German EU Presidency and the Middle East

"Between Political Inertia and a Lack of Vision for the Region"

What has the German EU presidency contributed toward the peace process in the Middle East? Ahmad Hissou discussed this issue with German journalist Stefan Buchen, Dr. Hadila Qazaz of the Heinrich Böll foundation in Ramallah and Dr. Rudolph al-Qareh, a specialist in European-Arab relations

Chancellor Merkel, right, welcomes Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, prior to a joint meeting of the EU Commission (photo: AP)
Germany, as well as Europe, have ceased to be active players in the Middle East peace process, says German TV journalist Stefan Buchen

​​Mr. Buchen, Germany pledged before it took control of the European Union that it would work hard on the current frozen peace process in the Middle East. Here we are six months later and Portugal has now the directorship in the rotating presidency, so has the German government fulfilled its commitment?

Stefan Buchen: We must not be allowed to deceive ourselves; the Middle East does not hold such an important position in German foreign policy even when it held the presidency of the European Union. Despite the many visits by the foreign minister and the German Chancellor to the Middle East and some of the Arab countries, the region and the Arab-Israeli conflict occupy no priority in Germany's foreign policy. The files that the German presidency of the European Union focused on included, in truth, climate change, the proposed treaty to replace the constitution and the relations with the United States.

But the German government, and in the words of the Chancellor herself, had promised to re-activate the peace process in the Middle East during the period of her presidency.

Buchen: Yes, the government promised but did not fulfill its pledge. I know that Chancellor Angela Merkel had issued statements at the beginning of the German presidency to the Union declaring the possibility of moving forward on the peace process in the Middle East which she later realized was a very naive statement and that the possibility was absent. That is why we notice that Merkel and her foreign minister Steinmeier focused on other areas.

If one were to ask you on the most important accomplishments in the past six months in the Middle East, what would you say?

Buchen: I do not see any accomplishment whatsoever in the German file. We saw how the last Sharm al-Sheikh summit did not succeed in covering up the failure of European policy in resuscitating the peace process in the Middle East. What I want to say is that Germany, as well as Europe, have ceased to be active players in this field. The role of the Union is limited to reacting on what is going on in the Middle East.

When Hamas took control of Gaza there was a reaction on the part of the European Union and when a terrorist operation takes places in the south of Lebanon we do hear a European response. The short of this is that neither Germany nor Europe are initiators in the region.

Dr. Hadil Qazaz, you are in Ramallah, in the center of the conflict, and you have heard Mr. Buchen state that there have not been any accomplishments and that Europe is incapable of doing anything. How do you personally assess that matter in the light of the promises issued by the German government?

Qazaz: I agree with Mr. Buchen in that there has been no achievements during the German presidency of the European Union on the region for two main reasons: one is that the German government lacks experience with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict and here I would like to emphasize the large difference between the position of this government and that of its predecessor whose foreign minister Joschka Fischer took a very serious and pro-active role with regard to the conflict.

The other reason is objective and has to do with what is occurring on the ground which does not permit anyone to interfere. The political reality in the region is a paralyzed reality, the winning of a radical Islamic party in the last elections is rejected by Germany and other European governments whose refusal to deal with it has complicated the situation even further and limited any role it could play in the region.

You mean Hamas?

Qazaz: Yes, in their opinion there is no Palestinian partner they could negotiate with which is an excuse not to accomplish anything seriously. You have asked me if there has been any change. Yes, a slight but relevant one and that is the multiple visits undertaken by officials to the region which in itself is educational whereby the facts of the conflict on the ground could be assessed as well as the realities of the many parties to the conflict.

Dr. Rudolph al-Qarih, you are a researcher and an Arab academician who follows closely the Arab-European relations. How do you assess the last six months of the German presidency to the European Union?

Al-Qarih: Let's be honest, the German presidency is being held accountable to a lot more than its share with regard to the foreign policy of the European Union not to mention that there are many agendas in the region especially the American that has defined - by its aggressive position in the region and especially in Iraq - the roles of the other players.

I do not agree with Mr. Buchen in what he says because asking the German presidency to the EU to be held accountable for a lot more is not permissible. I believe that the European policy oscillates between political inertia and a lack of vision for the region. The German presidency was overwhelmed with issues related to the European Constitution which exposed the many diverging positions and aims that weakened the European foreign policy.

It is true that Minister Steinmeier has expressed many times in front of the European parliament his wish that Europe would propose an independent vision to the Middle East but the many conflicting positions within the European family did not allow for that to take place.

The Arab world though, is betting on an independent European role separate from the American strategy, is there a division in the Union regarding this matter with some active members insisting on coordinating a plan with Washington - was that a factor at all in the less than expected achievement of the German presidency to the European Union?

