Last Friday at the Elysée Palace in Paris, Emmanuel Macron received Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as part of France’s efforts to keep the Israeli-Palestinian peace process alive in the age of President Donald Trump. Abbas claimed that the ostensible purpose of the meeting was to communicate the Palestinian position to Macron and henceforth to Trump, but the longtime Palestinian leader knows full well he is better served working directly with Europe than with the Americans.
The Trump administration has made it clear it is not interested in pursuing dialogue with the Palestinian Authority. Since taking office, the US president has moved the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, shut down the office of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Washington, and cut off humanitarian aid to the occupied territories. Abbas’ strategy is thus understandable in the context of the Trump administration’s unabashed preference for the Israel side. But is it truly realistic?
Europe’s track record in pushing back against American policies in the Middle East is not promising. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Europe has found itself split between those member states supporting the US position (primarily the United Kingdom, Poland, Spain, Denmark, and Italy) and virulent Franco-German opposition. Fifteen years later, Europe has formed a far more united front against American efforts to undo the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Even so, neither Emmanuel Macron nor Theresa May has made headway in convincing Trump to shift his position on the “Iran nuclear deal”.
The tough rhetoric from Brussels on maintaining trade ties with Tehran has also failed to hold up in the face of American power over the global financial system. Despite repeated promises of protection from US sanctions, major European firms like Volkswagen and BASF have largely given up on their business interests in Iran.
Given these struggles in standing up to the temerity of Europe’s most powerful friend and ally, is there still a point to forging independent European positions on other Middle Eastern policy challenges? Most certainly. Europe’s top officials may have bitten off more than they could chew in standing up to Washington, but other crises offer European policymakers equally urgent opportunities to make their mark. After the migration crisis, it is now obvious the EU must take a vested interest in resolving the thorniest issues impacting the Middle East.
Multiple European governments have already taken this to heart. In Paris, Abbas hinted that Macron is considering recognising Palestinian independence in defiance of France’s Israeli allies as well as its American ones, after rejecting such a move earlier this year. Spain seems to be further along: recent news reports in Israel indicate the Spanish government is pushing for recognition of Palestine at the EU level. The European Parliament already voted for “qualified recognition” of the Palestinian state in 2014.
These (discreet) steps in favour of the Palestinians come at the price of alienating Israel, an important ally for a number of European countries. Unfortunately, no EU member state has thus far proven willing to contradict Europe’s most problematic Middle Eastern ally: Saudi Arabia, whose crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is directly responsible for both an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in neighbouring Yemen and the illegal blockade of neighbouring Qatar.
European silence on Yemen has deadly consequences. The Spanish government’s recent embarrassing about-face on selling laser-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia demonstrates Europe’s continued inability to refrain from the sale of lethal weaponry that will likely be used in Yemen. The 16,000 air strikes carried out by the coalition have been remarkably imprecise, with a third targeting civilian infrastructure including hospitals and schools.
The UN estimates 20.7 million people in Yemen are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. It has also reported crimes that include arbitrary detention, torture, rape, and the recruitment of child soldiers as young as 8 years old. According to the same UN report, the majority of civilian casualties have come as a result of Saudi-led coalition air strikes. Those strikes have been conducted using equipment purchased from EU member states including France, where the NGOs Droit Solidarite and Aser have sued the French government over billions of euros in arms shipments to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The European Union has failed to check the recklessness of Saudi regional policy even in cases where Europe’s own economic interests are threatened. The duo of Saudi Arabia and the UAE instigated a crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council last year, severing diplomatic ties with Qatar in June 2017 and embargoing the country after Emirati officials directed the hacking of a Qatari government website to attribute fake pro-Iranian quotes to the emir of Qatar. The Saudi government allegedly wanted to go so far as an armed invasion of Qatar, with former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly intervening to prevent this cold war from becoming a hot one.
In attempting to destabilise Qatar, the Saudis and Emirates have targeted a major trade and investment partner for Europe. The Qatari government has understandably looked to its European partners to help bring the dispute to a close. Despite an official visit to Doha last December in which he promised France’s support for mediation efforts, Macron has offered little comment on Saudi Arabia’s recent belligerence even after he himself had to rescue Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri from a Saudi government kidnapping. Theresa May, whose country is one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent suppliers of arms, has “confronted” Saudi Arabia over its behaviour but obtained little in the way of tangible results.
From the moribund Israel-Palestine peace negotiations to the collapse of Yemen and the blockade of Qatar, it is obvious the Middle East is in need of a new “good faith” actor. Bilateral European efforts may not have delivered, but could the EU achieve greater results negotiating from a stronger collective position? Europe, which ultimately cannot escape the impact of these crises, should do its best to answer that question.
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