East Jerusalem and the limits of EU consensus

Keskiviikkona, 9. joulukuuta 2009     0 kommentti(a)
Timo Behr
tutkija - Euroopan unioni -tutkimusohjelma

Following days of deliberations, EU foreign ministers yesterday adopted a new joint statement on the Middle East Peace Process. The new resolution calls for the urgent resumption of peace negotiations, but omitted some controversial language on the status of East Jerusalem that was part of an earlier draft prepared by the Swedish EU Presidency. Originally meant to breathe some new life into the derelict peace process, the resolution has been the result of a bruising internal battle, demonstrating once again the severe limitations that the EU faces in its attempt to become an influential global player.

The drama surrounding yesterday’s statement started late last month with the completion of the annual EU Heads of Mission Report on East Jerusalem. Due to Israeli sensitivities, this report has been classified but regularly leaks to the press. This year was no exception. Within the 2009 Report, the 25 EU consuls in East Jerusalem and Ramallah stated that the Israeli government and the Jerusalem municipality are “actively pursuing” the “illegal annexation of East Jerusalem” in a way that undermines the “prospects for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and incrementally render[s] a sustainable two-state solution infeasible.” The paper also recommended urgent EU action to prevent the complete severing of East Jerusalem from the West Bank.

These findings provided the basis for a draft statement prepared by the Swedish EU Presidency that explicitly endorsed the creation of a viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The draft also included some tough language on Israeli settlement policy and excluded any mention of the Israeli government’s limited settlement moratorium. Although the EU has on several occasions rejected the annexation of East Jerusalem, endorsing it as the capital of a future Palestinian state was a novelty.

When this draft statement also found its way to the press, EU policy came under intense fire from both Israel and the US. In a statement following the publication of the leaked draft the Israeli foreign ministry warned that “the move led by Sweden damages the ability of the European Union to take a role and be a significant factor in negotiations between Israel and Palestinians.” US pressure – although more discreet – was no less severe. Inevitably, this led to a deepening of divisions amongst EU member states which tend to be split between a pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian camp. The result was yesterday’s compromise resolution which represents little more than a restatement of established EU positions.

In many ways, this pattern is nothing new. For decades EU policy initiatives in the Middle East have met a similar fate. Ambitious policy proposals and statements have regularly been discarded or watered-down after falling victim to internal divisions or external pressure. The price the EU pays for these policy failures is high. By first creating overblown expectations that it is then unable to meet, the EU has lost much of its credibility as an external actor in the Middle East and elsewhere. The same holds true for the EU’s most recent démarche which far from providing new momentum to the peace process seems to have left all the relevant actors frustrated about the EU’s disarray and once more demonstrated Europe’s inability to play a leading role.

If there is anything that can be learned from this process, it is that the EU badly needs a greater sense of realism and direction in foreign affairs that is grounded on a realistic evaluation of its own internal divisions and limitations. In principle, the new EU High Representative Catherine Ashton might be able to deliver both. As the new chair of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council she will soon be responsible for drafting EU policies and resolutions that can withstand internal bickering and external pressure. Having one person rather than rotating member states in charge of this will allow a more coherent strategic vision. But whether she will also be able to build a consensus on foreign policy that goes beyond the lowest common denominator remains to be seen.

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