|14/03/96, Volume 2, Number 11
IN a burst of shuttle diplomacy, the EU has stepped up its bid for a greater political role in the Middle East peace process.
Leading the way, Italian Foreign Minister Susanna Agnelli has made it clear she wants the EU to be seen and heard, rather than simply continuing to pay much of the bill in silence.
“The clear message is not to compete, but to cooperate, and in a visible way - to have a role next to the Americans,” said an official.
As EU governments wrestle with the implications for the peace process of the Hamas bombings in Israel, diplomats believe one way to give new impetus to the negotiations may be through Damascus.
Officials say that if the Union were to bring Syria fully into the peace talks, it might finally win recognition as a peace broker as well as a piggy bank.
When a team of deputy ministers from Spain, Italy and Ireland - the so-called troika of past, present and future EU presidencies - arrive in Damascus in the coming days, they will find their diplomatic skills stretched to the limit.
While seeking assurances that terrorist acts such as the recent Hamas bombings are not supported in Syria, either through official or unofficial channels, they must also coax Damascus into participating more fully in regional peace negotiations.
The troika visit to Tehran, Tripoli and Damascus coincides with another EU endeavour in the area - that of bringing nations bordering the Mediterranean into a regional commercial zone.
Middle East Commissioner Manuel Marín is convinced that the visit will not jeopardise his long-planned 17-19 March trip to Damascus to begin exploratory talks on an eventual EU association accord with Syria.
While Marín and others maintain that the association accord initiative and the peace process are separate endeavours, no one actually denies the link.
The accord would update a 1977 cooperation agreement with Damascus and follow a raft of similar pacts between the Union and Syria's neighbours. EU officials are convinced Damascus is interested, not least because of the potential economic gains involved.
Syria already receives funding through two financial protocols which were blocked for several years, but unblocked in early 1994. The money - some 79 million ecu in grants and 225 million in loans - is being spent to reform the electricity sector and to prop up the private financial sector. This year's efforts are aimed at helping Syrian President Hafez al-Assad keep his pledge of gradual economic liberalisation and banking reform. Such reform, say officials at the European Investment Bank (EIB), would facilitate loans to small enterprises there.
If Damascus were to sign an association accord, it would receive another protocol of grants and loans of an as yet undetermined amount. If it did not, it would still benefit from a 1.8-billion-ecu regional fund of EIB loans set aside for Mediterranean countries until 1998, for which Syria must offer cross-border project proposals.
An association accord would also stand to boost Syrian sales to the EU, which already account for more than half of its exports, mainly in the form of petrol and petrol products. Two-way trade between Syria and the Union (its biggest trading partner) is some 3 billion ecu per year.
EU officials will also tell Damascus that its participation in the peace process could be profitable. “It's clear that the peace process would result in enhanced EU funding for Syria,” said a British diplomat.
But first things first. Syria must give visiting EU officials a satisfactory response to their concerns over the recent terrorist bombings. Then, if Damascus signs up for more talks with Israel, the Union may consider financial and other rewards.
In the eventuality of a peace treaty between Israel and Syria, EU governments have floated the idea of sending peacekeepers to the Golan Heights, as has the US. The EU's offer could also include equipment such as observation satellites.
EU member state officials are to meet next week to consider the Palestinian and Syrian tracks of the peace process and EU responses to both. “The nature of the issues is starting to be clarified, but the nature of the response is not,” said one.
Marín is unlikely to raise the subject of the Hamas bombings with Assad's officials. He says there is no evidence of organised Hamas activity within Syria.
But while EU foreign ministers meeting in Palermo last weekend were careful to set Damascus apart from complaints about Tehran and Tripoli acting as accomplices to terrorists, EU governments and Washington fear some support for Hamas does come from inside Syria.
Marín, however, convinced Damascus wants to be part of the peace process, says he will capitalise on that sentiment when he launches the discussions on an EU pact.
EU confidence in its potential role in the peace process was boosted by the attendance of Syria's foreign minister at the Euro-Mediterranean conference in Barcelona last November. It was the first time Israeli and Syrian officials had sat together outside the UN and the conference was acclaimed as a triumph.
Of the EU's Mediterranean partners, Syria is the last to get on the association accord train. Talks are ongoing, albeit slowly, with Egypt and Lebanon. “Our relations with Israel and the Lebanon would be imbalanced without Syria,” said a French diplomat. “It would be a bad political sign.”
Commission President Jacques Santer has stressed the importance of building new ties with Syria. “These accords are crucial for the peace process,” he said last weekend. The Union is banking on the belief that Assad would feel more comfortable if the EU were involved in peace negotiations rather than only the US, which is perceived to be pro-Israeli.
While no official EU request to sit at the Syria-Israel negotiating table has been lodged, US officials say the subject has been raised, but is unlikely to materialise.
Washington also makes it clear it does not want any separate mediation by the EU between Middle East parties. “There's only one ring in this circus,” said a US official. EU officials maintain they do not want to compete with Washington, but they do want to get on board.
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