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Essays and thoughts on the European Union

Help or hindrance? The EU and the Middle East Peace Process: a regionalist approach

The following is an edited version of an essay written as part of the External Relations of the EU programme. Copyright: Ross McQueen 2015.


Through its neighbourhood institutions, the EU has since the mid-1990s been taking a regionalist approach to the states of the Middle East and North Africa (Jones, 2006, p.416). The EU’s southern or Mediterranean neighbourhood comprises a number of predominantly Arab North African and Middle Eastern states, and Israel. The Middle East Peace Process therefore looms large in any consideration of this region: it is impossible to deal with the MENA region as a whole without touching on the MEPP. However, the EU is a multilateralist actor (Saleh, 2007, p.75). That is to say, its approach towards the MENA countries does indeed constitute an attempt to treat the region as a composite whole. The EMP/ENP instruments thus encompass a set of countries whose politics remain linked to the Israel-Palestine conflict, with the result that the progress of the EMP/ENP and MEPP remain inextricably entwined. Scholars have argued that the EU’s regionalist projects will not be successful without significant progress on the Peace Process (Edis, 1998, p.104; Youngs, 2002, p.42). And while never intended as tools for advancing the Peace Process, any analysis of the EMP/ENP must nonetheless take the MEPP into consideration. It will be the purpose of this paper to weigh the successes of the European Union’s multilateralist instruments, such as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) and the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), balanced against the state of the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP). This essay will seek to examine how the EU’s regionalist approach could potentially contribute to a resolution of the Peace Process.

Europe’s goals in the region

The EU has been playing an increasing role in the Middle East and MEPP since the 1990s. The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, which began in 1995 with the launch of the Barcelona Process, was the first signal that Europe envisaged a more active phase in its relations with the MENA region. The EU had become aware that its Cold War-era policies were in need of updating, and that a new approach to its Mediterranean neighbours was urgently required (Attinà, 2004, p.140). Previously, during the Cold War, it had been tacitly acknowledged that the MENA region was solely the ‘responsibility’ of the United States, and Europe had largely allowed the US to take the lead in negotiations on the Arab-Israeli conflict. As de La Gorce argues, the European states had ended up acquiescing to a ‘political and strategic regional balance in which they had no role’ (de La Gorce, 1997, p.8). The EU had become disconnected from its regional neighbours, and the Barcelona Process was the mechanism intended to rectify this.

The EMP was not simply about reconnecting with neighbours for the purposes of dialogue alone, however. A primary motivation behind the launch of the regionalist approach was the concern for the regional security situation and mass migration to Europe (Edis, 1998, p.105; Jones, 2006, p.422). Edis indeed warned of the dangers posed by the increased threat of illegal immigration, crime and terrorism from the region if no action were taken (Edis, 1998, p.105). Political instability was thought to be a prime cause of migration to Europe, and it was felt that the ongoing economic problems of the Maghreb and Mashreq would perpetuate this instability if nothing was done. The solution was to offer a mechanism for economic support in order to ensure certain levels of security in the region, while at the same time making tentative attempts at democratising the Arab states along Europe’s Mediterranean border. Alun Jones incidentally has labelled these steps an attempt to ‘Europeanise’ the Mediterranean region (Jones, 2006, p.416). The rationale behind the regionalist view comprised economic integration through financial aid and investment in return for a degree of political reform in the hope of ensuring political stability (Youngs, 2002, pp.41-2). And the conditionality of reforms for investment sought to link ‘economic and political/strategic objectives’ in the region ‘in a mutually reinforcing fashion’ (Edis, 1998, p.105), thereby stabilising the region and reducing the threat of immigration at the same time.

Despite initial optimism and modest hopes for success, the Arab-Israeli conflict was to prove the downfall of the Barcelona Process. A deterioration of the Peace Process in 1996 led to Arab states refusing to host EMP summits on their territory if Israel was attending, and the brief successes of the regionalist approach were short-lived. Little progress was made subsequently, and Attinà observed in 2004 that the Barcelona Process ‘has not achieved many tangible results’ (Attinà, 2004, p.141). The EU had not specifically set out to tackle the MEPP through its regionalist approach, yet it was by events in the MEPP that the Barcelona Process was undone. Hence by 2004 there was a clear need to renew EU policy towards the Mediterranean region, and towards the Peace Process as well.

