Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, Brussels, March 11, 2002

Europe's role in the Greater Middle East: A Russian Perspective

by Prof. Vitaly Naumkin, President, International Center for Strategic and Political Studies, Moscow

One may cite several factors that seriously influence relations between Europe and the Greater Middle East (GME): economic interest (including one in the sphere of energy resources); the Mediterranean proximity; the demographic 'link' (in particular, the presence in Europe of huge numbers of people from the countries of the Middle East); the need to neutralize threats coming from the region (proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and means of their delivery, religious extremism and international terrorism, the smuggling of drugs, weapons, uncontrollable population migrations, etc.); trans-Atlantic commitments (in particular, support for actions undertaken at the initiative and in the interests of the USA); the existence of unsettled conflict situations in the region, the Arab-Israeli conflict above all; the necessity of assisting economic development and democratization.

The appreciably increased role of the European Union is combined with an increased weight of national governments. Given the existence of national interests, their policies concerning the region as a whole, regional problems and individual states naturally manifest significant differences which, in the view of an observer from Moscow, somewhat decrease the efficiency of the all-European course. Trips by European states' officials to the Middle Eastern region, as can be judged from the information being reported, do not fall within the framework of actions coordinated by the European Union (EU). Bilateral relations are generally of great importance, given the disparity of Europe's Middle Eastern negotiation partners: In the Middle East one can hardly find  two or three states that would successfully coordinate their policies in relation of the most pressing regional and global problems.

Certainly, the Middle East conflict is a key problem for all international players in the region. Russia, which inherited from the Soviet Union the role of cosponsor in the Middle East peace process, has in recent years displayed a tendency not only to cooperate more actively with Europe on the Middle Eastern issue, but also to recognize the EU role as an independent force which is able to make an important contribution to the settlement of the conflict between the Arabs and Israel. Sources in Moscow noted that the EU, though lacking an official cosponsor status, is nevertheless vigorously trying to participate in the resolution of the entire range of regional problems. The growing interest of the EU countries in the Middle East settlement, analysts in Russia believe, is explained both by the existence of substantial economic interests in the region, especially in the Mediterranean region, where the integration process is gathering momentum, and by regional security considerations conditioned by geographical proximity between the Middle East and Europe.

A change in Russia's position in favor of a recognition of a greater role for the EU has taken place not only under the influence of the real situation vindicating this role and due to the desire for a rapprochement with the EU, but also due to certain disappointment, though implicit, about the potential of the format of the American-Russian cosponsorship, which has proved unable to ensure a successful continuation of the Middle East peace process. A more robust independent policy by Russia is hindered by a number of limitations, first and foremost of a financial and economic character. In view of this factor, the EC's economic role may be seen as especially significant.

For the EU, rendering financial and economic assistance to the countries of the Middle Eastern region is the key factor of influence on the peace process. As is known, the EU countries are the largest donors of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). The volume of funding annually allocated by the European Union within the framework of economic assistance to the peace process averages more than 810 million euro. Furthermore, the EU annually allocates to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt (on a bilateral and multilateral basis) up to 610 million euro.

Within the framework of multilateral negotiations on the Middle East, the EU is the leading organizer of the multilateral working group on regional economic development, whose objective is the financial and economic support of the peace process and the encouragement of regional economic cooperation. Simultaneously, the EU is co-organizer of working groups on refugees, water resources and environment, most of whose subdivisions are supervised by individual European countries and the EU.

In the political sphere, the EU has reserved for itself the status of an "observer of the peace process" with the right of "rendering assistance in case of necessity for the realization of the international agreements made between the parties". The EU has till now considered its participation in it as supplementing the cosponsors' efforts, instead of running counter to it. However, European policy has recently been manifesting a growing independence. Some European initiatives are going beyond the framework of the cosponsors' efforts, between whose positions there are also considerable differences, but there is a coordination of diplomatic activity and consensus on key elements (for example, the need to resume the peace process). It is significant that in Israel European policy is subjected to criticism as being pro-Arab.

In the "Israeli-Palestinian Code of Behavior" (October 1997) and the "EU Appeal towards Peace in the Middle East" (December 1997), the EU countries defined their common position, whose major aspects are: the prolongation of the transition period in the Palestinian territories by one year; holding intensive talks on the final status during this time; support of the Palestinians' right for self-determination, including the creation of their own state. On Jerusalem the Europeans' position was formulated in the Statement of the European Union on the Peace Process in the Middle East (October 1996), which emphasized that the EU "confirms that East Jerusalem is a subject of principles incorporated in the resolution 242 of the UNSC, indicating the unacceptability of seizure of territories by force; consequently, they are not under Israeli sovereignty. The EU also stands for the necessity of renewed negotiations on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks of the Middle East peace process on the basis of resolutions 242 and 338 of the UN SC and on the basis of the principle of "land in exchange for peace".

As is well known, 1996 saw the creation of the institution of a EU special representative on the Middle East peace process. M. Moratinos was nominated to this post in December 1996, and he is holding active consultations with all the parties involved in the conflict, and also with the cosponsors of the peace process, and applying vigorous efforts for the resumption of negotiations on the Syrian-Lebanese sector of settlement. His activity is highly appraized in Russia. In parallel, the EU Supreme Representative for Defense and Foreign policy J. Solana is working within the framework of the international Mitchell Commission formed in accordance with the decisions of the Sharm-el-Sheikh summit (October 2000) in order to find out the reasons for the new outbreak of confrontation.

