Strategic Europe continues its Capitals Series exploring how EU foreign policy is viewed by ten states in Europe’s Southern neighborhood. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of the EU’s approach toward their state, with a ranking on a scale from “irrelevant” to “helpful.” This week, the spotlight is on Palestine.
It is hard to say that Palestinians have any special love for Europe’s historical reputation, from the first wave of European invaders who reached Palestinian shores nine hundred years ago to the gradual penetration of European Christian missionaries in the Ottoman period. Then came a string of Europeans who meddled in Palestinian affairs, colonized Palestinians’ Arab brethren, or tipped the scales in favor of the Jewish state in Palestine. One hundred years ago, the UK and France carved up the dream of an Arab state, and the British government recognized the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination. In 1948, Britain left Palestine’s Arabs to their miserable fate.
In their common history with Europe, Palestinians perhaps recall too many dates and names for their own good, as these resonate even today in the context of twenty-first-century conflicts.
All this doesn’t mean Palestinians can’t acknowledge the few bright spots in Europe’s postcolonial record in the region. One of those promising moments was in June 1980, when European heads of state and government adopted a document that few people today beyond seasoned diplomats and historians of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process may remember. The Venice Declaration recognized for the first time the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” the full exercise of their “right to self-determination,” and the representative role of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Under the leadership of an earlier (and bolder) generation of European social democrats such as former Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky and his German counterpart Willy Brandt, Europe broke ranks with the United States. Europe took a distinct line not only on Palestinians’ rights but also on other key issues such as the inadmissibility of the annexation of Jerusalem and the requirement of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories—not to mention the illegality of Israeli settlements.
Today, these clear positions amount to little more than the standard script for European diplomats in the region. The hope that the declaration would spur a leading role for Europe in achieving a just peace and Palestinian rights was dashed by U.S. ascendancy in the region, which continues to eclipse European good intentions and balanced statesmanship. Worse, the EU’s approach to Palestine has become unconstructive.
European relations with other countries in the region may be dominated by migration, terrorism, and oil, but in the case of Palestine and Israel, relations have always been primarily about justice (for Palestinians), security (for Israelis), and peace (for both). This is an equation that most Palestinians can accept as the least that Europe owes to the Palestinians to make amends for Europe’s colonial legacy.
At the same time, all observers understand that economic cooperation, aid, trade, and investment would flow from the achievement of these three key goals. Few really expect Brussels to go further by defying Washington on redline issues, and the European second fiddle to the United States on Palestine is a normal echo of Europe’s secondary role in the region as a whole.
The EU has compensated for its lack of political weight with an intensified role in budgetary aid and security support for the Palestinian Authority and efforts to bring Palestine into the orbit of the EU’s Association Agreements. However, this role seems less credible, sustainable, or indispensable today than at the start of the Oslo process in the 1990s or during some of the worst Palestinian humanitarian emergencies of the past decades.
Aid fatigue is a two-way process. Just as European taxpayers wonder how effective their contribution is to achieving justice, security, and peace, so Palestinians wonder whether aid and economic peace are not merely substitutes for rights and justice. Cosmetic diplomatic or administrative measures on marginal issues such as the labeling of goods produced in Israeli settlements amount to very little progress since the EU first started grappling with the issue of Palestinian trade in the 1980s.
Take Jerusalem, for example. In the absence of any Palestinian Authority presence or funding, European aid projects increasingly fill the vacuum in the provision of services and planning for the 300,000 Palestinians able to endure the encroaching Israelization of the Arab city. But the uncoordinated nature of these aid programs, the different donor agendas they reflect, and the absence of any Palestinian ownership or agency means that Europeans are doing whatever they think is best for the Palestinians. This reinforces the status quo of Israeli control and Palestinian survival, not to mention unfortunate but not-so-distant stereotypes of Europeans as meddling foreigners or benevolent Arabists.
Palestinians also wonder why Europe has moved so little and so slowly on Israeli settlements, in particular with regard to trade with the illegal enterprises and investment in the illegal economies that these settlements incorporate. Why are European companies allowed to sell goods produced in unlawful Israeli colonies, goods that are now well marked by EU labeling requirements? Under which European human rights provision or WTO trade principle are such enterprises not treated as illegal in the same way as global money-laundering or terrorist networks?
Aside from the perennial problem of double standards of international law when it comes to Palestine compared with other cases, the lingering concern in how Palestinians see their European neighbors is simple. Palestinians cannot understand why Europe’s peoples, parliaments, and media have come so far in their understanding and support of Palestinian rights since 1980, when Palestine meant little more than terrorism to most people, while official positions have hardly budged. What, Palestinians ask, is preventing major shifts in European public opinion from being mirrored in official action?
Perhaps, ultimately, EU nation-states are so beholden to the might of U.S. and Israeli influence in this area that European governments believe they can afford to ignore their own principles and goals with regard to Palestine. A sad state of affairs indeed.
Raja Khalidi is a senior researcher at the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute—MAS. Before 2013 he worked as an economist for the UN Conference on Trade and Development.