The EU’s 2004 enlargement prompted the creation of a newer regionalist instrument. Without specifically having the Mediterranean region in mind, the enlargement prompted the creation of the European Neighbourhood Policy, to cover both the states to the east and south of the EU’s new borders (EC, 2007, p.1). The fact that the ENP is a single policy covering the two very different eastern and southern neighbourhoods of the EU, has led to criticism that it is a ‘one size fits all’ approach (Browning & Joenniemi, 2008, p.23). The official purpose of the ENP was indeed rather vague. Officially it aimed to create ‘a zone of prosperity and a friendly neighbourhood – a “ring of friends” – with whom the EU enjoys close, peaceful and co-operative relations’ (EC, 2003, p.4). It is largely seen as an alternative to the offer of accession (Browning & Joenniemi, 2008, p.18). In the south, the ENP was to take the form of economic integration and trade agreements, comprising a network of bilateral agreements with the individual countries of the Mediterranean region, including Israel. The fact that the ENP included the signatories of the Barcelona Declaration meant that the EU’s regionalist agenda was again brought into contact with the domain of the MEPP, and ensured that any separation of the EMP/ENP and MEPP could only ever be ‘artificial’ (Youngs, 2002, p.50).

This cannot have been a surprise to the EU, however. Officially, the European Union has made solving the Arab-Israeli conflict one of its foreign action priorities, and is committed to a ‘two-state solution’ with ‘an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel and its other neighbours’ (EEAS, 2014a). At a speech to the League of Arab States in Cairo in March 2010, the Catherine Ashton described ending the conflict as ‘a vital European interest’ and ‘central to the solution of other problems in the region’ (Ashton, 2010, p.2), while the EEAS maintains that ‘resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a strategic priority for Europe’, and that a successful resolution is key to ‘solving other problems in the Middle East’ (EEAS, 2014b). Currently the EU is also the largest donor to Palestinian state-building efforts (EEAS, 2014b). The EU is quick to call for ceasefires during outbreaks of violence, and has been a vocal critic of Israeli settlement building. Positive concrete progress on a resolution of the Peace Process have thus far remained elusive, however. If the EU is committed both to the success of its regionalist integration programmes and to the peaceful resolution of the MEPP, what course of action can it take and what impact does the one have upon the other? Multilateralist instruments arguably remain the mechanism through which the EU primarily comes into contact with the MENA region and hence with the protagonists of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It may well be the case that through its regionalist instruments the EU can play a part in a potential resolution of the MEPP.

Europe’s chequered history

The difficulties are vast, however. Europe has a long history of engagement with the MENA region, much of which had damaging effects that are still felt today. The Middle East bears the scars of European measures such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, for example, not to mention the legacy of the Palestinian Mandate and the current multi-confessional make-up of many of the Middle East’s modern-day states. While the EU as a whole has pursued democratisation and investment in the region through its regionalist programmes, some individual European states have continued to make matters worse for the region during the 21st century. The involvement of European states in the 2003 Iraq War is a prime example. Current attempts at tackling the region’s conflicts are thus inevitably coloured by an awareness of Europe’s ‘definite history of involvement in the Orient’ (Said, 1978, p.11), and by the legacy of the forceful projection of so-called ‘civilized’ spaces onto the region (Bachmann, 2011, p.63). As a result, EU interference in the domestic affairs of Mediterranean states is not universally welcomed. Analysis of Egyptian opinion polls by the scholar Sandra Lucarelli has shown a lukewarm response to the perceived effects of the EMP/ENP in Egypt. Her study revealed that ‘the EU’s efforts to cooperate with its southern Mediterranean neighbours are not perceived as an attempt to help these neighbours to solve their problems but as a security measure to avoid such problems overflowing into Europe’ (Lucarelli, 2007, p.267). Given that the Barcelona Process was first launched to prevent rises in migration, crime and terrorism (Edis, 1998, p.104), this charge is hard to refute.

