The conflict in Gaza revealed the polarization of two groups of Middle Eastern states. How should the European Union relate to them?
The recent fighting in Gaza brought the Middle East to the headlines. Superficially, it is just a conflict between Israel and Hamas, yet actually the division is more far-reaching. Not only are the Palestinian people divided between Hamas and Fatah -- between Gaza and the West Bank -- but the gap splits the whole Arab world in two.
One sign of this international rift was the failure of the Arab leaders to convene a common summit on Gaza. Instead 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, Mahmoud Abbas.
There are two different ways of understanding this fault line. On one hand, it can be interpreted as a sectarian gap between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Vali Nasr and others argue 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 Shi'ite movements that are beyond their control and champion more populist issues. However, inter-sectarian alliances, such as between the Shi'i Hezbollah and the Sunni Hamas, make this interpretation questionable. On the other hand, a simpler explanation of the gap between "radicals" and "moderates" is that a balance of power is emerging between the rising Iran and the anti-Iranian clique, with both sides striving to dominate the Middle East.
Whether the reasons behind this conflict are religious or purely political, it nevertheless endangers the peaceful development of the region and that, in turn, will influence the western world enormously. That is why the European Union (EU), if it is going to live up to its image as an empire of peace, has to find a way to cope with a situation that is becoming something like a "cold war."
Currently the EU's relationship with the Middle East is organized around the "European Neighborhood Policy" (ENP), which aims at forming "a ring of responsibly governed states" around the EU. The central element of the ENP is the "Action Plan" adopted bilaterally between the EU and each partner country. 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 such traditional elements as assistance and trade opportunities, the partner countries gain the opportunity to participate in certain other community programs and agencies.
Of the Arabic countries, the Palestine Authority, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt are actively taking part in the ENP. Action plans with Jordan and the Palestine Authority were adopted in 2004, followed by Lebanon and Egypt in 2007. However, one issue complicates the task of the ENP in the Middle East, namely the importance of Islamist administrations, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Jihad. Their influence was evident from an Egyptian poll in which the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was voted the "the most important leader in the region," followed by the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. These central players, constituting the other side of the region's "cold war cleavage," can, however, deal with the ENP only indirectly. Hamas, Hezbollah and Jihad are all classified as terrorist organizations, which is why no direct connection is possible.
The crucial question, however, is whether the EU can reach any significant results without the "radicals" playing along. Among others, Alistair Crooke, the former advisor of the EU's High Representative, Javier Solana, has warned the EU that it will sour its contacts with the Middle East for years to come by blocking Hamas and Hezbollah. It should not be forgotten that Hamas, for example, has sabotaged all peace attempts between Israel and Palestine since the days of the Oslo Treaty. There is no reason to believe it would give up such resistance in the future, either. Moreover, the former CIA expert on the Middle East, Reuel March Gerecht, has predicted that ongoing conflict will only enhance Hamas's aura among Palestinians. These non-state administrations probably will remain on the political scene, and the EU will have to find a way of dealing with them.
But what can the European Union do? On the one hand, its unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of Hamas or Hezbollah as political actors is understandable, since both use violence to pursue their goals. That is why both political and economic co-operation, two central elements of the ENP, are out of the question. But on the other hand, coercion and sanctions have proven to be counterproductive as well; EU's refusal to embrace Hamas after its electoral success in 2006 has severely damaged its image in the Arab world.
This is not only a problem in the Middle East. More generally, the ENP lacks effective approaches for dealing with "difficult" states or non-state actors. To this end, Michael Emerson has recognied a need for "ENP-Lite" - policies that would draw the problematic partners into at least some ENP activities. One "ENP-Lite" experiment has taken place in Belarus, where the EU, despite freezing its relationship with President Lukashenko and his government, has continued "people programs" (e.g. financial support for Belarusian students studying in Europe) and media actions. So instead of pursuing regime change directly, the EU takes a gradual, "bottom-up" approach whereby it encourages change by supporting people and civil society.
This "ENP-Lite" concept shows promise for connecting Europe with the Middle East and its non-state actors. Through cultural co-operation and "people projects," the EU can make a space for peaceful co-operation in the Middle East and even try to involve the non-state actors to participate in the peace project.
To emphasize cultural dialogue would mean changing the EU's foreign policy dogma, which so far has mainly counted on economic impact. Internationally the EU has been recognized as a significant actor internationally because of its foreign trade regime, its support of development, and its monetary policy. The economic impact has not lost importance, but should be supported with other more flexible methods.
Paradoxically, the EU itself is a good example of the limits of economic and political integration when not supported by cultural elements. The constructive spill-over effects have remained absent in cultural matters, which is why Europeans still mostly perceives the EU from their separate national perspectives. It is hard to find any basis for a common, continent-wide commitment, hence the Union constantly finds itself facing competing national interests that threaten the integration process. For example, the French, Dutch, and Irish populations rejected the European Constitution (or Lisbon Treaty) mostly for motives based on national interests. 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 Monnet, sigh and say, "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, for only then can there be solidarity and partnership. According to Alistair Crooke, the "terrorism" label has prompted the West to mistakenly assess the challenges we face in Muslim societies, and has led us to use the wrong means of combatting them. In order to improve the situation, we have to start dialogue at all levels and demonstrate an alternative approach in practical terms.
Marko Kananen is a social scientist and a freelance journalist from Finland.