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Europe and a Changing Middle East

by Piercamillo Falasca

With the decision of the Kingdom of Morocco to normalise its relations with Israel, following the way paved over the past months by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, the Abraham Accords have reached the European Union’s external border. And, Europeans, can no longer continue to read Middle Eastern dynamics wearing old glasses.

As many analysts have observed, the EU and its member states have played no role in bringing about these historic developments. The only official statement issued by the European Commission seemed to look at these era-defining agreements as a relatively minor event in the context of a perceived bigger achievement, the good ol’ two state solution for Israel and Palestine. Of course, the importance and the necessity for a stable — and peaceful — solution to the decade’s old Israeli-Palestine conflict should not be underestimated, but this will be a consequence and not the premise, of a wider and deeper geopolitical balance which the Abraham Accords will help to deliver.

It is important to stress that the Abraham Accords are not a betrayal of the Palestinian people. On the contrary, they are a pragmatic alternative to the annexation plan and they can now boost the Palestinian economy, its young population and its network of small businesses in a larger and more integrated regional market. At the same time, the Accords can provide new opportunities for Europe (re: economic, political) if it can change its vision of the region as fast as the region itself is changing.

After Morocco, other north African countries can be incentivised to normalise relations with Israel. For the EU Commission, and for the European member states, opening a dialogue for possible trade agreements with Tunisia and Algeria can act as a stimulus for them to sign the Accords just as Morocco was rewarded with the US’s official recognition of Rabat's sovereignty over Western Sahara. For the EU this implies that it must be more proactive in its external relations, to act as a global power and to choose a workable strategy for the coming years. Betting on the Abraham Accords is a bet for the future normalisation of the relations between Israel and an entire region—and may even plot a new path in Israel-Saudi Arabia relations—along the lines envisioned by Riyadh’s Arab Peace plan nearly two decades ago. A comprehensive regional peace that would help solve the Israel-Palestine conflict, regionally integrate Israel and turn a page on a history of conflict —ushering in a new era — is the goal.

The EU should regard the Abraham Accords as drivers of peace and prosperity. Alternatively, it may not. The choice rests on the EU’s leadership—and this decision will have important consequences. For instance, the EU must choose if it considers Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries as reliable partners for the future or just another set of states it is forced to deal with for geopolitical and geo-economic reasons. Sure, political differences remain – democracy and civil rights are unequally distributed across the region – and Europeans will continue to legitimately  push for the modernisation and pluralisation of the Gulf states, but if the European institutions seek  to play a truly proactive role in easing tensions in the Middle East, it is imperative that they try to have a better understanding of the GCC’s political sensitivities and economic prospects. And, Europe has to deal with Israel in a more adult way as relations with Israel frequently swing from a sense of guilt for the past to an ideological condemnation of its security policies. Europeans seem “bipolar” when it comes to Israel and this has substantially reduced the EU's credibility and effectiveness.

Taken together, the Abraham Accords offer a rare opportunity for the EU to demonstrate its global relevance. The Accords would be enhanced by the EU’s support. But is the EU ready to be a global actor or is it resigned to living in the shadow of the changes unfolding around it?

18 December 2020