Europe's role in the Middle East

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Europe's role in the Middle East

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With relations increasingly strained between Israel and its old ally the United States, is this Europe’s time to make its mark in the Middle East?

The latest settlement row has left the peace process desperately in need of a new dynamic. So, on her most high-profile diplomatic mission since becoming the EU’s new high representative for foreign affairs, can Catherine Ashton deliver?

Holding informal talks with EU foreign ministers ahead of the visit, she believes the bloc has influence in getting peace talks back on track. But some analysts remain to be convinced.

“The political force is there but I have to say the European Union has not really used it very strongly, very effectively,” said Shada Islam of the European Policy Centre. “If it speaks with one voice in the Middle East that will be big progress, that would be a big development for the region and for the European Union’s global presence and global reputation but the Americans will remain the dominant power and I think that is not going to change with Catherine Ashton or anyone else, in fact.”

Trade and aid account for much of the EU’s presence in the region. With huge amounts involved, some believe Europe could use its commercial and donor status as leverage on both Israel and the Palestinians.

While the main trade partner for Israel’s exports remains the United States, the European Union is not far behind. As for imports heading into Israel, the EU is way ahead of Washington. The bloc also digs much deeper than the US as the principal aid donor to the Palestinians. Including individual member states’ contributions, it gives an average of 500 million euros a year.

So it has the means to be a central player. Yet there remains a huge gap between Europe’s economic weight in the Middle East and its political role. A key reason for this is that bilateral relations take precedence.

“We all know that, in the real world, countries have foreign policies, have national foreign policy priorities, have national sensitivities where it comes to dealing with an area as sensitive as the Middle East,” said Shada Islam. “So I do not see Germany or the UK or France or the Netherlands abandoning their national priorities in favour of the EU. What the EU can do is to bring these different positions together and then work as a single entity, as a single voice in the region but that is going to be a difficult and long process.”

Peace in the Middle East remains a worldwide objective. But the harsh realities always seem to get in the way – a problem that faces the EU in its efforts to help find a solution.