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Middle East: Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process At Heart Of U.S.-EU Regional Cooperation

  • Ahto Lobjakas

At a high-level meeting in Washington earlier this week, a European Union delegation indicated its broad support for an ambitious U.S. initiative to encourage reform in the so-called Greater Middle East. However, the delegation told Secretary of State Colin Powell that the drive cannot succeed without also addressing the Middle East peace process, paying heed to EU expertise in the area, and allowing for close consultation with the countries involved.

Brussels, 3 March 2004 (RFERL) -- The European Union has told the United States that it is ready to cooperate on Washington's ambitious plans to transform the Greater Middle East, but at a price.

To enlist EU support, the United States must acknowledge the EU as a genuine partner and take on board the bloc's key concerns, as well as modify its plans to take account of long-standing EU projects in the region.

The bloc also does not consider Afghanistan and Pakistan integral parts of the region. In the words of one EU official, their inclusion -- apparently desired by the United States -- would take the project "halfway to India."
EU officials have told RFE/RL that the bloc's representatives -- foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, and the EU's external relations commissioner, Chris Patten -- urged the United States to put the Mideast peace process at the heart of the Greater Middle East initiative. At a 1 March press conference, Cowen -- speaking as the current EU chair -- stressed that lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is essential to the stability of the entire region.

One EU official said that if the Mideast peace process is left out of the discussion, the initiative "won't be taken seriously" by the rest of the region.

Differences were said to persist after the Washington meeting. Officials say the United States rejects a role for Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat and argues that the Palestinian side is "not delivering on security." In parallel, officials told RFE/RL the United States appears to be overly supportive of Israel's recent unilateral steps, among them the plan to remove its settlers from Gaza. One official said that while the EU finds the Israeli steps "interesting," they must be part of a wider package agreed with the Palestinian Authority. For instance, without consultation with the Palestinians, a dangerous security vacuum could emerge in Gaza.

In Brussels, European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin told RFE/RL that, apart from the peace process, the U.S. plan must take account of existing EU initiatives.

"We think that the Middle East peace process must be clearly at the center of everyone's thinking, because we simply won't be credible if it is not. And it's important, too, that we don't reinvent the wheel. We have all the structures of the Barcelona Process. We have a new initiative being launched this year with action plans for some of the countries we are talking about under what's called the European Neighborhood Policy, and it's important that we don't try to invent new structures where they're not needed. So, we're at an early stage in talks with the Americans. We need to make sure that anything we do has value added and that we make sure that we are doing something that will bring real results, not just fine words on pieces of paper," Udwin said.

The Barcelona Process -- launched in 1995 -- is the EU's main policy instrument for engaging the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries. The EU uses contacts within the Barcelona framework to encourage political and economic reforms and to foster cultural and social dialogue from Morocco to Lebanon and Syria.

An EU official told RFE/RL that the bloc's record shows that progress is possible "without taboos," adding that it must be based on two-way contact. The official said trying to "tell the region what to do could kill the [U.S.] idea."

To highlight the importance the EU attaches to contacts with the partner countries, Solana will in the coming weeks travel intensively in the region and attend Arab League meetings.

Udwin also stressed that dialogue is essential for the success of any attempt at transformation in the Wider Middle East.

"We do welcome the Americans' intention to engage in the long term and in a comprehensive way that looks at social and economic and reform aspects of the relationship of this part of the world. That is to be welcomed. We hope that they will agree with us that their wish for greater involvement, their wish to see joint initiatives, are more likely to prosper if the region itself feels that it has ownership of what is proposed. We think that it'll be very counterproductive if countries in the region feel that they are receiving instructions," Udwin said.

EU diplomats say the U.S. "language" at this week’s meeting appeared closer than before to the bloc's view that solutions cannot be imposed from the outside.

The EU currently has a complex network of contacts with the region. Aside from the Barcelona Process, it is also mulling "action plans" for closer contacts with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan within its New Neighborhood Policy. One key element in the action plans -- if they do materialize -- will be the Mideast peace process.

The bloc also does not consider Afghanistan and Pakistan integral parts of the region. In the words of one EU official, their inclusion -- apparently desired by the United States -- would take the project "halfway to India."

One official said the EU thinks it particularly important that the Gulf states be accorded separate and distinctive consideration. The official said that many of the "grassroots" schemes of empowerment reportedly being considered by the United States will not work in those oil-rich countries. The Gulf states have little need of donor money, and to combat fundamentalism or improve the situation of women, different -- predominantly political -- leverage is necessary. The official noted that much of this leverage is tied to the Mideast peace process.

Officials also note that the EU has already been active for a decade in most fields prioritized in the U.S. initiative. One official told RFE/RL that one important precondition for EU cooperation is that its own input "isn't duplicated or even damaged."

Udwin explains the close links established by the EU with countries in the region.

"The EU is already a very active partner in the region that you could describe as the Wider Middle East. We have a very established process called the Barcelona Process through which we have bilateral relationships expressed through association agreements with the member countries, and we have been very active in encouraging greater integration between those countries. We've just in the past weeks seen the signing of the first free trade agreement between four countries that we hope will become a free trade area for the whole zone by 2010. We're also spending a very large amount of money. The current budget for the region -- over, I think, five years -- is [5.3 billion euros]. So we are not newcomers in this region," Udwin said.

Officials say the United States is hoping to announce a joint "policy statement" with the EU at the G-8 summit in June. The Greater Middle East initiative by the U.S. is also expected to form the centerpiece of the EU-U.S. and NATO summits in the same month.