Europe finds a role in the Middle East: Leading article

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The Independent Online
Forty years ago, Britain and France launched a joint endeavour in the Middle East. The result was the Suez affair, a debacle which did severe damage to the interests of both states in the Arab world, and which set Paris and London on separate and divergent foreign policy paths. Britain saw its future in a secure alliance with the United States; France set out to secure its own role in the world. The other principal result of Suez was that both states lost influence in the Middle East, leaving the United States of America the undisputed dominant Western power.

Now there is a chance that Europe can start to recover a role in the Middle East. The uncertain focus of the United States, growing convergence between Paris and London and the desire of Arab states for a counterweight to Washington all point in the same direction. But this will only work if the Europeans can overcome their own internal divisions; and that means London and Paris working in tandem once more.

Jacques Chirac's visit to the Middle East is a concrete demonstration of the will in France to reassert Europe's role. Malcolm Rifkind will go out next month. Both Britain and France feel that at a time when the Middle East peace process is in such a desperately poor condition, when the United States seems to have its eye off the ball, when the Arabs seem to be friendless, there is an open door.

The United States is (to put it politely) ambivalent about the Europeans intervening in the Middle East. As we recorded yesterday, Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, has sent a snotty letter to the French, warning them off.

It is true that the European Union's past attempts to put itself forward as a regional partner have been largely unsuccessful, even embarrassing at times. At the Madrid peace conference in 1992 delegates were presented with the unedifying spectacle of a senior EU commissioner edging his chair across the floor in an attempt to get a seat at the table. James Baker, the US Secretary of State, told him in no uncertain terms that he had enough to deal with in the world without the Europeans.

But if the EU's political efforts have come to little, the economic and financial influence of the EU in the region is considerable. It is partly this which means that, come what may, Europe's political weight is bound to increase. It is just a question of how that materialises, and to what end it is put.

There are other trends that mean that Europe will play a larger role. The lack of focus in the United States is not just a temporary, election- related phenomenon; a coherent, long-term foreign policy is harder to maintain now that the Cold War is over. The solidity of the pro-Israel lobby in the US has been badly dented by the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, and automatic US support for Israel is a thing of the past.

In any case, the rapid changes in the international environment over the past decade have conspired to create a vacuum in the Middle East. Once, the Soviet Union was the counterweight to American power in the region. Russia's forays into the Middle East were not notably successful and they largely came to a halt with the end of the Soviet Union. Moscow is no longer a reliable and resourceful ally for Damascus (if it ever was); hence the great warmth with which Jacques Chirac was welcomed when he arrived.

The post-Suez American hegemony in the Middle East was always bound to be a temporary phenomenon. Europe and the Middle East are neighbours, and Europe has significant interests in seeing peace take root on the other side of the Mediterranean, just as Middle Eastern states (including Israel) have a strong interest in open markets in Europe.

Hitherto, one obstacle to a successful European role has been the rather unseemly squabbling between the Europeans themselves. Both the British and French foreign services believe that they have a historical role to play in the Arab world, though sadly it is not the same historical role.

Britain, despite the retreat from East of Suez in 1971, still exercises a residual political and military role in the region. It has close ties with Israel and with several of the Arab states, notably Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. It sees itself as playing a balancing role, neither pro-Arab nor pro-Israeli. France has kept close relations with its former colonial possessions, notably Syria and Lebanon, as well as its links with the Maghreb countries. It believes it can be a counterweight to the US, and tends to lean in favour of the Arab states.

Several factors have combined to erode, if not erase, these Anglo-French tensions. France is on its way back into Nato; Britain is distinctly less servile to the Americans than it used to be. Europe, too, is getting its act together, and a new plan for joint foreign policy is one of the few suggestions that Britain can accept in the draft treaty on European Union being discussed in Brussels. London and Paris work together far more closely on intelligence-sharing, counter-terrorism and military matters. But the two still compete against each other for arms contracts, oil and influence.

That is an argument for more co-ordination, and the EU is the place to do that. Nor can either France or Britain ignore the interests and desires of Germany, the EU's paymaster and a state with its own emergent policies in the Middle East. Next week, foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg to discuss the Middle East again. One of the proposals on the table is to appoint a Middle East peace envoy, a high-profile European chosen to represent European views. It is a good, and timely idea.