The need for a collective European voice and action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP).

Since its inception, the European Union (EU) has come a long way towards reaching common foreign policy positions and taking common action. The adoption of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) by the Maastricht Treaty (1992) and the establishment of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) (1998) gave to the EU a new impetus to act autonomously and the ability to independently launch military operations and civilian missions. After the EU was heavily criticised for not reacting quickly enough during the Balkan wars in the late 90s and early 2000, the development of CSDP as a foreign policy instrument enhanced the EU’s capacity to act regarding security and the projection of power in a crisis management and conflict prevention context. In 2009, the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and the establishment of the European External Action Service (EEAS) allowed for greater coordination and consistency in EU foreign policy.

Nevertheless, the EU has always been seen more as a ‘soft power’ actor in the wider world rather than a coercive military-security actor, applying its moral weight and bringing to bear significant diplomatic, economic, and development capacities to address conflicts and crises. As Robert Kagan puts it, “the EU foreign policy is probably the most anemic of all the products of European integration”.

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Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. Image by Dora Heath

Resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict has long been a strategic foreign policy priority for the EU. The Gaza conflict during the summer of 2014 was a sad reminder that the Israel-Palestine conflict remains unresolved and that international engagement is necessary now more than ever. We have yet to see the EU seriously apply its full collective soft power to trying to resolve the conflict. There are many reasons for this, and many would say the current circumstances in Israel and the region do not lend themselves to progress. But I would argue that there is more the EU should do and can do.

What has the EU been doing to promote progress on the MEPP?

Policy

Examples of a common European foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict include the Schumann document in 1971, which called for Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, the European Political Committee (EPC) declaration in 1973 right after the breakout of Yom Kippur war, the Venice declaration in 1980 in which the right of the Palestinians to self-determination was recognised. Moreover, the EU supported the creation of a Palestinian state with the Berlin document in 1999 and it further supported the end of the occupation and the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders with the Seville declaration in 2002. In June 2002, the EU co-sponsored the Roadmap for Peace which emphasises the need for Palestinian institution-building and economic recovery with a view to enhancing the strength and viability of the future Palestinian state. From 2007 onwards, the EU actively supported the “Annapolisprocess” which committed the Israelis and the Palestinians to reach a peace agreement by the end of 2008. Although an agreement was not reached by the agreed deadline, since then, the EU, in particular the EEAS, has released numerous statements stressing that peace in the Middle East remains top priority for the EU.

The EU as a whole is represented locally through the Delegation of the European Union to Israel in Tel Aviv, the Office of the European Union Representative in West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the European Union Special Representative (EUSR) for the Middle East Peace Process, the two CSDP missions EUBAM RAFAH and EUPOL COPPS, and the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO).

The EU Foreign Affairs Council which consists of the national ministers of all EU member states, is responsible, among other, for developing the EU’s foreign and security policy and drawing joint conclusions on the MEPP which effectively are expressions of the EU’s common position. Recent conclusions from the Foreign Affairs Council have reiterated that the EU condemns the loss of hundreds of civilian lives in the recent Gaza conflict. The EU’s official policy line on the MEPP aims at a two-state solution with an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel and its other neighbours.

The two civilian ‘missions’ EUPOL COPPS and EUBAM RAFAH were launched by the EU in order to support reform in the Palestinian police, strengthen the rule of law and increase security in the area. EUBAM RAHAH was monitoring operations at the Rafah crossing border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. The crossing was to ensure freedom of movement for 1.5 million Palestinians leaving in the Gaza Strip as well as the export of goods. Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, the mission has been effectively on stand-by awaiting a political situation which would allow it to become active again. Both missions form a visible and tangible expression of the EU on the ground.

Funding

At the same time, the EU is investing significant sums of money in addressing the conflict. The European Commission (EC) itself is the biggest donor of financial assistance to the Palestinians. Between 2007 and 2013, Palestine received through the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI) €300 million per year for financial support, support to Palestinian refugees, and development programmes. Other EC funding mainly provides financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, to United Nations agencies assisting Palestinians, and to local NGOs and think tanks (non-state actors) contributing to the MEPP. The European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI), amongst other EC instruments, is projected to be the biggest funding source for Palestine for 2014-2020.

The Quartet

Another example of collective EU engagement is its position as one of the members of the ‘Quartet on the Middle East’ (alongside the US, Russia and the UN), which evolved shortly after the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000. The Quartet group works to facilitate a two-state solution and a stronger Palestine aiming at the preservation of security and peace in the area. However, the EU’s objective must of course be agreed with the three other Quartet members. Whilst the US invested great efforts in re-launching peace negotiations between the two sides, the failure of the US also shows the limitations of the US’ ability to act as a mediator in the conflict.

The EU has been active on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and continues to be a major donor, including supporting Palestinian statebuilding. At the same time, it is clear that the EU as a whole has not to date managed to form a collective policy position that encourages progress towards peace and justice and exercise its full diplomatic weight toward achieving that goal. In short, the EU’s financial and security assistance is out of all proportion to its diplomatic effort.

Do bilateral relations hinder EU collectivity?

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Image by Thijs ter Haar, Creative Commons license.

EU Member States have direct bilateral relations with both Israel and Palestine. Although bilateral relations are important they could potentially create confusion as individual initiatives could undermine the EU’s common approach on the conflict. Division within the EU and differences between European Member States over their approaches to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict could end up with compromises of the EU policy on the MEPP, where the common EU position and ambition becomes the lowest common denominator. EU divisions occurred in the past with regard to Kosovo, the Iraq war, and Russia, putting EU unity over the Common Foreign and Security Policy to the test.

In December 2014, the European Parliament voted to support recognition of Palestine as a state. In its resolution on Palestinian statehood, the European Parliament supported the “in principle recognition of Palestinian statehood and the two state solution, and believes these should go hand in hand with the development of peace talks, which should be advanced”1. Eight out of 27 EU Member States have already recognised Palestinian statehood. It is time for the member states to seriously reflect on their positions and take a collective, more forward-leaning approach on recognition of the Palestinian state, and taking firm collective action to address the impunity for abuses of international law.

Time to step up

Even at a time when there are so many crises across the Middle East and wider world, it was a very positive signal to see the new EU High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini, make a trip to Israel and Palestine her first official overseas visit. During her visit (November 2014), Mogherini convened the members of the Quartet to highlight the urgency of progress in the MEPP.

Her subsequent appointment of Fernando Gentilini as the new EU Special Representative for the Middle East, backed by EU member states, suggests Mogherini is committed to work towards resuming peace negotiations between the PA and Israel and stepping-up the EU’s role. In fact, this position has been abolished by Mogherini’s predecessor Catherine Ashton, despite heavy criticism by several EU Member States. In his new post, Gentilini will focus on the resumption of negotiations with the aim of achieving a peace agreement based on a two-state solution. He will be working with both Israeli and Palestinian authorities, members of the Quartet, Arab states and relevant regional bodies. This represents a real opportunity for the EU to take a more leading role on mediating the conflict and making the most of its soft power. This will need the full support of EU member states to be effective.

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