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Gaza as a Case for a Strong EU

Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009

Once you get past the obligatory extra heapings of ridicule, criticism of the EU usually falls into one of two categories. The first is hostile to idea of an institutionally strong, global actor; the second is skeptical that one can emerge.

Judy Dempsey's IHT column on the efforts to broker a Gaza ceasefire doesn't disappoint, beginning with a caricatural description of the "competing" European diplomatic missions to the Middle East, before breaking towards the latter category. Dempsey presents some compelling shortcomings of the EU's Middle East policy, as well as some convincing internal obstacles to resolving them. But what's interesting about the piece is how in her takeaway, Dempsey essentially calls for a regional version of what so many EU critics are so adamantly opposed to, namely, a meaningful counterbalance to the shortcomings of American policy:

Europe can still salvage some standing, but the steps are verydifficult. It could open a channel to Hamas and offer it a place at thenegotiating table provided it recognizes the existence of Israel. Itcould link aid to Palestine to democratic reforms. It could also adopta tougher attitude toward Israel's occupation and settlements policy inthe West Bank and East Jerusalem. If it is not prepared to take thesesteps -- and face the criticism they would entail -- it can hardly aspireto be an honest broker in the MiddleEast.

Now, I'd point out that both France's and Great Britain's engagement with Syria amount to, among other things, opening a channel to Hamas. If that's not enough, I'd point out that France opened direct, if informal channels, with Hamas last summer. Both moves were controversial, and were unlikely to have benefitted from the larger bulk of the EU apparatus.

I'd also point out that, despite the Dempsey's and David Kenner's scorn, it's no coincidence that the outlines of the emerging consensus for a ceasefire are the product of a French-Egyptian mediation. I wouldn't be surprised if Turkey, despite its strong reaction against the Israeli military operation, ends up presenting the plan to the U.N. Security Council. Those are, after all, the only three parties that are in direct or indirect communication with all the parties involved. And while trust matters in mediation, there are times when simply being able to deliver the relevant messages suffices.

Still, it would be naive to dismiss the obstacles to a united European foreign policy, which is why at present, proponents of further European construction make due with a common policy. Far from being something to celebrate or ridicule, though, we should try to encourage the EU to overcome those obstacles, because as much as, if not more than, a potential rival/counterbalanceto American interests, the EU also represents a valuable complement and alternative to theexisting instruments to pursue them.

A quick glance at the proposals being floated to securely open the Gaza-Egypt border crossings and possibly monitor an eventual ceasefire within the Gaza Strip explain why that is. Nicolas Gros-Verheyde offers a rundown for French language readers, but suffice it to say that anyone who thinks NATO or any other credible military force could realistically substitute for an EUFOR operation in that part of the world probably also owes Andrew Sullivan an apology for keeping him in the dark about Pineapple Express.

A strong EU will certainly differ with the U.S. at times, rightly and wrongly so as the case may be, and will be more able to pursue its interests when they don't coincide with ours. But more often than not, it will offer effective alternatives to pursuing the common interests that will in all likelihood outnumber the differences.