EU Mediation Requires a Common Line
Wednesday, August 2,2006 00:00
By Sabina Casagrande
The Israeli army has said its offensive to defeat Hezbollah could last several weeks. Yet time is running out for international diplomatic intervention. What role could the European Union play in the negotiation process? Sabine Casagrande reports

 Two rescue workers retrieving a corpse (photo: AP)
 The EU appears to be more immediately concerned with the conflict than the US, yet Europe’s role to date has been dubbed as "ineffective" by critics
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Tuesday he was preparing to head back to the Middle East following a weekend trip to Lebanon amid the upsurge of violence there.

Beirut has hosted several leading European politicians in the past few days, including Solana and French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

"In the Middle East, you ignite a match and you do not know how the fire will end," Solana told the press after his visit with Lebanese government leaders in Beirut on Sunday. "That is why we have to stop it with acts of good will by everybody. The EU is trying to do that."

Yet these visits seem more a supportive pat on the back for Lebanon than concrete efforts to arbitrate.

"The Europeans appear to be more immediately concerned with the conflict than the United States is, yet Europe’s role to date has been ineffective," said Robert Lowe from the international affairs think tank Chatham House in London.

According to Martin Beck from the German Institute for Middle East Studies in Hamburg, there are significant problems regarding European negotiation efforts.

"There still isn’t a common European position on the conflict," Beck said. "European countries have to reach a consensus on this before further action is possible."

Germany supporting diplomatic efforts

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Germany was continuing to pursue a diplomatic strategy to calm the situation in the Middle East.

"The fact that we haven’t been successful doesn’t mean that they are unnecessary," Steinmeier told German television ZDF on Tuesday. "We are trying to do everything that is possible."

For the past few days, there have been talks with government representatives from the region to sound out possibilities and interests, he said. These efforts were being coordinated with the European Union.

The EU has abandoned its Middle East policy

Beck said the EU should have done more to contribute to the stabilization of the region since Hamas won the majority of seats in Palestinian elections in January 2006.

"In the past months, Europe and the EU didn’t understand the need to react properly to the Hamas victory," Beck said. "Of course, Europe was surprised by the election results as much as everyone else. But it then proceeded to take on the US and Israeli position and give up its own. There was no independent policy."

Since the 1980s, the European Union has developed a policy with the main objective of a two-State solution in the Middle East.

"But the EU forgot its own position and only placed pressure on Hamas, but not on Israel," Beck said. "This sent Israel the message that not only the United States, but now also the EU stands behind its actions."

Washington has backed Israel’s right to self-defense and refuses to endorse international calls for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah.

Regional support for a ceasefire is necessary

"The EU has to find its own position and quickly," Beck said. Even then, though, would European mediation have any potential influence?

"The Israelis in part would be reluctant to accept European involvement and less inclined to listen to the Europeans," said Lowe. "And they don’t need to because of their ties to the United States."

Lowe said the Europeans should play a larger role in mediating the conflict. "It is to the Europeans’ credit that they are even visiting the region," Lowe said. American officials had talked about sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but so far she has not gone.

"Maybe the United States thinks Israel can solve this militarily, but Europe could be firmer in pushing for talks," Lowe said.

Lowe agreed that many parties needed to be involved. "The Hezbollah does not seem inclined to reduce the attacks. Only Syria and Iran could bring it into negotiations," he said.