1 - 7 August 2002
Issue No. 597
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Enter the EURecent developments have allowed the EU to play a more pronounced role in the peace process. Soha Abdelaty reports
Ever since the 1991 Madrid peace conference, the US has assumed a leading role in peace negotiations between the parties involved in the Middle East conflict. And for a long time, it refused to make room for other international actors, such as the European bloc and the United Nations (UN), to play a part. The birth of the Quartet -- the grouping which includes the US, the European Union (EU), the Russian Federation and the UN -- and Washington's willingness to channel its peace efforts through this grouping, is an indication that things are changing.
"In the past, the European role was rejected by the US, who wanted to solely steer the wheel to a resolution," Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said last week. "But what we see now is that the US has realised it cannot solve the problems alone due to many restraining factors, especially on the domestic political arena."
There is an opportunity now that has not existed before for the EU to become more active in resolving a crisis that threatens its own national interests. Egyptian officials are strongly urging the Europeans to seize the moment. While Egypt has differed with the US on many issues, it has often found a listening ear in a number of European countries. Last week, President Hosni Mubarak visited the two European capitals most sympathetic to the Palestinians and those with the strongest influence over EU foreign policy in the Middle East -- France and Spain. He held talks with French President Jacques Chirac and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.
Egypt, along with Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are coordinating their moves with the diplomatic Quartet in order to salvage the peace process. However, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's political future has sparked a rift between the US and its partners in the Quartet, all of whom want Arafat to remain in office until the peace process achieves progress. In Madrid on Friday, Mubarak reiterated Egypt's position that Arafat should not be ousted. "Arafat is the democratically elected president. I don't think he can be replaced. It would be chaos... more violence, clashes and instability in the region," Mubarak told a news conference.
The EU and the three Arab states also disagree with the US on the sequence of reforms. While the US insists on moving on the security track first, the other parties believe movement on that track should come in parallel with movement on the political and humanitarian tracks.
European officials are downplaying the differences between the two sides. "There is full concurrence on the long-term aim," Christian Oldenburg, the Danish ambassador to Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "There might be some discussions and words as to which steps come first and what has immediate priority." Denmark now holds the rotating EU presidency.
A number of factors are hindering the EU from playing an effective role and when push comes to shove, it is often the US which has its way. Unlike the US, 15 European countries -- each with its own special interests with the parties to the Middle East conflict and with the US -- set the EU's foreign policy. "You cannot have unanimity among the 15," said Mohamed Shaaban, assistant foreign minister for European affairs, adding that while some of the countries are hard-liners, the majority are more balanced in their views. "I wouldn't call countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Greece, Austria and Finland as pro-Palestinian, but rather objective in their positions," Shaaban told the Weekly. "So what we have by way of communiqués and declarations from the EU at the level of the summit or ministers of foreign affairs are compromise decisions."
According to Shaaban, while some member states have specific direct interests in the region, others have strategic interests with the US. "These countries wait and see what the US position will be and they follow it," he said.
Another factor that has also often influenced the track treaded by the EU is the political inclinations of the country holding the regional bloc's presidency. Denmark became the EU president last June after Spain. Egyptian officials are waiting to see the imprint the Danish government is likely to have on European foreign policy making. "The present [Danish] government is the first right-wing government in the past 40 years. So we have a new government that even the Europeans themselves are testing," Shaaban said. Maher's scheduled visit to Denmark last week has now been rescheduled for early September.
The EU has more of a vested interest in resolving the Middle East crisis than the US does. Geographical proximity is one factor that is likely to influence its decision to become more actively engaged. "When a house in the street is burning, you are usually concerned about the people living in the house, but you are also concerned if the fire spreads to your house," Oldenburg said.
On the economic front, arrangements between the EU and the Middle East countries have largely been frozen due to the escalating conflict. The 1995 Barcelona Process, which promises to create the largest free trade area in the world by the year 2010, is a case in point. "The Barcelona process has been paralysed because of the inherent link between the Middle East conflict and the process' advancement," Shaaban said.
Meanwhile, the EU is already playing an important role. "What a lot of people probably do not know is that there are European observers on the ground working quietly," Maher said in Spain last week.
But more is definitely needed. "What is required is that the number of [observers] increases, that there be a real monitoring power and that Europe undertakes procedures against Israel when it escalates its aggression," Maher said.
A closer look 25 - 31 July 2002
UNDP report: FOCUS 11 - 17 July 2002
See: Arab Human Development Report 2002
Letter from the Editor
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