European-Mediterranean Relations: From the Barcelona Declaration to the Mediterranean Union
Chapter: Partnership Initiatives in the light of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
A Summary by Senussi Bsaikri,
Middle East Monitor, (MEMO), London
The Arab-Israeli conflict has been the focus of attention of the European Union ever since the early stages of its founding. However, differences of opinion among Member States accounted for the variations of positions by the Europeans and their falling into the balance of power trap, which made Europe loose its ability to make a positive impact on the conflict.
The first year since the founding of the European Union and in particular after the singing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, did not witness a unified or specific European position. Some countries like France and Britain were not in agreement with Egypt, (the leader of the Arab world in the conflict with Israel), particularly after the period which followed the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the War which was launched by Israel, France and Britain in 1956. In the 1960s, notably after the Six day War of 1967, some European States moved toward a clarification of their position on the Palestine Question. Observers recall however the controversy that took place after the summit of the European Union in The Hague in 1969 and the differences between the main players concerning the report which the Summit discussed, relating to the conflict. While the French Foreign Ministry regarded it as its official position, Germany and Holland considered it a Working Paper and did not adopt it as a final document. The Report called upon Israel to withdraw from the lands which it occupied in 1967. The Report provoked the anger of Israel, which was strongly condemned by it, but it was never published.
That decade witnessed the return of General Charles the Gaulle to the French Presidency. He was known for his position of support to the Arab cause and his strong stand against Israel. Analysts regard his position as being related to his opposition to the United States and the search for a global role for France through European Alliances. The signs of French support for the Arabs emerged through the ban of export of weapons to Israel in the 1967 War and the call by members of the European Union to adopt the same stand. During the 1970s, the European position was further clarified, especially after the eruption of the 1973 October War between Egypt-Syria on the one hand and Israel on the other side. The European Union issued a statement supporting UN Resolution 242 and 338 and called on Israel to end its Occupation of Palestinian Lands and withdraw to the 1949 Armistice Line. The European position came three weeks after the embargo on the export of Arab oil to the United States and Holland. The embargo had catastrophic effects on the global economy as it caused inflation and economic stagnation of most industrialised countries which were dependent on oil. This paved the way for the beginning of Arab-European dialogue in 1974, in which the Arab League participated with the European Union (then comprised only of 9 members). The discussions did not succeed in establishing a stable mechanism and it broke down in 1979. But that did not prevent the continual support of the Europeans for Arab rights, as several European parties signed the 1980 Venice Declaration. The Venice Declaration called for the acknowledgment of Palestinians’ right to self-government and the PLO’s right to be connected to peace initiatives. It constituted a set back Israel and its ally, the United States, for which President Jimmy Carter had reservations. Menachem Begim described the Declaration as resembling Adolf Hitler’s autobiography in its anti-Semitism.
The Developments that were witnessed in the decade of the 90s began with Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait and its consequences in dividing the Arab position and what followed in terms of protectorate status over Iraq, the blockade of Libya and restrictions of Syria after it lost Soviet support. This lead to American unilateralism in international decision-making after the collapse of the Soviet Block and the imposition of the American-Israeli agenda to settle or resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, hence the convening of the Madrid Conference in 1991. This was followed by the signing of the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel in 1993, the Waadi Araba Agreement between Jordan and Israel in 1994 and the commencement of the peace process between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. These events reflected the extent of the European inability to influence events according to the positions they had adopted towards the conflict. The European position remained at the margins of events and followed what was decided by the Americans in this regard, even after the establishment of the European Union and signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, and the commencement of the Common Security Foreign Policy. The European Role was thus confined to the donation of financial support for the Peace Process hence they undertook to contribute 50% of the financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority and the reconstruction of the West Bank and Gaza after the singing of the Oslo Accords.
Attempts by Brussels to sidestep American hegemony continued, hence the appointment of a special envoy to the region with the aim of coordinating positions on vital issues and strengthening of relations with the conflicting parties. This was in the middle of the 1990s. Among the objectives was the establishment of relations with Middle Eastern and North African countries, which saw the launch of the Barcelona process in 1995 as a means to contain the Arab-Israeli conflict and provide a climate for peace between the protagonists. France proposed with the support of the Arabs a Charter for Peace and Stability at the beginning of the 21st Century. This document was supposed to be submitted to Foreign Ministers of Member States of the Barcelona process in 2000, but France refused to give its support apparently in response to pressure from Israel to withdraw the project from the agenda of the meeting. Although the European-Mediterranean Partnership contained a clause relating to the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict according to UN resolutions, the European Union Members which proposed the initiative made no progress to adopt the ideas agreed upon. It is observed that there was a desire on the part of the European Union to avoid offending Israel and coming into conflict with American policies which invariably are biased toward the Israeli side at the expense of Arab and Palestinian rights even though they are upheld and endorsed by international law. This impeded Brussels’ ability to adopt a pragmatic approach so that its efforts became inconsistent with its declared stands and its role confined to the provision of material aid and financial support. This was to the extent that in political, academic and media circles it was often said that the United States engaged in the “cooking” while the European role was confined to “the washing of the dishes.”
The Al-Aqsa intifada erupted in 2000 and set back the efforts which were started by the European Union in the region. The Barcelona process was stalled after it failed to reconcile the positions between the European Union and the Arab States who were members of the process. This was followed by the events of September 2001, which made the relations between the European Union and the Arabs even more complicated. After that the European States adopted the policy of ‘war on terror’ and supported the American Occupation of Iraq. The Arab divisions with regard to the war on Iraq paralysed their position towards the Europeans and reduced their ability to play a balancing role in the international arena led by the United States, which continued to serve the interest of Israel and was contrary to the just rights of the Arabs. It is true that the European position during the War on Iraq and the period of siege on Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was different from that of the United States and indeed contrary to it. When American Secretary of State Collin Powell met Mahmoud Abbas he ignored the late Arafat and supported the Israeli siege which was imposed on him. After he refused to make further compromises, he was visited however by the French Foreign Minister who disclosed that he was the “legitimate representative of the Palestinian People and their elected President and it was improper to ignore him”. No sooner however did the European states return to coordination with the United States, especially after the election of Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany and Sarkozy in France. The European Union further joined the United States in boycotting Hamas and imposing a siege or blockade on them, despite the conviction of many political parties and European intellectuals that it was elected through a fair election and it was necessary to respect their position and collaborate with them. From another angle, the right wing elements in European capitals succeeded in reducing European support to the Palestinian people on the pretext that such European assistance was going to fund terrorists, terrorist activities and the production of missiles.
Brussels is yet to develop a clear vision on the future of the conflict and how to resolve it. The position of support for Arab rights has remained firmly on the theoretical level and was never raised or manifested in practical terms such as exerting real pressure on Israel to compel it to adhere to international resolutions, especially since the European Union itself, the main trading partner of Israel whose economic interest is tightly bound to the European economies. Europe has not been able to use this card to force Israel to respect international legitimacy and its treaty obligations. From another angle, the divisions within the Arab ranks and the absence of a coordinated position towards the conflict have also helped in setting back the European position in supporting Arab rights.