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Should we negotiate with Hamas? Middle East as a crucible for the EU's neighbouring policy
by Newropeans-Magazine
2009-02-18 09:09:50
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The European Union presents itself willingly as an empire of peace striving for stability and prosperity all around the globe. Middle East, however, possesses a great challenge for the EU and its efforts for peace: competing regional powers, sectarian gap between Muslims and powerful Arab-Islamist non-state actors are threatening to throw the Arab world into a new cold war. Does the EU possess the necessary tools for preventing this cold war from exploding into a hot conflict?

The current conflict in Gaza has kept Middle East in headlines all around the world. At one level, it has been a conflict between Israel and Hamas; yet in many respects that is just a façade for a division far deeper. It is not only the Palestinian people, who are divided between Hamas and Fatah – Gaza and West Bank, but there seems to be a gap splitting the whole Arab world in two. Symptomatic for this gap was the failure of the Arab leaders to convene a common Gazasummit. In stead of that, the so-called radicals, Iran, Syria, Algeria, Sudan, Oman and Qatar held a meeting with the exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, whereas the ‘three moderates’, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi-Arabia met with the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmud Abbas.

There are two common ways for drawing the fault lines of this division. On the one hand, it can be interpreted as a sectarian gap between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Among others, Vali Nasr has claimed that this cleavage within Islam will determine the region’s major conflicts in the future. Sunni Muslim governments in Egypt and Jordan feel threatened by the Shiite movements that are beyond their control and champion issues with a great popular resonance. However, relatively common inter-sectarian sympathies – such as between the Shi‘i Hezbollah and the Sunni Hamas – question this interpretation. According to a more profane explanation the gap between ‘radicals’ and ‘moderates’ complies with a balance of power between rising Iran and the opposing anti-Iranian clique, both striving for dominance over Middle East.

Whether the reasons behind this conflict are religious or purely political does not change the fact that it endangers the peaceful development of the region and that it has also a huge influence on the western world. That is why the EU, if it is going to live up to its image as an empire of peace, has to find a way to cope with the situation. Currently the EU’s relationship to Middle East is organized around the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which aims at forming “a ring of responsibly governed states” around the EU. The central element of the ENP is the bilateral ENP Action Plan agreed between the EU and each partner. It covers a period of 3-5 years and sets out an agenda of political and economic reforms aimed at promoting greater economic development, stability and better governance. In addition to more traditional elements such as assistance and trade opportunities, partner countries have also the opportunity to participate in certain Community programs and Agencies.

Out of the Arabic countries Palestine Authority, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt take actively part in the ENP. Action plans with Jordan and Palestine Authority were adopted already in 2004, followed by Lebanon and Egypt 2007. There is, however, one specific character, which makes the task of the ENP in the Middle East more complicated. Namely, the importance of Arab-Islamist non-state actors, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Jihad. Symptomatic for their weight is the result of an Egyptian poll, in which the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was voted as the “the most important leader in the region”, followed by the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. These central players, constituting the other half of the cold war cleavage, European Union can, however, reach through the ENP only indirectly. Hamas, Hezbollah and Jihad are all classified as "terrorist organisations" and that is why any direct connection is not possible.

The crucial question is, however, whether the EU can reach any significant results without the ‘radicals’ playing along? Among others, Alistair Crook, the former advisor of Javier Solana, has warned EU for souring its engagement with the Middle East for years to come by blocking Hamas and Hezbollah. It should not be forgotten that for example Hamas has effectively sabotaged all the peace attempts between Israel and Palestine since the days of the Oslo Treaty and there is no reason to believe that it would give up the resistance in future either. In a similar fashion the former CIA Middle East expert, Reuel March Gerecht, has predicted that due to the current conflict Hamas' aura is only going to grow among Palestinians. Hence, it is likely that these non-state actors will remain on the political scene, and that is why the EU will have to develop a way of dealing with them.

But what can the European Union do? On the one hand, it is understandable that it is unwilling to recognise Hamas or Hezbollah – both using violence for their goals - as legitimate political actors and that is why both political and economic co-operation, two central elements of the ENP, are out of question. But on the other hand, coercion and sanctions have proven to be counterproductive as well: EU’s refusal to embrace Hamas following its electoral success in 2006 has severely damaged its image in the Arab world.

This is not a problem only in Middle East. On contrary, the ENP generally lacks methods and concepts of how to pro-actively deal with ‘difficult’ states or non-state actors. For this end, Michael Emerson has recognised the need for ‘ENP light’ – policies through which the problematic partners could be drawn into at least some ENP activities. One ‘ENP light’ experiment has taken place in Belarus, where the EU, despite freezing its relationship to President Lukashenko and his government, has continued ‘people programmes’ (for e.g. financial support for Belarusian students studying in Europe) and media actions. Hence, instead of pursuing regime change directly, the EU takes a gradual, ‘bottom up’ approach, where it encourages change by supporting people and civil society.

This ENP light with its bottom up approach is a promising concept also in connection to Middle East and its non-state actors. Through cultural co-operation and ‘people projects’ the EU can make space for peaceful co-operation in Middle East and even try to integrate the non-state actors to the peace project. Putting more emphasis on cultural dialogue and soft methods would mean changing the dogma of EU’s foreign policy, which has so far largely and foremost counted on economic impact. Internationally the EU has been recognised as relevant foreign policy actor due to its foreign trade regime, its development co-operation and its monetary policy. The economic impact has not lost its importance, but it should be supported with lighter and more flexible methods.

The paradox with the EU’s emphasis on economic co-operation is that the Union itself is a good example of how merely economic and political integration reaches its limits, if it is not supported by cultural elements. The neofunctionalist spill-overs have remain absent in the sphere of culture and that is why the European population still mostly perceive the EU from their national perspectives. Due to this it is hard to find basis for a common, continent-wide commitment and hence the Union constantly finds itself in a situation where competing national interests are threatening to lead the integration process to a dead-end. For example, the motives, which made the French, Dutch and Irish population reject the European Constitution (or Lisbon Treaty), were mostly based on national interests. Hence, when looking at the past fifty years of European integration it is easy to see, what made one of the EU’s founding fathers, Jean Monet, to sigh: “if I could start again, I would start with culture.” Through the ENP the European Union has this second chance.

In the long run it is not enough to see each other only as economic partners, there has to be a more profound understanding between the people - only then is there a chance for solidarity and partnership. According to Alistair Crooke, the terrorism label has prompted the west to make the wrong assessment of the challenges we face in Muslim societies, and led us to deploy the wrong means to combat them. In order to improve the situation we have to start dialogue at all levels and to demonstrate in practical terms that there is an alternative approach.

Marko Kananen*
Wien - Austria

*Marko Tapio Kananen is social scientist specialised in the European Union, and journalist at Ideal Communications in Vienna
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Emanuel Paparella2009-02-18 10:27:31
Indeed, the cart was placed before the horse, first a Constitution was written which lacked the inspiration and visionary horizon of a genuine Constitution. When rejected by the people who remain starved of a vision, rather than go back to the drawing board and change it radically, the name was changed rather from Constitution to treaty. That too did not trick the people who understood that nothing had changed but the name. Lincoln had it on target: you can fool all the people some of the times, and you can fool some of the people all the times, but you cannot fool all the people all the times.

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