17
Sep

Europe cannot decide the course of the Arab spring, but it still matters

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After the butchering of soldiers in the first world war and of civilians in the second, one should not be too hard on Europeans—especially Germans—for losing their love of killing. Post-war Europe is, increasingly, past wars. To judge from the parliamentary vote in Britain and the debate in France over military action in Syria, even the more martial countries are now less warlike. Yet pacifism can be too much of a good thing. When news of the chemical-weapons attacks in Syria broke on August 21st, European foreign ministers were holding an emergency meeting in Brussels. The gassing of civilians was barely discussed; the topic of the day was the military coup in Egypt. Eurocrats claimed that information was too scant; cynics said many ministers wanted to ignore the horror lest they were forced to act.

The European Union only formally got around to Syria on September 7th, at a long-planned meeting in Vilnius, after an embarrassing flip-flop by Germany. The day before the Germans had refused to sign a declaration by Western leaders at the G20 summit demanding “a strong international response”. They reversed course when a softer version, with an exhortation for UN action and peace talks, was agreed on in Vilnius. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, clearly did not want a repeat of 2011, when she was isolated among Western leaders in rejecting military intervention in Libya. But nor did she want, just before a German election, to allow the Social Democrats to repeat their feat of 2002, when Gerhard Schröder came from behind to win the election partly by strongly opposing military intervention in Iraq. The odd thing is that nobody has even asked Germany, or most other Europeans, to take part in strikes against Syria. Only Britain and France have the wherewithal to fire cruise missiles from a safe distance. There was no pressure to arm the rebels, a cause of previous divisions. Yet still the Europeans havered.

All of which raises questions about Europe’s declared wish to be a “global player”. The Arab world is where the EU should make its influence felt. Thanks to its growing energy independence America may one day feel less burdened by the region. Not so Europe: the Middle East is next door. France and Britain took the lead in Libya (with much American help). But for Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, a think-tank in Brussels, the vacillation over the chemical attacks in Syria shows that “the Europeans have never been able to get out of the passenger seat to become the driver—and silently they are quite happy with that.”

For decades the Middle East has been a region where, as an old cliché puts it, “America plays, Europe pays”. This remains true in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The EU is a huge financial supporter of the Palestinian Authority. But it was the Americans who got the two sides to start talking again. Now the EU stands accused by Israel of prejudging the talks by issuing formal guidelines to prevent any funding of projects in territories that were occupied by Israel in 1967. Read more…

As published in www.economist.com on September 14, 2013 (from the print edition).

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