Reading Time: 9 minutes

 By: Dr. Alain Gresh .*

 This paper was prepared by Dr. Alain Gresh at the Conference on “The Eurpean Foreign Policy towards the Palestinian Issue” that was held by Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations in Beirut, on 3-4/11/2010

     I would like to speak about the policy of the European union on the Palestinian question, taking into account the fact that before the end of the sixties, it didn’t have a real political influence as «Europe» – each country had its own policy – and was not even trying to have one. It only began to change after the 1967’s war. In 1970, the European Economic Community began a «Coopération politique européenne» which tried, on important questions, and Middle East was one of the most important, to “strengthen their solidarity and helping harmonisation of points of view and a coordination of their attitudes and, when it looks possible, common actions”.


We can divide the positions of Europe in three periods: from 1967 to the Oslo agreement; during the negotiations, between 1993 and the beginning of the second Intifada; the 2000’s.

From the 1967 war to Oslo

     In 1971, the ECC with only six members (France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – Denmark, Ireland and Great Britain were going to join in 1972) adopted the “Schumann document”, by the name of Maurice Schumann, who was foreign minister of France, under Georges Pompidou. It was the first time that Europe took a position on foreign affairs. It was not surprising that it was on Middle East, if we taken account the proximity of the Middle East, the impact of the June 1967 war. At the same time, it was not easy, as the political position were quite different, from the Gaullist France to pro-Israeli positions of Germany or Netherlands. The Schumann document was adopted on May the 13th 1971, by the ministries of Foreign affairs of the Six. [2]

What were the principles accepted:

– the support to the 242 security council resolution;
–  the withdrawal of Israel on the 4th of June lines, with minor modifications;
– creating demilitarized zones on the two sides of Israel borders;
– internationalization of Jerusalem;
– the right of return of the Palestinian refugees (or compensations)

     What is striking in this document is the fact that the Palestinian problem is considered only as a «refugees problem». No mention neither of self-determination, nor of the PLO. It will take more or less than ten years to see an important change in the European position, with the Venice declaration (12-13 June 1980) which is mentioning:  “A just solution must finally be found to the Palestinian problem, which is not simply a problem of refugees”. Then we can read the following: “The Palestinian people… must be placed in a position… to exercise fully its right to self-determination. The PLO will have to associated with the negotiation.” But the price for this position, will be to “forget” the right of return…

     In the same time, Venice declaration was historic: for the first time since the 1967 war, the ECC stand not only against any annexation of the occupied territories, but also for Palestinian self-determination and also to include the PLO in any negotiation.

The response of the Begin government was clear cut (15th of June 1980):

     Nothing will remain of the Venice Resolution but its bitter memory. The Resolution calls upon us, and other nations, to include in the peace process the Arab S.S. known as “The Palestine Liberation Organization.” The principal component of this organization of murderers passed the following resolution in Damascus, on the eve of the Venice Conference: ‘Fatah is an independent national revolutionary movement whose aim is to liberate Palestine completely and to liquidate the Zionist entity politically, economically, militarily, culturally and ideologically.’

     US president Jimmy Carter was also very critical. In an interview to Cable News Network (31st of May) 1980, before the Venice summit, he warned the Europeans against any interference in the Middle East negotiations between Tel Aviv and Cairo on the Palestinian autonomy. He also warned that the US will use it veto in the Security Council to make any change mentioning Palestinian national rights in the 242 resolution. The victory of Ronald Reagan at the presidential elections of November 1980 will be followed by a more radical refusal of discussion with the PLO.

     Despite these rebuttals, the Europe continued on the same path. Yasser Arafat visited many countries, including France and Austria, met with Willy Brandt.

     On February 23 1987, the foreign ministers of the Twelve in Brussels supported a solution based on the Venice declaration through “an international peace conference to be held under the auspices of the United Nations”. On June the 27 1987, the Twelve, during their summit in Madrid, declared that they support “upholding the right to security of all States in the region, including Israel, that is to say, to live within secure, recognized and guaranteed frontiers, and in upholding justice for all the peoples of the region, which includes recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, including their right to self-determination with all that this implies.” It was the first time Europe implicitly recognized the right of the Palestinian to create their own state.

Oslo agreements and the marginalisation of Europe

     So, in less then twenty years, the policy of the European Union took a big turn, recognizing the national rights of the Palestinian people and its rights in its own independent state, engaging with the Palestinian liberation organization. The Oslo agreements, with all their limitations and there were many, was a recognition that no solution was possible without the PLO and without the implementation of the national rights of the Palestinian.

     In a kind of paradox, it was when its position was (more or less) accepted by the United States and Israel, that Europe began to disappear from the political process. The European Union supported the Oslo agreements but were in fact marginalized politically (even if they played an economic role, financing the Palestinian authority). What are the reasons of this marginalization? Some have to do with Europe itself (and I will come to it later), some with the peace process.

