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Europe

The EU Treads Softly in the Middle East

European Union foreign policy head Javier Solana is currently visiting the Middle East to promote the peace process. But the EU's influence there is limited.

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Personally engaged: EU foreign policy head Javier Solana with Yassir Arafat

It was actually the European Union which devised the "road map" to peace in the Middle East. The first draft emerged during the Danish presidency of the EU in autumn 2002, according to Chris Patten, EU Commissioner for External Relations. The remaining members of the Middle East quartet -- the United States, Russia and the United Nations -- accepted and reworked the EU's plan to create a viable Palestinian state and bring an end to terror in the region, Patten has said.

The United States sees it differently. At a summit meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers to adopt the road map in early June 2003, President George W. Bush made no mention of the EU. The United States doesn't consider Europe an important player in the Middle East.

Too friendly to the Palestinians?

The European Union, however, has had a special representative for the Middle East peace process since 1996. In mid-July 2003 Belgian diplomat Marc Otte took over the position.

EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana -- something like a predecessor to a European Foreign Minister -- is traveling through the region from August 29 to September 3. He has been personally engaged in the peace process.

But as far as the U.S. and Israel are concerned he is too friendly with the Palestinians. Solana refuses to break off contacts with Palestinian President Yassir Arafat and only communicate with the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, as the U.S. and Israel do. Solana also finds it difficult sometimes to curry the support of EU foreign ministers' for the frustrating peace process with its numerous setbacks.

Former NATO Secretary-General Solana has written that particularly during times of despair Europeans must strengthen their efforts. The Italian presidency of the EU has indicated it would like to bring together the ministers of the so-called Middle East quartet (the United States, the EU, Russia and the UN) in September. French President Jacques Chirac has repeatedly called for Europe to speak with one voice in the Middle East too. He has even said he would suggest a second road map to work for peace between Israel and Syria as well as between Israel and Lebanon.

The EU as financier

The EU doesn't play a leading role on the political stage, but it does when it comes to financing the Palestinian Authority and humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

According to Chris Patten, the EU has pumped €10 million ($11 million) into the Palestinian Authority every month since June 2001 just to ensure its continued existence -- that is, paying a large part of the salaries of the more than 120,000 employees. After the second Intifada began Israel froze the financial flows of tax and customs revenues to the Palestinian Authority. The EU filled the gap.

The European Commission granted the Palestinian Authority an additional €100 million in July, €30 million of which were earmarked just for improving roads. The peace plans came and went; the EU continued to pay -- more than half a billion euros for direct aid, loans and humanitarian programs in 2002 and 2003 alone.

Accusations from the media and EU parliamentarians that aid money has been misappropriated by the Palestinian Authority, headed by Yassir Arafat, have been dismissed by the accountants in Brussels. Numerous independent audits had shown that nothing has gone astray, according to Chris Patten.

Aid for Israel

Economic relations with Israel are also close. The EU is Israel's biggest trade partner and since 1995 Israel has been part of a special EU program along with all of the Mediterranean countries, from which aid money is distributed to Israel and its neighbors.

Despite terror attacks and retaliatory strikes, direct contacts between the Israelis and the Palestinians continue when it comes to practical issues with the help of the EU. The EU mediated an agreement between the Israeli minister for infrastructure, Joseph Pritzky, and Palestinian Energy Minister Azzam Shawwa on joint projects concerning energy supplies.

Such projects are just what EU High Representative Solana likes to see. The Spaniard is anxious to help create a climate of trust between the two sides. In view of the daily violence, he'll have to have a lot of patience. Solana has said he will report on his recent talks at the EU's informal meeting of foreign ministers on Friday and Saturday.

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