There is nonetheless a case to be made that progress on a resolution of the Middle East Peace Process might go some way towards alleviating broader regional security issues, however. And the security issues that plague the Middle East today are vast. The 21st century alone has seen frequent violent upheavals, such as the excesses of the War on Terror, the turmoil of the Arab Spring and the ongoing horror of the conflict in Syria. In the Israeli and Palestinian territories there have been regular upsurges in violence, from the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, to the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the Gaza-Israel conflict of 2014, to name but a few. The Oslo Accords signed in the 1990s are yet to bring about a sustainable peace. The Middle Eastern Quartet, formed in 2002 between the US, UN, EU and Russia, has similarly been unable to enact its Roadmap for Peace. There are, indeed, few positive signs, and Laurence Cooley and Michelle Pace, writing in Third World Quarterly, have pronounced the Peace Process ‘all but dead’ (Cooley & Pace, 2012, p.522). With history against it and the region wracked continuously by violence and instability, what progress towards peace can the EU realistically hope to make? It would be wrong to suggest that the situation is beyond help, however, though admittedly it is bleak. The challenge for the EU will be in aligning its regionalist efforts in order to facilitate a framework for peace should a breakthrough arise. By encouraging dialogue between the belligerents of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the EU’s regional forums could create a precedent for productive talks, with knock-on effects for peace negotiations.

Progress to date

So what progress has the EU actually made so far? Specific instances of concrete progress are unfortunately tricky to identify, and it remains a point of argument whether the EMP/ENP approach has had any degree of success in the MENA region. Democratisation in particular was once seen as ‘the best means of engendering both stability and moderation in the Mediterranean, and of helping to generate the economic growth that would eventually ease migratory pressures’ (Youngs, 2002, p.41-2). This formed a major component of the EU’s regionalist approach, and thus we might consider the state of democratisation in the region as an indicator of the EU’s levels of success. However, the evidence would tend to suggest that progress on democratisation, as with economic development, is ultimately also dependent on the state of the MEPP. During upsurges of violence it is not only difficult to convene dialogue on democratisation, it has often been considered undesirable from a security perspective. While democratic reform could ultimately bring greater stability in the long-term, the short-term risks were great; hence progress on democratic reform within the Arab states before 2010 had therefore been slight. The EU’s unwillingness to weaken Arab leaders who were deemed vital to the Peace Process meant that pressure for serious political reform was always going to be unlikely (Youngs, 2002, p.42). Furthermore, the dependence of political reform on the success of the MEPP in the first place arguably meant that the EU’s hands were tied. Clearly it was considered that upsetting the political balance of the Maghreb and Mashreq through widespread democratic reform was too risky to the Peace Process.

This precarious balance of democracy versus security is brought into sharp relief by the events of the Arab Spring, however. The fact that dictators such as Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali were brought down by popular uprisings rather than by EU-sponsored democratisation projects highlights the restrained EU approach to democratic reform in the southern Mediterranean. Browning and Joenniemi surmise that the EU was ‘ultimately prepared to tolerate unsavoury regimes in return for cooperation in the fight against terrorism’ (Browning & Joenniemi, 2008, p.33), and hence these regimes were supported in spite of what might have been desirable from a humanitarian point of view. Egypt’s Mubarak was a major supporter of Fatah for instance, and was hence valuable to the Peace Process, and with his downfall Fatah ultimately lost its main patron (Cooley & Pace, 2012, p.552). Given that the rival power in the Palestinian territories is and was Hamas, the political motivation for propping up Mubarak’s pro-Fatah regime is apparent. Hamas, of course, was until December 2014 considered a terrorist organisation by the EU. As a result of the turmoil in Egypt the Commission was forced to admit  in 2013 that ‘no particular progress’ had been made that year regarding the EU’s ENP Action Plan for Egypt (EC, 2013, p.2), thus revealing an inherent flaw within the EU approach. The EMP/ENP instruments aim to encourage stability, but are at the same time reliant on stability in order to function.

