|09/05/96, Volume 2, Number 19
EVEN before the United States grabbed the headlines again last week for securing a cease-fire between Israeli forces and Lebanon-based Hezbollah fighters - a feat for which Paris thought it should get some of the credit - EU member states were saying they wanted a bigger role in the Middle East peace process.
Europe must “no longer be just a dispenser of funds”, but should “bring, more than ever, its political contribution to a peaceful solution in which it should be a co-sponsor”, said French President Jacques Chirac on a visit to Cairo early last month.
Both inside and outside Europe, political observers are debating whether French diplomatic missions to Syria, Lebanon and Israel have helped or hindered that goal.
But whatever part they have played, the Union is likely to start taking a bigger role in the peace process from now on.
Italian Foreign Minister Susanna Agnelli, whose country holds the EU's presidency, continued her drive to increase the Union's visibility in the region last weekend (4-6 May) with a trip to Amman, Beirut and Cairo. External Relations Commissioner Manuel Marín is planning a trip to Damascus later this month to entice Syria into starting talks on a cooperation accord which would lift it out of political and economic isolation.
Because of France's colonial ties with Lebanon and the political sway that several member states hold over Syria, the Union is seen to have some useful bargaining chips.
For instance, France and Germany hold much of Syria's foreign debt, which could prove useful in encouraging Syrian President Hafez Assad to jump on the peace process bandwagon.
“There's no doubt in anybody's mind, in the US or in Israel, that Europe will have to play an important role,” said an American diplomat, adding that Washington was now considering “at what point the EU will be brought into the bilateral accord”.
The EU has so far been left out of the real nitty-gritty of the Middle East peace process - bilateral negotiations between Israel and each of its Arab neighbours, including those now under way with Syria.
While Washington's role is one of facilitator rather than mediator, nonetheless the US is there and the Union is not.
But increasingly, Washington and other parties involved in the peace process are giving the Union credit for the efforts it has already made, such as financing and conducting Palestinian elections and pushing Israel to open its borders to Palestinian goods and workers.
But before European officials get too optimistic about their potential role, they should heed the words of warning from Israel's ambassador to the Union, Efraim Halevy.
“A real agreement between adversaries can only be reached by direct negotiations between them. If Europe can help in convincing our adversaries that this is what has to be done, if they can promote direct negotiations on any level, this is desirable. But it is important that no country interpose itself as more than a facilitator,” he insists.
The EU has three channels through which it can fulfill such a role. One is as a member of the Middle East peace process steering committee, which is chaired by the US and Russia and includes Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians.
In that 'multilateral track', the Union holds the gavel in the regional economic development working group (REDWG). Within REDWG, the EU oversees a monitoring committee, a regional business council, a Middle East and Mediterranean tourism and travel assocation (MEMTA) and the controversial (American-backed, EU-opposed) Middle East-North Africa development bank.
“If you look at the peace process overall and you're thinking about its success, the multilateral track is the one that's really building peace,” said a US official. “It doesn't get the headlines, but in the long run it is probably more important (than the peace treaties) because it makes their futures inextricably linked.”
The monitoring committee - an EU invention - became a fixture in the region this week with the opening of a permanent secretariat in Amman, the co-chair of which will rotate among the four Middle Eastern partners.
“The Union is aiming at the institutionalisation of the peace process,” explained a European Commission official. A plenary session of REDWG members met yesterday (8 May) in the Jordanian capital - delayed, but not fatally wounded by the Israeli bombing campaign.
“We want to give the impression that the peace process continues - and at full strength,” said the official.
EU efforts continue through two other channels that the Union has formed for itself: a series of bilateral agreements with a dozen Middle East and North African nations on trade and political cooperation, and a regional approach for the same 12 countries aimed at creating economic interdependence and, eventually, a free trade zone.
The Euro-Mediterranean framework covers many of the same sectors dealt with by REDWG members - infrastructure, energy and transport links, industrial cooperation and financial exchanges. But observers say both are important because having both wider and more focused geographical targets is useful.
Through all three channels, the EU pours billions of ecu. A budget line for the peace process' multilateral track has allocated 254 million ecu to the region for the years 1995-99. Member states have set aside 4.685 billion ecu for the Euro-Med initiative for the same five-year period. And the Union's bilateral relations with half a dozen Middle East nations do (or will, in the case of Syria and Lebanon) contain economic and technical assistance as well as trade concessions.
Perhaps the jewel in the Union's Middle Eastern strategy is its relationship with the Palestinians. Plowing more money per capita into the former occupied territories than anywhere else in the world during the past few years, the EU has sponsored Palestinian elections, equipped the territory's police force and given humanitarian aid - all to the tune of 250 million ecu for 1994-98.
If Israel and Syria can reach a peace agreement, France and other member states have made informal offers, as has the US, to supply peacekeeping troops to secure the Golan Heights. France's defence minister has also offered to train counter-terrorist intelligence agents for “several countries” in the Middle East.
Paris has long been floating the idea of a stability pact for the Mediterranean, but until each of the Middle Eastern parties has made peace with the others, the notion is generally deemed to be premature.
An Italian-sponsored idea to create a sort of Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for the Mediterranean has also received no more than a “we'll think about it” nod.
Some have suggested a hook-up with NATO's own Mediterranean dialogue, which includes Egypt, Israel and Jordan, and is aimed at cooperation on disaster relief and peacekeeping. But the alliance has not registered progress either, so for the meantime, NATO and EU officials can only say they keep each other informed of developments.
One EU policy which does reap criticism, notably from the US and Israel, is its 'critical dialogue' with Iran. Admitting that this has produced few concrete results, some EU member states are now less determined to continue pursuing the open channels.
Ambassador Halevy says a united front against terrorism would be more effective, adding: “If you open up a sideline to Iran and allow them to defuse the common front, you encourage their policies.”
But he praised a recent EU mission to Tehran to confront the government on its terrorism stance.
Israeli officials say the Union has become less negative about their country in recent years, almost losing its image as champion of Arab interests to counterbalance Washington's pro-Israeli stance.
The “politique Arabe” which Chirac has been touting in recent weeks prompts wry smiles in some diplomats' offices outside the EU, but no real criticism.
“It makes diplomacy more complicated, but ensuring that the Europeans feel they have a stake is very important for the overall peace process,” said one US official.
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