Internal divisions hinder EU’s ability to broker Middle East peace

Using trade ties to push for peace worked well in the Balkans but not in Ukraine

European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso: on a trip to Israel last month he said the EU could offer a “special privileged partnership” to both Israel and a future Palestinian state. Photograph: Gil Cohen Magen/AFP/Getty Images.

European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso: on a trip to Israel last month he said the EU could offer a “special privileged partnership” to both Israel and a future Palestinian state. Photograph: Gil Cohen Magen/AFP/Getty Images.

Thu, Jul 24, 2014, 01:00

Foreign policy moved to the top of the EU agenda this week following the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

But while Tuesday’s meeting of foreign affairs ministers was dominated by renewed debate over sanctions against Russia, the current conflict in the Middle East also featured high on the agenda.

An official EU policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict stretches back more than 40 years. In 1971 the European Community made its first official statement on the issue in the Schuman document. Its subsequent policy was punctuated by a series of landmark statements, such as the 1980 Venice Declaration which recognised the right to existence for all states in the region, including Israel, as well as the rights of the Palestinian people.

This was followed by the Berlin Declaration of 1999, which included a commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, and the more detailed Seville Declaration of 2002. The EU, along with the US, UN and Russia, is also a member of the so-called Quartet, which launched the road map for peace in 2002.

The European Union’s official position on the Middle East is that it supports a “two-state solution with an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel and its other neighbours”. But, as is often the case with foreign policy, the EU is in fact divided, with member states such as Germany, the Netherlands and east European countries wary of criticising Israel, while countries such as Ireland and Sweden are more willing to see the Palestinian perspective.

Funding

Much of the debate over EU policy on the Middle East centres on funding. The EU is one of the biggest funders to the Palestinian territories, contributing more than €5.6 billion in assistance since 1994. Much of this is in the form of humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza through the PEGASE programme, with Ireland, Spain and Austria, for example, participating in the latest EU disbursement announced this month.

On the other hand, EU taxpayers also contribute to Israel through the EU’s science and research programme, which falls under the remit of Irish EU Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. Israel is one of a number of non-EU countries that have joint agreements with the EU allowing researchers and universities to access EU funding. Some €780 million went to Israeli companies between 2007 and 2013 , with Israel contributing €530 million.

The relationship hit a stumbling block last year when Geoghegan-Quinn’s department moved to enforce the EU’s policy of prohibiting funding for activities undertaken in occupied territories after it emerged that some Israeli companies with factories in the occupied territories had received EU funding.

Although Israel threatened to pull out of the “Horizon 2020” joint programme, ultimately it signed up to the agreement, allowing Israeli researchers access to the EU’s €77 billion programme which runs until 2020.

On a trip to Israel last month, the president of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso spoke of the role the EU could play in encouraging peace and prosperity in the Middle East, by offering a “Special privileged partnership” – a form of enhanced bilateral agreements – to both Israel and a future Palestinian state.

The notion of using greater political and trade ties with the EU to promote peace is something that has long been deployed as a tool to encourage peace-building and development on the EU’s fringes – successfully in the Balkans, less successfully in Ukraine.

Tentative promises

The conflict in Ukraine, directly linked to the last-minute decision of the Ukrainian government to pull out of an association agreement with the European Union, illustrates the difficulties involved in offering tentative promises of greater EU engagement without the promise of full membership.

It has also been suggested the EU would be better placed to take a more active role in Middle East politics than the US, though the notion of greater EU involvement is unlikely to gain much leeway with Israel, which sees the EU as too pro-Palestinian compared to the US.

Nonetheless, there is a sense that the current conflict in the Middle East could give renewed impetus to the EU’s role in the region.

Tuesday’s Foreign Affairs Council, which was overshadowed by Ukraine, saw some of the strongest language from the EU on the issue in some time.

While the EU has been adopting a wait-and-see attitude to the Kerry peace initiative over the past few months, a number of countries, including Ireland, have pushed for greater engagement by the European Union on the Palestinian issue, particularly a renewed commitment to the of a two-state objective.

As the situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate, many will be hoping the EU can overcome its internal differences to help find a constructive solution to the crisis.

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