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The EU in the Middle East: Policies that don’t “resonate locally” and stances that “sap credibility”

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MEPEI talks to Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group.

MEPEI: How would you describe the EU's current approach to the Middle East?

PETER HARLING: As I see it, there are essentially four components to EU policy in the Middle East, none of which really resonate locally. The first is a massive presence on an economic level, but which remains largely invisible; it is very technical and mechanical in nature, lacks clear political objectives, and is fragmented along bilateral lines. It is interesting in that respect that the notion of ‘regional integration,’ which has come to appear so appealing to governments and people of the region, would be borne by Turkey and not the EU, the former having absorbed the latter’s experience and generated a political umbrella making it more applicable to the Middle East. 

Second, third and fourth are the topics that typically feature on the agenda of visiting EU delegations. The peace process invariably tops the list, although this is a field where, both through its explicit statements and in its body language, the EU likes to repeat that it has no role of its own other than to support U.S. policy. The single most prominent political issue raised by the EU is thus one that seriously saps its credibility. (The same logic prevails when it comes to the Iranian nuclear file.) Then comes the human rights and democracy mantra, which wins no favors from the ruling elites and, within society, resounds primarily with those Islamists which the EU is loath to empower—thus the double standards applied by Brussels and most Europeans, again undermining their credibility. Finally, Islam and Islamism continue, nearly a decade after the onset of the disastrous ‘war on terror,’ to weigh heavily in the European perception of conflict and instability in the Middle East, regardless of the fact that their fundamental drivers rather are disputed territory, injustice, dysfunctional political systems, etc. Here, a culture-based approach tends to alienate the EU from the Middle East, or make it part of the problem, when it sides with those who allegedly share its values against those who supposedly don’t.

MEPEI: As you see it, what are the motivational factors for EU involvement in the region in both a political and an economic capacity?

Peter Harling: Arguably the four most important motivational factors for the EU should be the need to rationalize (and not simply contain) migration patterns, reduce the impact of Mideast conflicts on their domestic Muslim constituencies, secure access to key markets (notably the Gulf and Iraq) and, more generally, remain competitive in an area where the new global balance of forces is playing out, and where Europe, due to its proximity, history and collective economic weight, theoretically has an advantage. What we see too much of, however, is Europeans competing among themselves, to their mutual detriment.

MEPEI: Do you think the EU should be playing a more active role in the Washington led Middle East peace process? Why or why not?

Peter Harling: The EU, to my knowledge, plays no role in the peace process, other than bankrolling the Palestinian Authority and rebuilding Gaza and the West Bank whenever they are destroyed. Politically, it has abdicated virtually all of its responsibilities, by instinctively supporting whatever is decided in Washington (while endlessly complaining in private that this is not the right line to tow). It is embedded within the Quartet, which initially was designed by the U.S. precisely to neutralize any possibly dissonant voice, and it tolerates that most U.S. decisions are taken without any consultation with the EU.

MEPEI: Recently, Israel has directed some criticism at the EU as a number of member states sent individual representatives to Israel to discuss the current situation.  Do you think the EU should present a more unified approach to the peace process?  Is such an approach a) desirable and b) achievable?

Peter Harling: A unified approach in the EU automatically amounts to a smallest-common-denominator policy, which hardly ever is a constructive proposition in the Middle East. What EU member states could do much better is articulate their differences, even if it entails banding together in smaller, issue-based groupings: they could coordinate their policies rather than pursuing the elusive aim of trying to homogenize them. Instead of distributing roles and seeking synergies within a certain overarching strategic vision, they tend to compete, often on the basis of pretty trivial considerations.

I do not see any serious crisis on the horizon between Israel and the Europeans. Many European officials happily criticize the U.S. for not responding to what they perceived as Israel’s provocations—notably its refusal to extend its settlements freeze, despite unprecedented incentives offered by Washington. At the very same time, Europe is deepening its ties to Israel, absorbing it within the OSCE, including it in various NATO activities, envisaging a ‘strategic partnership,’ etc. So while they blamed the U.S. for not exerting additional pressure on Israel, the Europeans were themselves hedging their bets. 

MEPEI: You recently wrote that it is a fantasy that Washington's era in the Middle East has ended and that the future belongs to Ankara or Tehran.  You also wrote that, thus far, Turkey has failed to deliver breakthroughs on any of its major initiatives in the region.  Might Turkey's joining the EU turn this fantasy into a reality?  How might Turkey's accession to the EU impact Turkey's endeavors in the region?  And how would you anticipate Turkey's membership might alter the EU's role in the Middle East?

Peter Harling: Turkey has had significant success in several areas: it has moved away from confrontational proxy-politics in Iraq and become a key player there through constructive diplomacy and economic engagement; it has transformed its image in the Arab world; and it has given traction to the notion of regional integration, mostly by developing a strategic framework for its bilateral relations with a number of states. Despite welcome efforts, it has failed to mediate effectively on such intractable files as the Iranian nuclear program, Palestinian reconciliation or the siege on Gaza. Besides, the rebalancing of its foreign policy has come at a significant cost. Whereas the West tends to take principled, demanding positions vis-à-vis Hamas and Iran and pragmatic, complacent ones when it comes to Israeli and U.S. policies, Ankara has been doing almost the opposite, which places it at odds with key players in what remains a Western-dominated international system. Turkey’s position in that system is by far more important to it, deep down, than its forays and popularity in the Arab world. I think this explains why Turkey has taken on a lower profile of late, while remaining actively and constructively engaged in such arenas as Lebanon and Iraq.

The question of Turkey’s accession to the EU has unfortunately turned into an academic debate, due to dogged obstruction by countries such as Cyprus, France and Germany. I think Europeans reacted negatively to Ankara’s so-called drift away from Europe because it served their purpose and reinforced their prejudices. They basically could say: “Aha! We knew it all along. This is a backward, Islamist country that doesn’t belong to our cultural space.” Populist rhetoric emanating from Ankara obviously helped. But what Europeans fail to see is that Turkey has emancipated itself from its Cold War role as a NATO aircraft carrier of sorts precisely because it is more stable, more self-assured, more democratic, more economically empowered than ever before. The irony is that much of this is a result of the EU accession process. Now we are on the verge of a tragic missed opportunity. The Europeans must understand that Turkey is an emerging power that has developed a capacity to define its own national interests, will soon become an economic heavy-weight, and enjoys a privileged position as a bridge between several critically important arenas. If they don’t reach out to Turkey now, they simply will have to contend with a very powerful neighbor later on.

Peter Harling is Project Director with the Middle East Program of the International Crisis Group.

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