At the EU summit in Laeken (December 2001) the Europeans also put forward a number of specific demands: on the PNA leadership – to liquidate the terrorist infrastructure of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to "arrest and punish the persons involved in terrorist activity, to make an appeal in Arabic to stop the armed intifada; to Israel – to withdraw its troops, to stop the practice of extrajudicial punishments, to lift the blockade of Palestinian territories, to freeze settler activity, and to stop hitting the Palestinian infrastructure". The European Union, just like Russia, spoke for an immediate and unconditional implementation of the Tenet plan and recommendations of the Mitchell commission.

The EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels (January 2002) for the first time put forward a position whose major component is that measures in the security field would be realized in parallel with political ones. This position was concretized in the plan of the peace settlement in the Middle East submitted by the French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, which, in particular, provides for the return of the Israeli troops to the positions they held before the beginning of the 2000 intifada, the holding of democratic parliamentary elections, the proclamation of an independent Palestinian state and its recognition first of all by Israel, the holding of negotiations on the border question between Israel and Palestine.

On the whole, the French initiative was positively met by representatives of all EU member countries at the meeting of heads of European foreign ministries in Caceres (February 2002). At the same time, analysts in Russia have noted that there is a number of divergences among the Europeans on key questions, in particular, on the problem of elections.

As is known, the French plan proposed to Yasser Arafat that he should call elections based on the principle of non-violence, but other European states did not support Minister Vedrine's plan. Joschka Fischer stated that elections at this stage can further radicalize Palestinian society. Britain was clear ly opposed to any plan substantially out of line with the US policy. Spain was reported to seek a less ambitious plan than the French one. Thus both disagreements between the Europeans and the Americans, and the Europeans themselves obviously prevented Europe's more active role as a broker of the peace process.

In other words, as things stand today, the EU member countries do not have a uniform position on the Middle East settlement. For example, the British Foreign Office supports the dominant American-Israeli approach, according to which it is necessary first to reach a complete ceasefire, and then resume the peaceful dialogue.

The Russian Federation as cosponsor of the peace process generally welcomes any initiatives within the framework of the four international representatives (the Russian Federation, the USA, the EU and the UN) and regards the EU as the important element of this group, and as one of the brokers of the peace process. However, the French initiative received a cool welcome by the Russian side, as Russia believes that the position which involves a simultaneous realization of measures in the field of security and in the political domain to be unfeasible.

Nevertheless, the Russian vision of the situation in the Middle East does not run counter to the European one. Russia perceives Yasser Arafat as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian National Authority. His role as negotiator is still essential and he is still able to control the situation.

Events that followed September 11, have shown the role of US military power in resolving political tasks in the Middle Eastern and other regions from which threats to global security may arise. Europe, which does not have such power, cannot independently resolve such tasks with its assistance. The US, having been confronted with a real threat to its security, resolutely preferred to work unilaterally, and even such an efficient mechanism as NATO was not necessary for the successful accomplishment of the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan. The discontent shown by many EU member countries with respect to US unilateralism, is basically in line with Russia's sentiment. The subsequent march of events in the struggle against the sources of threats in the Middle East (WMD proliferation, terrorism, and so on) will show whether it will be possible to maintain and develop the international antiterrorist alliance.

In this respect, the position of the European Union on Iran and Iraq is seen as especially important. Well understanding that these countries are capable of acquiring a nuclear capability, the Europeans, as Russia sees it, have a common vision of how Iran has to be dealt with, based on engagement, not sanctions and isolation. More differences exist between the US, Europe and Russia, as well as between the Europeans themselves, on policy towards Iraq. Russia is opposed to the idea of a military action against Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. The Russian government believes that this may destabilize the whole region. Russia thinks that the return of UN inspectors to Baghdad should be linked to the lifting of sanctions when an appropriate report is delivered by them. Wide disorder of opinions among the Europeans – from Heider who has recently made a visit to Saddam Hussein to the British who, jointly with the USA, are subjecting Iraq to to bombardments, show the difficulty of forging a pan-European position.

Certainly, Mediterranean cooperation is an important element of European-Middle Eastern ties. Mediterranean partnership, the engagement of the Mediterranean states in the European processes, and economic integration will contribute to the stabilization of the situation in the region.

The acuteness of the antiterrorist campaign and the continued violence in the Middle East have overshadowed many lines of activity in which the European countries in the past put forward useful initiatives. One may cite, in particular, work on designing the fundamentals of the future collective security system in the Middle East, based on inclusiveness and cooperative approach.

On the whole, on both the official and informal levels Russia sees a European role in the Middle East as that of an active partner which is able to effectively promote the economic development of the countries of the region, as well as to facilitate the settlement of crisis situations. The countries of the European Union lack a common position on a number of major problems, and this reduces the potential of their impact. It would be useful in the long term to make the Russian-European dialogue on the Middle East more active, and possibly to create a new mechanism for it.