Europe’s struggle to forge a common stance on Palestinian efforts to win statehood recognition at the United Nations is a blow to the EU’s long-standing quest to make friends and influence policy in the Middle East. The UN move by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is hardly a surprise. Palestinian leaders have been mulling over the decision for several years. Also, as the rest of the Arab world wakes up to people power – and given the continuing stalemate in Israel-Palestine negotiations – a decision by the Palestinians to take their case to the UN sooner rather than later was to be expected.
Europeans are deeply split on the issue: While France and Britain have signalled they are likely to support the Palestinians at least in the UN General Assembly, Germany has warned about the repercussions on peace talks with Israel. Others such as the Netherlands and the Czech Republic have indicated they will oppose the effort.
The EU should have been better prepared. Since the 1980 Venice Declaration, Europeans have spoken in favour of a two-state solution to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian Authority has received millions of Euros in EU assistance to build up institutions in preparation for full-fledged statehood. EU ministers are regular visitors to the region and Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, has spent many weeks in the region, working with the Americans and Tony Blair, the international envoy for the Middle East, to try and get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
All of this makes the current disarray in EU ranks even more perplexing. It is also damaging for Europe’s international credibility and long-standing efforts to become a more powerful player in the Middle East. Europe’s disjointed response to the Palestinian bid will be difficult to explain given EU support for the Arab Spring and the values of democracy and freedom in the region.
Mr Abbas is expected to deliver a formal request for statehood recognition on September 23 when he speaks to the UN General Assembly. The US and many European governments are urging the Palestinian leader not to push for an actual vote in the UN Security Council, where the US has promised a veto, but to go instead to the General Assembly with a demand for an upgrade of the Palestinians’ current observer status from “entity” to “non-member state.” This would place the Palestinians in a position similar to that of the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic Church, enabling them to sign international treaties. That could include having cases heard in the International Criminal Court.
Once Mr Abbas hands a letter to the UN secretary-general calling for the Security Council to recognise Palestine as a state, it could take weeks or months for the UN to act on the Palestinians’ request. The EU should use this time to rework its Middle East strategy to make it more credible and coherent.