Towards an EU Strategy for the Middle East

Posted in Broader Middle East | 11-Mar-04 | Author: Marc Otte

Marc Otte is EU Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process
The Middle East is part of Europe’s history and culture. With EU enlargement in the Mediterranean, it will come even closer. The people of the region are not only close neighbours, they are among us. Islam is a European religion. Ten percent of people of Moroccan nationality live in Europe. That is arguably more than the proportion of Mexicans living in the United States. The EU has no choice: It needs a strategy for dealing with the Middle East. The European Security Strategy, published by the European Council in December 2003, sums up the guiding political principles. It states that “Our task is to promote a ring of well governed countries to the East of the European Union and on the borders of the Mediterranean with whom we can enjoy close and cooperative relations” and highlights that “Resolution of the Arab/Israeli conflict is a strategic priority for Europe. Without this, there will be little chance of dealing successfully with other problems in the Middle East”. The Security Strategy has already been complemented by action plans on weapons of mass destruction and on fighting terrorism.

In thinking about the future of the Middle East, and in particular the Arab countries, it is important to realise that Arabs themselves are best placed to understand the challenges they face and to decide how to tackle them. Reforms cannot be dictated from outside. We need to first listen to the countries and societies concerned and then establish a basis for a sound partnership. We need this partnership because their problems are ours. Ahead of the crucial G-8, EU-US and NATO summit meetings in June that seem to be frightening our friends in the region, the Arab League summit in Tunis at the end of March provides Arab countries with a unique opportunity to increase their profile and ownership of the process. They should use this chance to say what they like and what they don’t like about the Western ideas relating to the Greater Middle East and to set the agenda for themselves.

When I go around the Middle East, and in particular to Arab countries, they assure me that they know their problems and want to deal with them. I also hear a few other key messages. Leaders in the Arab world feel squeezed between threats from within and from outside. Those who want to implement reforms stress that the popular anger created by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a symbol of Arab humiliation, fed by daily TV images, provides ammunition to the extremists in their own societies that are in the way of reform. Leaders in the region insist that change will take time and that there should be a balance between reform and stability. What the outside world can do is to provide better tools for managing the transition. And I hear calls for a stronger European voice and more partnership between Europe and the region.

The EU is indeed relevant as a model of managed change over the long-term and the most successful example of conflict prevention. The projection of this model of integration and the qualities that made it successful – patience, mutual respect and consensus-building – to other countries and regions has always been one of the main assets of the EU’s external action. Europe has already started eight years ago to practice these principles of managed change with its partners in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (Barcelona process) – the only international framework where Israel participates side by side with Arab countries. Now this is being complemented by the Wider Europe / New Neighbours Initiative that seeks to build on EU enlargement and the Barcelona process to create an even greater inclusiveness, but with a clear notion of differentiation between partners. That’s the European way of regime change: cooperation, integration and partnership.

What is at stake in our way of dealing with the Middle East is also the establishment of the rules and principles for international relations in a new context, as the nature of these relations is changing in a globalised world. This new context has rendered the classical principle of non-intervention in internal affairs of other states obsolete. This should however not lead to the generalisation of the principle of intervention. That would be both morally wrong and dangerous. A right to intervene would quickly become the sole privilege of the most powerful. It could lead to a cycle of reactions and eventually to general confrontation.

All the key threats identified in the EU security strategy are relevant to the situation in the Middle East. They are threats to us but also to the peoples of the region. We have already for some time established an institutional framework to confront these threats in a spirit of partnership with our partners in the Mediterranean. The Barcelona process will remain our model and we would like to apply its principles in our relations with other countries in the region.

The success of European integration would not have been possible without the strong participation of civil society. Also in the transformation of the Eastern part of Europe, it is not accidental that the first leaders in the new democracies were writers, union leaders, artists. There is today also a bottom-up movement in the Arab world. Look, for example, at the recent signature of petitions by Syrian intellectuals or the confrontation in the Fatah movement where the old guard is being challenged by the younger Palestinian generation. In Iran, people didn’t go and vote because they thought that the elections were not free. A flurry of home-grown civil society initiatives demonstrates that the people of the Middle East are taking charge. Indeed many governments in the region have embarked on their own reform programmes. There is a need to use our policy instruments to encourage these trends and channel them to create a ground-swell for reform and democracy. Elections are not the beginning of the process. Free elections are the outcome of long term societal changes. Democracy needs much more than a trip to the ballot-box.

US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Mark Grossman presenting the US strategy.
Europeans are engaging in a dialogue with the US on its proposed agenda for change in the Middle East. The European approach, however, will be continue to be characterised by a distinct set of principles.
  • For the EU, the geographical scope extends to the members of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Yemen, Iran and Iraq.
  • For the EU it is important that the impulse must come from the region, as it indeed has. The UNDP Arab Human Development report was written by Arabs.
  • The Middle East peace process is of key importance. It is impossible to implement reform in the region unless there is a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no better place to begin with democracy and accountability than in a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in the sprit of the Roadmap.
  • While dealing horizontally with global problems, we must also at the same time address the specific, different local circumstances in North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, Iran and the Gulf.
  • Transforming the Middle East requires a long-term commitment and effort in terms of resources and political will.
  • We must foster regional and sub-regional cooperation. If we cannot get the countries of the region to cooperate among themselves, we will fail.
  • Let’s not create additional mechanisms. The existing ones cover the whole range of areas that we want to act on.
From Europe’s perspective, cooperation with the Middle East is essential in the following areas:
  1. Political and security dialogue. It is very important to create a cooperative security structure in the region, as we did in Europe, including sets of confidence-building measures. Once the Arab/Israel conflict is resolved, plenty of other regional conflicts will continue to exist in the region. The nascent security and defence policy of the European Union needs to develop its existing Mediterranean dimension.
  2. Democracy, human rights, rule of law and good governance.
  3. Immigration. The pressure for migration from the South is enormous, and at the same time Europe doesn’t have sufficient birth rates and needs a younger population. Unlike the US, Europe has not succeeded to attract the work force it needs. Europe needs to develop a better immigration policy in cooperation with the countries concerned.
  4. Economic and structural reform.
  5. Energy security and protection of data and transport networks.
  6. Social development, education and women’s issues.
  7. Strengthening the role of civil society.
  8. Effective multilateral action. Plenty of international organisations are already active in the region, including the UN and the international financial institutions. We should not compete or try to do the same thing. The same applies to our cooperation with the United States. In its own efforts, the EU should keep its specificity and complement what others do.
Finally, we will need to develop better mechanisms to evaluate the results of our efforts. Of course, good governance is more difficult to measure than, say, economic growth. Still, some Northern European countries for example have developed benchmarks to better evaluate their foreign aid. In conducting a programme for reform in the Middle East, we must also learn to evaluate our instruments and ensure coherence among them lest we end up creating additional confusion. As the European Security Strategy says, “if we are to make a contribution that matches our potential, we need to be more active, more coherent and more capable.”

This text is based on the remarks made by Ambassador Marc Otte at the launch of The Foreign Policy Centre’s Civility Programme on Middle Eastern Reform in London on 1 March 2004 . The Foreign Policy Centre is an independent think tank launched to revitalise debates on global issues.