and The Netherlands should be invited. Secondly, those countries shall give birth to an enhanced cooperation between themselves, in addition to sending national French, Italian, Spanish and German troops, and prepare a plan for the reconstruction of Lebanon and Palestine. Thirdly, the two European permanent members and the three rotating members (Belgium, Italy and Slovakia) of the Security Council should commit themselves to promote within the Security Council those positions which are upheld by a qualified majority of the EU member states within the European Council and the Council of Ministers. This is the way leading to the overcoming of the veto in the European foreign and security policy and to the bestowal of a single seat on the EU in the Security Council.

The second initiative is the urgent reconvening of the Rome Conference on the Middle East peace and development, this time with all the protagonists, putting as a priority the Palestinian question; it should envisage the birth of a Palestinian State, Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders, the reduction of the offensive capabilities of all of the concerned parties, and the control of nuclear capabilities by a joint Authority for Security, composed of “the Quartet” and all the actors in the area. This implies, of course, the functional and territorial extension of the UN mission.

The third initiative, still within the Conference for peace and security, is to propose to Israel, Lebanon and Palestine, and to other willing partners, the institution of joint supra-national authorities for the management of waters, energy and transportation infrastructures, as already contemplated in the Oslo agreements, and also the mutual opening up of their domestic markets.

The fourth initiative is about the negotiations for the adhesion of Turkey and the western Balkan countries to the EU; that would be useful for stabilizing those countries, for giving a further and topical signal about Europe’s capacity to heal long-time confrontations and build a continental multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society, and finally for underlining the will to bring the EU borders to touch the Middle East, as a guarantee for the peace process itself.

Finally, may I recall that the basic elements for an intervention in the Middle East have already been made clear in the European Commission’s document “EU position on the Middle East Peace Process”. They are presented also in the Barcelona process, in the institutional dialogue taking place in the Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly, and in the MEDA aid program. Those ideas have to be re-launched with determination. We shall resume a dialogue that started with the UN Resolutions 181 of 1947 and 194 of 1948, went through the Venice European countries Declaration of 1980, the Oslo agreements of 1993 and the Arab League Council Declaration in Beirut in March 2002. There is the need of a strong political will, to send a signal that could make authoritative a European Union’s peace initiative for the Middle East.

This article was originally published in the July 2007 edition of The Federalist Debate, Papers for Federalists in Europe and the World.

Introductory speech held by Alfonso Sabatino in Brussels on November 25, 2006 at the meeting of the Political Commission 3 of the Federal Committee of UEF.

Image: The Middle East Quartet met in Berlin in February. Bergmann © BPA; source: Google Images

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