The European Union has failed to bring peace to the Middle East and needs to rethink its strategy if it wants to help end conflicts in the region that threaten European security and prosperity.
By Hélène Pinto
France hosted a meeting in June of senior diplomats from the West and the Arab world to try to breathe life into deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
In a glittering diplomatic display, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was joined by the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon along with representatives from the Arab League, the European Union and key Arab states.
But representatives from Israel and the Palestinian territories did not attend the talks, highlighting the EU’s incapacity to mediate and contribute to conflict resolution.
The failed Israeli-Palestinian peace process is not an isolated case in the Middle East. Rather, it epitomizes the EU’s struggle to promote peace and stability in the region.
Despite the EU’s ambition to create a “ring of friends” in its neighborhood, the actual situation is quite different: the Middle East seems more than ever locked in deadly violence, and the EU is partly responsible for the renewed escalation.
The EU’s failures in the Middle East are manifold and multi-faceted. While the EU espouses various forms of conflict prevention and management, its pledges do not translate into effective action. Consequently, conflicts are flaring up near the EU’s borders while Brussels remains a bystander.
The Middle East crises have an impact on EU security and stability.
What has Europe done wrong in the Middle East, and how can it do better?
The 2011 Arab uprisings underscored the EU’s inability to help provide security, stability and order in its neighborhood. Instead of adopting a foreign policy framework to support the establishment of democracies, the EU maintained an ambiguous position, notably with regard to past dictators.
The EU neglected revolts in Bahrain and Yemen, which in the case of Yemen led to a devastating civil war. Pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain were repressed without Europe raising an eyebrow, undermining its credibility as a responsible global actor.
The EU’s inadequate response is not without consequences. Conflicts in the Middle East have created political vacuums in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. New extremist groups have emerged, and regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia have intervened militarily, raising the stakes.
The crises in the Middle East have a direct impact on EU security and stability, as seen in political and social fallout from the wave of refugees trying to resettle in Europe.
It’s in the EU’s interests to tackle the roots of instability, specifically Syria’s civil war. The EU should redouble its efforts at the Geneva Peace talks to bring warring parties involved in the Syrian conflict to the negotiating table. The settlement of the Syrian conflict would have a positive domino effect on the entire Middle East.
Is the EU ready to resume the role of mediator in the Middle East?
To be more effective and forceful, the EU should move towards a unified rather than a common security and defense policy. Currently, EU member states have a mutual defense clause that requires them to come to one another’s aid, but the bloc’s overseas military and civilian operations are under the banner of national forces, not an EU army.
Divisions among member states have to be overcome to achieve an effective response to the crises in the Middle East, inevitably requiring a substantial pooling of resources.
The EU is represented in the Middle East Quartet that is mediating the peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The other members of the Quartet are the United States, Russia and the United Nations.
The EU should press the Quartet to seek more than a mere resumption of negotiations at the political level between the Israelis and Palestinians. What is needed is action on the ground: a de-escalation of violence and a guarantee that prior agreements are respected.
It has been a century since the Sykes-Picot agreement, authored by European diplomats, divided up Asia Minor and the Near East. Today, is the EU ready to resume the role of a serious and forceful mediator in the Middle East?
A fundamental rethinking of the EU’s policies toward the conflict-torn Middle East is necessary if the bloc wants to aspire to address the region’s underlying problems.
(The views are the author’s.)
Hélène Pinto is a postgraduate student at King’s College London, studying European Politics and Foreign Affairs. She holds a master’s degree in European and International Studies from Sciences Po, Strasbourg. She has worked at the Democratic Progress Institute in London and at the Council of Europe, Strasbourg. Her main research interests focus on the EU’s external relations and foreign affairs.