Gaza Crisis and the EU
|Perjantaina, 16. tammikuuta 2009 1 kommentti(a)||
The EU has been in the headlines more or less every day this year. On the foreign policy front, one theme has been dominant: the gas crisis. At the same time, the EU acronym has not made it to very many headlines concerning the other crisis of the moment: the Gaza crisis. And when it has, it has been for all the wrong reasons: once again the Union was not able to act in unison, but had separate groups of politicians making their way to the region – belatedly, some would say. Amongst them it has been mainly the French president, going about independently, who has been able to come up with any high-profile action at all. While one would think that any activity towards a cease-fire is desirable in the current situation, the French president has not been coordinating his activities with the rest of the Union, and this has led to criticism from the Italian foreign minister. Adding insult to injury, the Czech prime minister was caught blurting last week that the Israeli attack was more “defensive than offensive” – a statement followed by an apology a day later. And according to International Herald Tribune, the presidency officials have gone as far as to admit publicly that the Union has few means to pressure Israel. Not a particularly outstanding performance.
The Union has for years stated that it aspires to be a major player in the region. Fulfilling that aim by means of high-level visits and diplomatic declarations does not seem to be taking place. But is there another way the Union could fulfil its goal?
As it happens, the EU-Israel relations are to be upgraded during the year 2009. According to Reuters and Helsingin Sanomat, Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal, the EU commission's ambassador to Israel said on Wednesday that the EU and Israel agreed to freeze these plans for the time being. If confirmed, what does this announcement mean in practice? The official EU-Israel relations are based on the Union’s Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). Within this context, the EU and Israel have signed a bilateral agreement which eases trade between the parties and allows for some EU money to be used for joint projects. Another document entitled EU-Israel Action Plan gives further strategic guidance on how to organise the relations. The current EU-Israel Action Plan expires in April 2009, which is why an EU-Israel ministerial meeting decided last summer to start planning how the relations could be upgraded. The successor of the current Action Plan is envisaged to include tighter diplomatic relations e.g. in the form of more high-level meetings between the Union and Israel as well as the gradual integration of Israel into specific areas of the European Single Market, among a number of other points. Last month, the then up-coming Czech EU Presidency announced that improving the Union's relations with Israel would be among its Presidency priorities, and the foreign ministers of the member states reiterated their commitment to upgrading the relations.
Financially, the current Action Plan entitles Israel to €14 million in European Community financial cooperation over the next seven years. This is not a huge amount, yet we need to remember that Israel is looking for strengthened business relations and diplomatic ties, and realising these ambitions does not necessarily cost a lot. The beef of EU-Israel relations is in the trade between them, with the Union being Israel’s biggest trading partner. Furthermore, the way the relations develop is a political signal. Supporters of the original plan to upgrade relations suggest that the Union would have more leverage over Israel if the relations were more extensive. According to this logic, upgrading the relations would lead to an improvement in the situation of the Palestinians, as the Union would use the improved EU-Israel relations to urge Israel to step up its negotiations with the Palestinians.
Unfortunately, as the EU-Israel negotiations take place behind closed doors, the EU cannot really prove that pressure has been exerted on the Israelis. The EU is infamous for sanctioning small, economically insignificant players whereas the more important players are left unpunished. One is easily led to suspect that Israel falls into the latter category. Thus there have been many voices pressing the Union to go to the opposite direction and suspend agreements. During the current crisis, the Union has been told it should suspend preferential trade agreements until the bloodshed ceases. Even before that, some NGOs have urged MEPs to ensure that the upgrading of the relations as well as the current agreements are suspended until Israel abides by UN human rights norms.
Yet, I remain sceptical of the Union’s ability to make a difference by freezing the plans. Firstly, because either increasing or cutting money flows affect the conflict only in a very indirect way. As the Israeli attempt to curb support for Hamas by punishing Gaza with financial hardship has shown, trying to influence political opinions by financial means is difficult, especially in the short term, and the end result can turn out to be the very opposite of what has been intended. Planning for more EU-Israel meetings is unlikely to amount to much more. Secondly, and more importantly, what the Israel and the Palestinians really need is an honest broker capable of getting them all around the same negotiation table, and by all parties I mean accepting the current reality and allowing Hamas some kind of role as well. Moreover, the broker would ideally be able to present feasible ideas as to how the parties should go forward and back the ideas with its own unwavering support. At the moment, it looks like the Union has a long way to go before it will be capable of that.
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