Middle East: Europe has a role to play

28 July 2011 – Al Hayat (London)

After years of playing a secondary role in the Arab world, the EU now has an opportunity to exert a positive influence in a region where the United States and Russia have failed to respond to radical change. An Al-Hayat columnist outlines how Europe can make a difference.

America’s declining interest in international affairs and Russia’s return to a Soviet mentality have presented Europe with an opportunity to play a leading role in the international arena. The Middle East, the Gulf region and North Africa are geographically closer to Europe and they are also the theatre where a wide range of European economic and strategic interests come together.

For decades Europe allowed its influence to wane to the point where during the American-Soviet bi-polarity of the Cold War period it was little more than a satellite. And this decline was all the more surprising given the strong historical links between Europe and the Arab World.

Then a turning point was reached with the events that brought radical change to the region at the start of this year. However, the policy shift that it implied has been hampered by the eurozone crisis, which has hobbled the European Union and forced many member states to restrict their focus to domestic issues. Even the pledges that were made, for example the idea of a Marshall Plan initiative to facilitate the success of the transition in Tunisia and Egypt, have remained unfulfilled in the absence of concrete measures.

In spite of this quandary, Europe remains keenly interested in the events in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Lebanon as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the Americans appeared to be asleep on issues in Libya and Syria, the Europeans were there to prevent them from sliding into the hibernation and restricted focus on domestic affairs that often accompanies the run-up to elections.

In response to the Russians, Europe has the option of filling the vacuum

When the Obama administration made what could have been a very costly error, the EU Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, was there to take charge of the situation and to prevent the Quartet on the Middle East [the United Nations, the United States, the EU and Russia] from issuing a terribly dangerous statement.*

Europe also plays a very important role as a counterweight to Russia, which acts as UN Security Council protector of the regimes in Tripoli, Damas and Teheran, with absolutely no regard for demands made by the people in the countries they control. As for China, it aligns itself with Moscow and the policy of obstruction that the Soviets adopted under communism, which prevents the Security Council from reaching a consensus over statements and uses the threat of a veto to block the adoption of resolutions.

Europe’s importance resides in the fact that it acts as a brake on the Russian tactic of obstruction without explanation, which it confidently deploys on the back of its permanent member’s veto — an arm that enables it to shamelessly place national interests above the council’s duty to preserve peace and security. In response to the Russians, Europe has the option of filling the vacuum, or co-ordinating roles with the Americans to support the fledgling democracies in the Arab world.

Catherine Ashton has both the skills and the credibility

Having said that, Europe can not be expected to replace America in the international arena, nor should it enable Obama to muddle along without undertaking a necessary rethink of relations between Washington and its main allies.

With regard to international policy in the Middle East, the current situation is characterised by what appear to be two camps: one that includes Arab League, Russia and China, which is apparently intent on defending autocratic regimes that might otherwise be called to account for the oppression they have perpetrated in their countries, and a second, which on a regional level is led by Turkey and supported by the EU and the United States.

International and local human rights organisations, which have demonstrated great courage in their commitment to Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Palestine and Israel are and should be the natural allies of the EU. In a period that is characterised by a domestically focused America, a Russia that has reverted to timeworn polices and reactionary tendencies in the Arab League, Catherine Ashton has both the skills and the credibility to develop a role for the EU that will enable it to support democratic aspirations. Europe should be an actor and a partner with its own place on the world map, instead of being a funding organisation that falls into step behind polices that are decided by other powers.

*Editor's note: The article is alluding to a draft statement that designates Israel as a "Jewish state," which was opposed by the Palestinians.

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