Monday, March 23, 2009

Opinion: Euros Do Not Buy the Palestinians Political Rights - Pepijn van Houwelingen

Electronic Intifada, March 24, 2009 - The carnage of Israel's recent invasion of Gaza spurred great numbers of dismayed Europeans to participate in demonstrations against the war. In major cities such as Madrid, Brussels, Rome, Berlin and London, tens of thousands took part in demonstrations to make clear to their governments that what was happening was unacceptable. Yet, their objections to Israel's massive use of deadly force were not reflected in the declarations and actions of their countries, as represented by Europe's most significant political body, the European Union, which did not alter its policy of status quo relations with Israel.

Despite these and other remarks, however, the EU undertook no action that could have been perceived as even vaguely critical of Israel and much effort was put into not "singling out" the country. This apparent ambiguity is typical of the EU's approach. In early December last year, the European Parliament suspended voting on whether or not to upgrade relations with Israel. Yet, only a few days later this decision was bypassed by the EU's Council of Ministers, where all 27 European foreign ministers voted in favor of the upgrade, allowing Israeli ministers to meet with their European counterparts on a regular basis so as to enable dialogue on various strategic issues. Even though plans to make Israel a "privileged partner" have been put on hold, it has been emphasized that this is not a sanction and constitutes merely a "pause" (see Ian Traynor Europe stalls on closer Israel links in Gaza protest Guardian, 14 January 2009). It is therefore likely that talks will be resumed at a later time, which in effect means that Israel is still on its way to become part of the single European market as a sort of semi-member of the EU.

Access to European markets and the ability to influence European decision-making are extremely important to Israel. While the EU lacks the moral authority of the UN and the political visibility of the US, it is, indeed, an important player in the region. Currently the EU constitutes Israel's biggest market for exports as well as its second-largest source of imports (after the US). Furthermore, the EU is a member of the so-called Middle East "Quartet" -- with the hardly credible Tony Blair as its envoy -- which supports a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Practically speaking, the EU's dedication to this solution has primarily been expressed through the medium of euros. In 2008, 486 million euros ($666 million) were donated to the Palestinians, most of it (258 million euros) directly to the Palestinian Authority (see European Commission External Relations, EC Assistance to the Palestinians 19 January 2009). Other beneficiaries include the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) and various Israeli and Palestinian civil society organizations.....

Being the largest donor of aid to the Palestinians and Israel's main trading partner, the EU has the potential to play a much more significant role in supporting and protecting Palestinian rights. This would give substance and credibility to its discourse on defending human rights and acting as a "force for good." Yet, by taking a seemingly neutral approach and abiding by the positions of the Quartet, which typically represent the lowest common denominator imaginable, EU member-states reveal a disinterest in protecting Palestinians from anything other than starvation.....

Pepijn van Houwelingen is a Dutch PhD candidate at the department of Politics and International Relations of Royal Holloway, University of London. He is affiliated with the department's Centre for European Politics ( His PhD research is concerned with the impacts of European Foreign Policy towards the Middle East.

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