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Can the EU and the League of Arab States develop closer relations? History suggests otherwise

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From 1974 to 1979, the EEC and Arab League met regularly for the Euro-Arab Dialogue, but efforts to establish close relations failed to meet expectations. Philipp Hirsch writes that today, the European Union and League of Arab States are once again attempting stronger cooperation. But based on historical experience, Brussels should not invest too much hope in the capacity for summits such as the one in Sharm El-Sheikh this February to bring about real change. Algeria, Sudan, Libya – the Middle East is showing once again its potential for change and turmoil. Some are even observing a second wave of the Arab Spring going over the region. Whether that might be true or not, one thing certainly remains the same as in 2011: Europe needs an answer to events in the region. Maybe it has already

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Can the EU and the League of Arab States develop closer relations? History suggests otherwiseFrom 1974 to 1979, the EEC and Arab League met regularly for the Euro-Arab Dialogue, but efforts to establish close relations failed to meet expectations. Philipp Hirsch writes that today, the European Union and League of Arab States are once again attempting stronger cooperation. But based on historical experience, Brussels should not invest too much hope in the capacity for summits such as the one in Sharm El-Sheikh this February to bring about real change.

Algeria, Sudan, Libya – the Middle East is showing once again its potential for change and turmoil. Some are even observing a second wave of the Arab Spring going over the region. Whether that might be true or not, one thing certainly remains the same as in 2011: Europe needs an answer to events in the region.

Maybe it has already found it. In late February, it started a new format for strengthening cooperation through a high-level summit between the EU and the Arab League, inaugurating what European Council President Donald Tusk called “a new step” in the cooperation between the two organisations. Tusk stressed the novelty of this approach. Never before had European and Arab politicians come together for a summit of this sort.

In a way, Tusk was correct. It really was the first of such meetings between European and Arab heads of state. However, he forgot to mention that there certainly is a historic precedent for such meetings: from 1974 to 1979, representatives of the European Economic Community (EEC) and Arab League came together for the Euro-Arab Dialogue (EAD).

Can the EU and the League of Arab States develop closer relations? History suggests otherwise

The League of Arab States – EU Summit in February, Copyright: European Union

The EAD had been devised as a response to several crises in the Middle East. In October 1973, Egypt and Syria had attacked Israel on Yom Kippur day, a Jewish public holiday. Surprised and with its back to the wall, Israel only managed to keep an upper hand in the conflict due to significant US weapons deliveries, which were flown in via Europe. In response, the Arab oil producing states managed to organise an oil boycott against the entire West through OPEC. The ‘oil weapon’ hit Western Europe much harder than the US. In Germany, car-free Sundays were introduced to save fuel.

To solve the crises in the Middle East, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger took centre stage. Flying from one capital to another, his shuttle diplomacy managed to bring about a ceasefire between the conflict parties as well as a peace conference in Geneva. From this, however, the Western Europeans were excluded.

Out of this configuration, the EAD was created. It was supposed to be the EEC’s instrument to protect its own interests in the Middle East. The idea: a dialogue with the Arabs, which would, in the long term, end in stronger political, economic, technical and cultural cooperation between the two sides. Such stronger interdependence would allow for the nine EEC member states (also called ‘the Nine’) to safeguard their political and economic interests in the Middle East.

But the dialogue was fraught by problems from the start. The Americans were opposed to the idea, as Kissinger considered it unnecessary outside meddling into US Middle Eastern policy. As a result, the Nine decided to exclude politics as a component of the EAD and focus mostly on economics. The Arabs, however, were more interested in the former than in the latter. They hoped to use the EAD as a vehicle to gain European recognition of the PLO as representative of the Palestinian people.

Another problem was internal cohesion. The League was fundamentally split, before but even more so after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s journey to Israel in 1977. On the one hand, there were the moderate Arab states supporting Sadat such as Tunisia and Saudi Arabia; on the other hand the hardliners in Syria, Iraq and Libya fundamentally rejected Sadat’s accommodationist stance. But the Europeans, too, struggled to achieve unity. The French in particular considered the EAD a chance to gain political influence in the Middle East, if need be at the cost of the Americans. The West Germans, however, were careful not to cross Kissinger and thus wanted the dialogue limited to economics, technological exchange and culture.

After close coordination with Washington, the EAD started officially in July 1974. It took another year until representatives of both sides came together for the first meeting of the General Committee in Cairo. It organised the different working groups of the EAD and was supposed to ultimately lead up to a conference of the foreign ministers of all parties to the dialogue. The following years were marked by (in part successful) Arab attempts to include the Middle East conflict as a discussion topic and let Palestinian delegates participate in meetings. All the while, most of the European states strove to keep the dialogue focused on economic and technical issues. In the process, the EAD remained limited to expert talk and gained little traction outside conference halls. When the Arab League broke apart in 1979 after Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the EAD ended, too. By then, it could not show any substantial result.

The high-level conference to finish off the dialogue never happened at the time. Now, with a delay of 40 years, it has taken place. It is telling that Tusk – knowingly or unknowingly – did not refer to the EAD in his introductory statement. Fraught from start to finish, it does not serve as a positive example. Maybe that is why the EU approached the entire project from the other way around this time: now, the high-level meeting of heads of states is at the start of the new cooperation between the EU and the Arab League, not at its end.

Does the example of the EAD offer any insights into what we can expect from the new EU-Arab League format? Such historical comparisons are risky. History does not repeat itself in a simplistic a way that could serve as a straightforward one-on-one blueprint. To name only one obvious difference of context, the topics around the dialogue have changed completely. Back then, oil was the hot topic; today, it is migration.

Still, the comparison between the two formats is worthwhile. There are some obvious take-aways. For example, as in the 1970s one would struggle to describe either the EU or the Arab League as thoroughly unitary actors. Another lesson from the EAD is that the litmus test of such formats starts when one begins to talk details and specifics. The recent meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh was mere diplomatic foreplay at the highest level.

One noteworthy, key difference between the EAD and the EU-League meeting, however, is that the central crunching point of the 1970s is no longer an issue. The EAD struggled from the beginning with Washington’s misgivings about a potentially stronger European engagement in the Middle East. But neither the US, Russia or China seemed too worried about the recent meeting on the Sinai peninsula. This simply underlines the extent to which the EU has excluded itself as a relevant political actor from the region over recent decades. Today Washington does not even begin to worry about a potential clash of interest with Brussels through the EU’s attempts to gain more stature in the Middle East.

In that sense, there maybe is a silver lining to the EU-Arab League summit. In 1979, the EAD failed and is today largely forgotten. If Brussels aims to follow in its footsteps, this would at least mean that it wants to tackle something it has largely neglected over the past few years and decades – its strategic relationship with its southern neighbours. If anything, current changes in Algeria, Sudan and Libya point to the necessity of doing just that. The story of the EAD, however, would suggest that a political dialogue on a track-one level might not be sufficient to achieve this.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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Philipp Hirsch – Cambridge University
Philipp Hirsch is a PhD Candidate in the Department for Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at Cambridge University. His research lies in the area of foreign policy, international relations and Middle Eastern studies. Amongst others, he has previously worked as Mercator Fellow at the German Federal Foreign Office and the United Nations Development Programme in Jordan.

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