| Trouble in the backyard
As the president of the United States of America, George W. Bush, prepares for a long-overdue trip to west Asia, the European Union governments are designing their own blueprint for peace and stability in the war-torn region. Many elements of the 15-nation bloc’s west Asia agenda coincide with American plans. The US and EU worked with the United Nations and Russia to design the international road map for ending Israeli-Palestinian violence which Israel accepted on May 25 and are now struggling to get the blueprint implemented as soon as possible. But tired of playing second fiddle to American interests in west Asia, EU policy-makers are mapping a distinctive design for the region.
More ambitious than the Bush administration’s free trade proposal for the region, the EU plan is part of what the European Commission president, Romano Prodi, calls a new “proximity policy” for relations between the ten so-called “southern Mediterranean states” stretching from Morocco to Syria. The EU plan aims to promote political and economic reform, combat terrorism, and improve the human rights record through tough conditionality on EU financial assistance in west Asia.
“These countries are our direct neighbours. What happens there affects our security, our economies and our future,” says an aide to EU security chief, Javier Solana. This approach marks a radical departure from EU attitudes towards a region that many in Europe tend to see as little more than a source of illegal immigration and a breeding ground for religious extremists and terrorists. The EU policy-makers insist that the EU can no longer afford to treat the Mediterranean merely as a security issue. First, many of Europe’s estimated 13 million Muslims of west Asian origin support closer relations between their adopted lands and countries of origin. Second, while people smuggling across the Mediterranean remains a problem, European governments are realizing that they must forge stronger contacts with nations whose workers are needed to replace the EU’s ageing workforce. Finally, to tackle the “root causes” of extremism, Europe must help Arab countries to become more democratic.
This blueprint for a reconfigured EU is simple enough: Europe’s southern neighbours must be allowed to become a part of an EU “area of cooperation and integration,” says Prodi. Unlike countries to Europe’s east, including the Balkan states which have been promised EU membership, Prodi has made it clear that Europe’s southern neighbours will not have the status of full-fledged EU members. Nonetheless, they can become part of a wider Europe, sharing “everything but institutions” with an expanded EU. This will require that the EU use the same techniques that it utilized successfully to speed up reform in the central and eastern European states. In other words, EU intends to play a critical role in promoting economic and political modernization in west Asia.
Although Brussels is still debating the details of the new approach, the EU policy-makers say Arab governments might be asked to prepare joint annual action plans with the EU, that translate policies into national legislation and implementation. Each plan will include specific goals and deadlines for market liberalization, police reform and human rights. The EU will ensure implementation, and the European Commission will make policy recommendations.
Arab governments that agree to play the game stand to be rewarded generously. Under Prodi’s plan, southern Mediterranean states will not only receive more aid than in the past but in the long term, become eligible to participate in the bloc’s frontier-free “internal market,” benefiting from the so-called “four freedoms” or EU rules for the untrammelled cross-border movement of goods, services, capital and people. EU governments were not too happy initially with the idea of Moroccan workers travelling unfettered across Europe, admits an aide to Prodi. “But faced with labour shortages, mentalities in Europe are changing,” he says.
This isn’t the EU’s first attempt to initiate a policy for countries on its southern rim. EU launched a so-called Euro-Mediterranean “partnership” in Barcelona in November 1995 in response to the US-led west Asian peace process. The blueprint focussed on building a European-Mediterranean free trade zone, and promoting north-south cultural cooperation. EU governments also provided millions of euros in aid to build the region’s transport, telecommunication, and electricity infrastructure.
But the seven-year-old strategy has failed to deliver. “Mediterranean states have not seriously tackled overdue political reforms, while the EU has not really found the right approach to engage its partners in an effective dialogue,” warns Eberhard Rhein, a former Commission official in charge of west Asian issues. EU governments remained unable to use their leverage to address issues like democratic reform, public accountability and the judiciary, education and improving the role of women in society. The failure of this strategy does not mean that the EU does not have an important role in promoting reform and development in the region.
In spite of EU’s best intentions, EU diplomats recognize that their new vision for the region has little chance of success as long as the volatile situation in Israel-Palestine remains unsolved. Creating an independent and viable Palestinian state is imperative for peace and an end to terrorism in west Asia. “The Palestinian problem…is not only the cause of terror against Israel but has been used by terrorist organizations in the region as an excuse. If you want to see Arabs move on reform, solving the Palestinian issues is the key,” Greece’s foreign minister, George Papandreou, has said.
EU governments have been spending millions of dollars to shore up the Palestinian Authority and encourage Palestinian reforms. Papandreou further argued that despite Israeli insistence that the road map must be US-led, Europeans need to “remain engaged in the west Asia peace process.” The plan was a “common project,” Papandreou claimed, while the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, described the international road map as “Europe’s baby,” adding that the EU had been urging Washington to step up its involvement in west Asian efforts for several months.
Despite all the rhetoric, few EU governments have any illusion about their ability to reshape west Asia. US involvement is critical in ensuring that Israel begins implementing the peace plan it reluctantly accepted last week. EU diplomats also recognize that they have little influence over Israel, which continues to view the bloc as pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian. Still, once the peace process gets under way, EU officials are confident that not only will the Palestinians demand the EU’s support but the US will also recognize that it cannot achieve peace in west Asia alone.
Unlike the public squabbles over Iraq, this time around Washington might not be able to play the game of “divide and rule Europe”. Over the years, EU governments have come to agree on the best way of achieving west Asian peace. “This is one region where EU countries realize that they can exert more influence if they work collectively,” says an EU diplomat.
That does not mean that there is no room for national initiatives such as the efforts of the British prime minister, Tony Blair, to organize a peace conference. According to an EU diplomat, “When EU leaders talk these days, they send the same message to America, Israel, and the Palestinians on the need to stop bloodshed and achieve peace.”