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The EU has to become a mature actor in its neighborhood

The Middle East Quartet is a litmus test

Published 19/4/2007 on bitterlemons-international.org.

20.04.2007 · Position von Almut Möller

As the European Union celebrates its 50th anniversary, the EU's engagement in the Middle East Quartet is a litmus test for its maturity as an actor in international relations.

It was at European initiative that the Quartet started to meet five years ago, in April 2002. Based on previous contacts at the Sharm al- Sheikh summit in 2000 and the United Nations General Assembly in 2001, the then Spanish EU presidency together with the high representative of the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy, CFSP, Javier Solana, invited the UN secretary general and the US and Russian ministers of foreign affairs to a high-level meeting on the Middle East peace process in Madrid. In the following years the Quartet members convened, albeit erratically, about a dozen times, but with little outcome. The so called roadmap to peace that was negotiated in September 2002 by the Quartet, legitimized by UN Security Council Resolution 1515 and accepted by Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority has not yet been implemented.

It was only in early 2007 that the Quartet experienced a revival, following upon a renewed European and US commitment. In February alone the Quartet met twice, and its meetings were surrounded by a number of missions of its members across the Middle East region.

Various reasons for the deadlock of the roadmap can be identified, many of which can be traced back to problems of leadership. There was a lack of political will on the part of the US administration--involved in Iraq and the confrontation with Iran--to engage in the conflict and pressure for implementation of the roadmap. A weak Palestinian leadership was torn by intra-Palestinian confrontations between Fateh and Hamas, especially after Hamas came to power in the February 2006 elections, and President Mahmoud Abbas lacked sufficient support from the Quartet and Israel as the official representative and chief negotiator for the Palestinian cause.

Further, the Quartet faced a dilemma whether and how to deal with a Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority, thereby reducing its negotiating and steering capability. The Israeli government was domestically weakened, and the Quartet members lacked consensus, e.g., on the question whether Syria and Iran should be involved in the peace negotiations. Finally, the EU, with substantive security and economic interests and potential in its neighborhood, experienced shortcomings in its foreign and security policy.

Despite these shortcomings, the EU's leverage within the Quartet could be significant. Since the accession of Bulgaria and Rumania in 2007, the EU is a huge bloc of 27 member states, two of which, France and the UK, are permanent members of the UN Security Council. It is not a monolithic bloc but a union of members with different foreign policy traditions, priorities, and respective ties that could serve as a bridge to the various actors and layers of the Middle East conflict.

The EU is a strong global economic player, with about 480 million citizens benefiting from a single market and 13 members in the Eurozone. The EU is also an important economic player in the Middle East and has developed a number of integrative instruments in the framework of the Barcelona Process and the European Neighborhood Policy. The EU with its member states is the most important donor to the Palestinian Territories (and has a legitimate interest that the money be spent effectively). Individual member states, above all France and the UK, have from the beginning played a vital role in the conflict.

In view of the lessons the member states learned from the European split during the war in Iraq, the EU has taken significant steps in further developing CFSP. The constructive role the European Union, and especially the EU-3, has played in negotiating with Iran is probably the most important success of the emerging EU foreign and security policy. Other examples, such as the unprecedented EU leadership of the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon since 2006 and the institutional progress made in CFSP during the constitutional process--most of its provisions could even be implemented without the entry into force of the treaty--are signs of a maturing European Union in the sphere of foreign policy.

Five years after the Quartet was founded and after years of failure in implementing its 2002 roadmap for peace, there seems to be a window of opportunity. In order to exploit the renewed commitment for sustainable progress in the peace process, the European Union within the framework of the Quartet should tackle the following priorities:

  • Strengthening internal EU positions as a precondition to fostering coordination within the Quartet as a whole.

  • Using the EU's diversity in foreign policy traditions and ties to bridge gaps within the Quartet and toward other actors, including a discussion of a meaningful division and delegation of tasks.

  • Working on greater visibility of EU foreign policy, e.g., by creating the new office of a European minister for foreign affairs foreseen by the constitutional treaty, using Brussels as a meeting venue for the Quartet and its negotiation partners and through constant and visible presence in the region.

  • Identifying a strategy for sustainable transformation of the Middle East region based on lessons from the economic and political transformation of the Central European countries during their accession process.

  • Giving a clear perspective to future EU-Middle East relations by prioritizing and strengthening the instruments of the Barcelona Process and the European Neighborhood Policy.

  • Offering support for a strategic security concept for the countries of the Middle East based on the EU's 50 years of experience with regional integration.

It is in Europe's vital interest, much more than that of the US, to settle the conflicts in its direct neighborhood and support the countries of the Middle East on their respective paths toward political and economic transformation. Regional and international conditions seem to favor progress at the moment. A successful European engagement in the Middle East peace process would prove the maturity of the European Union as an independent international actor.

Almut Möller is a researcher at the Center for Applied Policy Research in Munich, where she collaborates with the Bertelsmann Stiftung Europe and the Middle East project. She currently is a guest researcher at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

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