European Union short on influence in Middle East diplomacy | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.12.2017
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The EU and the Middle East

European Union short on influence in Middle East diplomacy

Donald Trump's pending "peace plan" and Netanyahu's visit are highlighting EU inertia on the Middle East. Despite being a big trade and aid partner for the region, the bloc is failing to pull its weight, observers say.

It seems Israeli leaders were either not aware or not interested in the open door to Brussels that the European Union's top diplomat says they've always had. It took 22 years and a personal invitation from the Lithuanian foreign minister for Monday's meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the top diplomats from the 28 EU member states to take place. 

Netanyahu certainly packed his bag full of chutzpah. Despite the suggestion of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini that he is always welcome in Brussels, it was something of a fluke the meeting happened at all.

Lithuanian sources say Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius had suggested to his EU counterparts that Netanyahu informally join them for breakfast before the regular meeting started, as the Israeli leader was in the neighborhood after visiting France. When Mogherini got word of the potential rendezvous she insisted it be formalized under her command.

Upon arrival, Netanyahu thanked Lithuania for inviting him, a verbal snicker about the slightly awkward situation.  And after the meeting, Lithuania praised his country in a tweet as a "strategic ally."

As riots continue across the Middle East over the Trump administration's decision to declare the divided city of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, an action that the EU vocally denounced to US Secretary of State Tillerson personally a week earlier, Netanyahu described the US move as a bold step that "makes peace possible." 

The Israeli leader followed that up by predicting that "all — or most — of the European countries will move their embassies to Jerusalem, recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and engage robustly with us for security, prosperity and peace."

Watch video 01:34

Netanyahu expects EU to follow US recognition

Mogherini nixes Netanyahu prediction

Mogherini made it clear later that she was displeased with the prime minister's bold presumptions about the EU getting in line behind the Trump administration on the matter of Jerusalem.

At the end of her news conference, she added, unprompted, that Netanyahu "can keep his expectations for others, because from the EU member states' side,this move will not come." And she made sure to mention at every opportunity that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is also coming next month.

Palestinians hold anti-Trump posters in E. Jerusalem protest

Protests like this one in East Jerusalem have been happening around the world

'Not waiting,' but not innovating either

Meanwhile, as the US plows ahead with a new peace plan to follow up its Jerusalem earthquake, Mogherini emphasized that the EU was not "simply sitting in a 'waiting for Godot' attitude," but admitted that there was no new "specific EU initiative" in the works, either.

That's not good enough, said Martin Konecny, the director of the European Middle East Project (EuMEP), a new non-partisan policy shop in Brussels promoting increased EU efforts for resolving the conflict.

"The European allies have just quite clearly and strongly criticized the Trump administration for the move on Jerusalem," he pointed out in an interview with DW. "But at the same time they are pushing them and encouraging them to propose this peace plan ... as if that peace plan is going to be in line with the EU's understandings and the international consensus on what a two-state solution should look like. And I think anyone who has followed the Trump administration's actions on Israel and Palestine so far,  and especially this move on Jerusalem, should be actually very worried about what will be in such a such a peace plan."


Even without their own new ideas, Konecny told DW, "Europeans should already now be reminding the Americans of the past positions, of the European parameters, and warning them if they depart from it the Europeans will not support it and will even actively oppose it."

EU foreign policy victim of national vanity

But Carnegie Europe's Stefan Lehne believes that would be expecting too much from EU foreign policy, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Lehne told DW that this was due to "structural weakness" in what he called the EU's "foreign policy machine." His latest article questions whether there is "hope for EU foreign policy."

A basic problem, he explained, was that EU governments considered the bloc as a forum they could use to push their own national agendas, but were unwilling to give up their own individual turn on the stage to let the EU become a player.  This, despite the fact that the bloc is the single biggest source of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians and, with all EU countries combined, the number one trading partner of Israel.

"[The EU] has never been capable of translating the quite significant engagement in terms of money and trade relationship into a real role to play in terms of foreign policy," Lehne noted. "One big problem is, of course, also the acceptance on the Israeli side. For the Israelis it was always more convenient to say the only power that can help us is the United States."

Instead of trying to wedge its way into a process with "pretty dismal" chances for success, Lehne suggests the EU change its focus to the "vast agenda" of the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. "There are many many things that the EU needs to do," he advised. "One cannot try everything. From my point of view,  probably Syria and Libya are at the moment more promising."

That certainly gives context to the depths of Lehne's pessimism. 

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