Europe stepping out of America’s shadow in Middle East

Europe stepping out of America’s shadow in Middle East

Angela Merkel with Mahmoud Abbas in Berlin. (AP Photo)

Angela Merkel met Mahmoud Abbas in Berlin last week. The German chancellor stressed that the two-state solution is the only solution that allows Israelis and Palestinians to live side-by-side in peace. Though this does not directly contradict the official US position, the two-state solution has been downplayed by the Trump administration. Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s chief adviser on Middle East issues, has indicatedthat the US would pull back from its longstanding mentions of a two-state solution, adding that the notion hinders Middle East talks. Additionally, the US has taken several steps that are very unpopular among Palestinians, Arabs, Europeans and the international community. Such measures include recognizing Israel’s annexation of the occupied Golan Heights, declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the tacit endorsement of Israel’s ever-expanding settlements.

Another factor that can encourage Europe to play a greater role in the Middle East is the Arab receptiveness to such an involvement, while the Palestinian Authority is boycotting the American administration for its perceived blatant bias toward Israel. In February, a summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, saw Arab and EU leaders meet. There, Abbas calledon Europe’s leaders to play a bigger role in the peace process, asking them to recognize the state of Palestine. On the Palestinian issue specifically, Europe did not endorse Trump’s so-called “deal of the century” and only low-ranking officials represented EU nations in the Manama “Peace to Prosperity” workshop. The level of representation was a clear sign that Europe is sticking to the two-state solution and to the UN resolutions on Palestine. Shortly after the Bahrain event, EU foreign ministers met in Luxembourg, but Peace to Prosperity was not even part of their discussions.

However, Palestine is not the only issue where Europe is taking a separate course from the US. Iran is another front where the US and Europe do not see eye to eye. Europe’s divergence from US policy has several factors. The Trump administration’s attitude seems to undermine the transatlantic alliance, which has been the cornerstone of global politics since the Second World War. As Trump takes a more belligerent tone toward Europe, the Europeans feel they need to rely on each other as they can’t rely on the US as before. Merkel has explicitly said that Europeans have to truly take their fate into their own hands.

The American retrenchment from world affairs is an alarming signal for European countries. Trump has vowed to withdraw from Syria and is retreating from Afghanistan. There is a fear that any premature withdrawal could offer terrorist groups a safe haven. Following the announcement of the planned withdrawal from Syria, French President Emmanuel Macron criticized the decision, saying it would not make France deviate from its goal, which is eradicating Daesh.

Furthermore, Europe is directly affected by Middle Eastern problems. The Syrian crisis that resulted in an overflow of refugees to Europe has prompted Europeans to be more proactive in the region. However, even a country like Germany, which has been very active concerning the refugees, has no real political influence in Syria, unlike Russia, for example. Vladimir Putin intervened militarily and changed the balance of power in favor of President Bashar Assad.

Despite the aspiration to “take their fate into their own hands,” the task is not an easy one. The Europeans, unhappy at Trump’s unilateral decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal they co-signed, are not able to contain the effects of American sanctions on Tehran. The Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges — the mechanism set up to circumvent the sanctions — does not seem to be effective, given the deep entrenchment of the American economy in Europe.

The American retrenchment from world affairs is an alarming signal for European countries.

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

Foreign policy is also mainly conducted on a bilateral basis and not through European institutions. Though European countries are slowly starting to play a bigger role in the Middle East, there is no cohesive policy toward the region. Different countries tend to disagree on certain issues. In Libya, while the Government of National Accord under Fayez Al-Sarraj is endorsed by Germany and most other European countries, France is apparently supporting Khalifa Haftar.

Nevertheless, the Europeans are slowly surging in world affairs. In war-torn Syria, France has 1,000 soldiers on the ground. The French have also been especially active in Africa. It has 4,500 troops deployed in four Sahelien countries as part of Operation Barkhane, which aims to “fight terrorism.” However, these interventions have not been part of a grand European strategy, but the result of a single nation’s actions.

Despite the impediments to an influential and decisive European role in the Middle East, the Europeans are stepping further and further out of the US policy shadow and are trying to work collectively toward a policy that better serves their own interests and is in line with their own values.

  • Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a Ph.D. in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view