Al-Qarih: The problem is that the Arab themselves are divided on that matter and there is no unified Arab position on the conflict in the Middle East and what is expected of Europe. As for the Union, the internal political situation does not allow Europe to follow a cohesive foreign policy independent from its Atlantic counterpart.

Mr. Buchen, can one relate the poor role played by the European Union to its dependence on the American policy or do you regard it as a part of a structural weakness related to the Union?

Buchen: I don't think that Europe likes to depend on the policies of the United States in the Middle East; we saw that in 2003 when both the German and the French government opposed the war in Iraq. It is known that there exists sharp criticism in Europe toward Washington's policy in the Middle East and its position with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Europe itself feels weak and thus places its political priorities in other areas.

We saw for example how the Chancellor spent a long time in the Gulf during her visit to the region. Germany, and Europe in general, wants to focus on economic areas signing trade treaties with the countries in the region. I believe that Europe has become convinced that finding a final solution to the problem of the Middle East has become an impossibility and that is why we see it focusing on containment instead of finding integral solutions.

Is it impossible or is it because of Washington that Europe does not
want to pressure any parties especially Israel?

Buchen: It doesn't matter; I will give you an example. When Europe tried to interfere by placing border guards between Gaza and Egypt to stop the arms smuggling, what happened? The smuggling continued. So what's the use? The second example is the spreading of the German fleet across the Lebanese coast that has not accomplished anything until now; we have not heard that it has managed to stop any arms smuggling to Lebanon.

Maybe the arms smuggling to Lebanon does not go via a sea route?

Buchen: It is possible that this is the case. What I want to say is that all these measures are tokens and do not produce any result. Europe is looking after its own economic interests before anything else and that pertains to its relationship to the Arab world. It is avoiding being trapped in Iraq, especially France and Germany, and it is also avoiding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Dr. Qazaz, should one then say that was is required of Europe is to establish an independent policy from the United States or is it totally incapable of doing so thus relying on Washington as the principle supporter to Israel?

Qazaz: I believe that what is required is for Europe to take an independent route but unfortunately until now such a role is absent. In fact, the opposite is true. The European Union, headed by Germany, has come closer than ever before to the American policy in many of the issues.

As with regards to the Palestinian file the European Union is in complete agreement with the conditions imposed by Washington on the Palestinians and especially after the last legitimate elections - a position that has produced a catastrophic result. At the same time, Germany rushes to support the Palestinians at the expense of the other party, that does not mean that I support what is going on in Gaza but I believe that a serious European interjection would lessen the embargo imposed on the Palestinians.

Dr. Qazaz, do you think the choice of Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, as a representative of the Quartet in the Middle East would serve the American policy or would he strengthen the European role in such a sensitive region?

Qazaz: How do you expect him to strengthen the European role when you know that it is Blair who, as a European counterpart, ensured the cover for the invasion of Iraq and the American involvement in the Middle East to which we pay the price for as does Europe right now? How can the one who instigated the fire become at the same time its extinguisher? The appointment of Tony Blair was not a European choice but a suggestion on the part of the American president George Bush and was reluctantly accepted by Javier Solana and Gordon Brown.

This all happened when Poland sneakily planned to weaken the European ability to articulate a foreign policy. I don't think the appointment of Tony Blair is a good idea for the Middle East or for the aim of setting an independent European position from Washington. That does not mean that what is required is that Europe should confront Washington, not at all, Europe has to delineate her own position and Blair is not a service in that direction.

Mr. Buchen, what is your position on the choice of Tony Blair as a representative of the Quartet in the Middle East?

Buchen: This appointment weakens the Quartet and the European Union because it was conducted without the knowledge of big states like Germany and France. It is essentially instigated between the United States, Russia and Britain.

Dr. Qazaz, there are various Palestinian reactions to the appointment
of Blair as representative of the Quartet so for example, Mahmud
Abbas has welcomed it while Hamas has rejected it, how do you regard
this matter?

Qazaz: I think the parties that welcomed the appointment did not have any other choice. If some active European states did not know about the appointment, do you think that the Palestinian party, the weaker one in all this political equation, would know about it? The appointment of someone like that - as close as he is to Bush's policy and neo-conservatives in the American administration is nothing short of a hegemonic takeover of the Quartet and thus would not indicate any serious step on the peace process.

When Germany took the presidency of the European Union, the talk then was about a road map, now everyone acknowledges that the road map is over and what is going on now is more dangerous than before. Therefore, Blair's appointment is nothing but a new dimension to a difficult stalemate.

The forum was conducted by Ahmad Hissou

© 2007

Translated from the Arabic by Mona Zaki

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