Europe’s Misspent Influence

By NIR BOMS

April 21, 2005  Wall Street Journal

http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB111405417240212947,00.html

Politics is about changing things,” Javier Solana recently said, emphasizing that Europe has a leading role to play in promoting democracy in the world and particularly the Middle East.

Such rhetoric coming out of Europe begins to sound similar to President George W. Bush’s own vision of a “Greater Middle East”. Stressing the use of their “soft power,” Europeans like to make the point that they have long championed reforms and democracy in the region.

Indeed, Europe has always been an active player on the world’s stage with its member states providing 55% of the total international aid flow — about £30 billion a year — to more than 160 countries and organizations world-wide. 

For Iraq, the EU pledged £1.25 billion for the reconstruction of the country, adding another £200 million just a few weeks ago for the support of the political and electoral process.

But its most prestigious project for reforming the Middle East is the so-called Barcelona process. Inaugurated exactly ten years ago, it aims at “turning the Mediterranean basin into an area of dialogue, exchange and cooperation guaranteeing peace” along with “the strengthening of democracy and respect for human rights.” 

To promote these laudable goals, Europe has made much use of traditional checkbook diplomacy. For the 2000-2006 period alone, it has pledged over £5.3 billion in addition to another £6.4 billion in the form of development loans from the European Investment Bank. Most of these funds were allocated to nine designated partners: Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority. Particularly the Palestinian Authority has benefited from Europe’s largesse. 

The EU prides itself on being the Palestinians’ principal benefactor, having donated £2 billion since 1993. And yet, while Europe claims that its aid supports peace and democracy in the region, the actual results are discouraging. Under the corrupt leadership of Yasser Arafat, whose iron grip on Palestinian politics and finances remained largely unchallenged by the EU, a significant part of the money simply disappeared and is still unaccounted for today. Some of the funds can probably be traced to the many posh villas Fatah officials have built in the past few years for themselves. 

Even worse, evidence shows that part of the money was used to finance paramilitary groups like the al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades. They have committed numerous suicide bombings in Israel and even the EU has declared it a terrorist group. Eventually, following growing international concern regarding the misappropriation of funds by the PA, new procedures were put in place in order to improve controls. This will not change the past — but it may help the future. 

Syria presents another interesting case study where the EU is handing out favors, in the name of promoting democracy. Long before there was any serious pressure applied on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, and while it flagrantly tried to destabilize Iraq, the European Commission concluded its negotiations with Damascus for an association agreement, granting Syria significant trade benefits. At a recent conference, Koos Richelle, director-general of the European Aid Cooperation Office, said that the EU was the “strongest supporter of the Syrian government’s modernization process.” He described the Baathist regime as “an active partner in our ring of friends.” 

This “Syrian modernization process” includes record unemployment and economic recession paired with severe human rights violations and the imprisonment of political dissidents and human rights activists. It also included the brutal assault on the Kurdish residents in the northern town of Qamishli where Syrian Security forces fired live bullets into a Kurdish crowd during a football match in March 2004. More than 2,000 people, almost all of them Kurds, have reportedly been detained and over 30 Kurds killed following these events.

And yet, one hears hardly any complaints from Europe. Instead, rewarding Syria despite its zero progress on human rights and democracy is seen by some European officials as a way of countering what is apparently considered “undue American pressure” on Syria. Despite Europe’s verbal commitment to human rights and democratic norms, the de-facto policy of the EU is always one of prioritizing trade (Europe is the largest trading partner of most Middle Eastern countries). 

Economic interests seemed to have been also the driving force behind the so-called “critical dialogue” with Iran. Once again in the name of promoting democracy and reforms (and against the pleading of Iranian dissidents), the EU improved its economic ties with yet another despotic regime in the Middle East. Of course, far from promoting reforms, the Mullahs have grown only more fanatical over the years. The only “positive” result of this exercise was that European companies landed lucrative oil and business deals along the way.

But despite this failure to encourage democratic change in Iran by embracing the Mullahs, Europe now insists that offering even more economic and political incentives will steer Iran away from producing nuclear weapons. As could have been expected from past experience, the months of talks have only uncovered one Iranian deception after the other and have done nothing to stop their nuclear program. 

The sad truth is that 10 years since its inception and despite significant investments, the Barcelona process and Europe’s Middle East policy in general appear to have yielded very little in terms of concrete political results.

But at last some voices in Europe now begin to ask questions about the merits of this failed policy. Interestingly, it is the European Parliament that is increasingly challenging Europe’s instincts to put trade before human rights and democracy. Beyond the Middle East, it recently attacked the Franco-German drive to lift the Chinese arms embargo. The Parliament is also pushing the EU to take a tougher position vis-à-vis Hezbollah. 

And last month, an important hearing took place in the Parliament’s foreign relations committee with these questions in mind. It focused on the ramifications of European policy toward Damascus against the background of the ongoing human rights violations in Syria and Lebanon, which should have been considered a material breach of the association agreement. For the first time, among those invited to speak about the subject was a prominent Syrian opposition leader, Farid Ghadry, who heads the Hizb Al Islach, the Syrian Reform Party. 

It remains to be seen whether Europe will finally take the lead on the issue of democracy, as it claims, or rather misspend its considerable influence in the region and slow down the emerging process of change. Perhaps this time, Europe will choose to follow its words rather than hide behind them.

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