The effectiveness of the EU’s suite of neighbourhood instruments is thus open to some criticism, not least because these neighbourhood instruments are so wholly dependent on the state of the MEPP. EMP meetings were often impossible to organise during violent crises, and members of the more recent Union for the Mediterranean will refuse to talk with each other in times of war (Balfour, 2009, p.101). The EU’s faith in economic reform spilling over into political liberalisation among the Arab states simply did not materialise, and the EU’s expectations had in any case been ‘rather vague’ (Youngs, 2002, p.54). If the EU’s multilateralist institutions are so susceptible to crisis, then it is questionable how effective they can really be with regards to reaching a resolution of the Israel-Palestine crisis. Rosa Balfour wrote in 2009 that the region’s prospects were ‘fairly bleak’ (Balfour, 2009, p.104), and currently it is difficult to argue that conditions for peace will emerge any time soon. Is the EU merely a helpless observer, then, unable to shape events in any meaningful way? Or are there any indications that positive change might still come about?

Positive Signs?

There is arguably still something to be said for the EU approach. Many of the EU’s successes are minor and accumulative. They are difficult to measure quantitatively. As such, rather than having a direct impact on democratisation, economic stability or progress on the MEPP, it is more likely that the EU is taking a holistic approach to stability by playing a longer game. Multilateralist projects such as the EMP/ENP arguably do work to improve the living conditions of people in the Mediterranean region during periods of relative peace, through investment in programmes such as gender equality and education. Given enough time, efforts at democratisation and economic integration could reduce political instability and lead to an atmosphere more conducive to a successful resolution of the MEPP. While not necessarily intended as forums for addressing the MEPP directly, the fact that Israel and the Arab states are signatories to the neighbourhood agreements may give some small hope for progress. The simple fact that Israel and its Arab neighbours all participate in the same partnership can in itself be seen as a minor success.

The EU might leave itself open to criticism that it has not been more proactive in using the EMP/ENP more persuasively in the Peace Process. Indeed, the EU refuses to use the provisions of its regionalist instruments to pressure Israel into making serious concessions regarding the Peace Process, to the bitter disappointment of Arab participants (Youngs, 2002, p.50). Youngs argues that this ‘artificial separation between the peace process and the EMP’ has backfired, reducing the EU’s negotiating power regarding ‘internal political developments in Arab countries’ (ibid.). It is perhaps easy to label this a missed opportunity. However, that is not the EU’s modus operandi. In contrast to the robust character of US involvement in the region, the value of the EU’s approach lies precisely in its more subdued nature. Using the EMP/ENP as leverage to exert pressure on Israel (or on any other state for that matter) would possibly be far more counter-productive and would be viewed as provocation, threatening the hard-won dialogue nurtured by the regionalist institutions while having no positive effect on the Peace Process. If success in the MEPP is to emerge with the help of the European Union, then it is through the atmosphere of productive dialogue encouraged by the regionalist forums that the EU has set up amongst the belligerents of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite never being intended as a ‘forum for addressing regional or disarmament problems’ (Edis, 1998, p.104), successful talks between Israel and its neighbours on trade may well someday pave the way for successful talks on a lasting peace.


The EU’s multilateralist approach remains a valuable experiment in the long road to a lasting peace. Rather than robustly hammering out change in the region, the EU instead slowly nurtures the conditions for change through encouraging dialogue and placing more mundane matters such as commerce on the agenda. There are undoubtedly benefits in the gradual accumulation of improvements to the education standards and living conditions of people in the southern Mediterranean region through EMP/ENP initiatives, and though these changes are minor, they may conceivably produce the conditions for peace in the long run.

It is precisely here that the EU’s regionalist approach demonstrates its potential for alleviating the security situation in the Middle East. If the EU can succeed in getting the Arab states and Israel to talk to each other about commerce rather than conflict, then the prospect of positive knock-on effects for the Peace Process is tantalising. This will of course be an ongoing project. The continuing violence in the region and the lack of clear and concrete progress so far mean that the potential of the EU’s regionalist instruments is, as yet, still to be fully realised. There may be criticism that democratisation has not materialised and that economic stability has not been achieved in the MENA region. Yet perhaps that is not what the EU is ultimately about. What the EU strives for is dialogue. In spite of numerous obstacles, and in spite of regular setbacks, it is through the EU’s regionalist frameworks for dialogue that the potential to make a positive difference to the Middle East Peace Process may someday be found.



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Copyright: Ross McQueen 2015.

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