We can speak of two main reasons:

– the Oslo agreements has created the illusion that the negotiations were between two equal partners, the Israeli government and the PLO.
– The different partners in the negotiations, including Israel, the PLO, the United States never took Europe position seriously. We can understand the stand of Israel and the United States, it is more complicated to understand the PLO or the Arab position.

     It was only when the peace process looked like failing, in 1998-1999, that the European Union tried to play again a political role, insisting on the necessity of recognizing a Palestinian state. European Council of Amsterdam (17th of June 1997): «We call on the people of Israel to recognize the right of the Palestinians to exercise self-determination, without excluding the option of a State.» Then during the Berlin summit on the 26 of March 1999, the fifteen members declared: “The European Union reaffirms the continuing and unqualified Palestinian right to self-determination including the option of a state and looks forward to the early fulfilment of this right. It appeals to the parties to strive in good faith for a negotiated solution on the basis of the existing agreements, without prejudice to this right, which is not subject to any veto.

     The European Union is convinced that the creation of a democratic, viable and peaceful sovereign Palestinian State on the basis of existing agreements and through negotiations would be the best guarantee of Israel’s security and Israel’s acceptance as an equal partner in the region. The European Union declares its readiness to consider the recognition of a Palestinian State in due course in accordance with the basic principles referred to above.”

     During the European Council at Luxembourg – 12 and 13 December 1997: «The European Council expressed the EU’s readiness to contribute to Permanent Status negotiations, by offering specific suggestions to the parties on related subjects, including possible Palestinian statehood, borders/security arrangements, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem and water issues.»

     Otherwise, in the 1990’s, during the Oslo process, it was on the economic front, by sending money to the Palestinian Authority that Europe acted on the ground. During the 1994-2000 period, the help to the Palestinian Authority amounted to €1,25 billion. Then, between 2001 and 2009, it reached €3,13 billion.

     Europe tried also, through its Mediterranean policy to influence the situation. In 1995, was held the Barcelona conference, with number of states from the South: Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Palestinian Authority and Israel. Association agreements are signed with all the countries concerned: Tunisia in 1998, Israel and Marroco in 2000, Jordan in 2002, Lebanon in 2003, Egypt in 2004, Algeria in 2005. In 1997, a special agreement was signed with the Palestinian authority, but without any political dimension.

     Despite all these agreements, ten years later, the failure was clear. The economic and political cooperation was not possible as long as the Palestinian conflict was not resolved. In 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy as president for six month of the European Union tried a new initiative: l’Union pour la Méditerranée (UPM). Meeting in Paris in July 2008, the leaders of 40 states supported this initiative. Two years later, the failure is clear, for the same reasons.

What are the reasons of this failure?

     It is, as it is said, an economic giant and a political dwarf. The coordination of the policy of 15 countries was always difficult, with different policies, from Paris to London, different relations to the United States, different relations with Israel. The Lisbon Treaty of 1997 was supposed to help coordinate a common foreign and security policy, but it took ten years to be implemented. The enlargement of Europe to 27 countries created new difficulties, taking in account the support of most of the old socialist countries to the United States and also to Israel. Many countries are convinced that Europe should let the United States managing the international affairs and that Europe should only support their policy. The paralysis of Europe was quite clear during the Iraq’s war of 2003.

The 2000’s and the support to Israel

     With the beginning of the second Intifada, the paralysis of the European Union was flagrant and its bias to Israel stronger.

     On the political side, Europe which has been at the vanguard of new ideas – dialogue with the PLO, right of the Palestinians to self-determination, support to a Palestinian state – will loose its autonomy towards the United States. In the Quartet, no new ideas were presented and the European union supported the boycott of the elections of 2006 and refused to support the idea of a national union government. It didn’t dare to do what the Russians were doing, opening a dialogue with Hamas, which is one of the condition of peace.

     During this period also, the European Union and its members states began to develop bilateral relations with Israel independently of what Israel was doing in Palestine. For Paris, it was a real turning point in its traditional policy. On the political side, we could say that nothing has changed: Paris and Europe supported the idea of a Palestinian state on the 4th of June borders. But on the ground, it means something quite different.

     I will take one example, the upgrading of the relations between the European Union and Israel decided in December 2008. It was during the French Presidency of the Union and it was France, Bernard Kouchner and Nicolas Sarkozy who fought very strongly for this “upgrade”. It wad adopted as the Israel government was continuing its colonization policy (condemned by Europe), blockading Gaza (also condemned by Europe), maintaining its check-points (also condemned by Europe), pursuing the building of the Wall (also condemned by Europe), pursuing the judaization of Jerusalem (also condemned by Europe even if it has refused to publish in 2006 and 2007, the report of its consulate on the annexation of Jerusalem). In this context, we can understand why the upgrading was considered by the Israeli government as a “green light” to all its policies on the ground and also a green light for its aggression in Gaza two weeks later.

     As mentioned by the Israeli daily Haaretz: The European Union’s 27 foreign ministers unanimously approved upgrading relations with Israel on Monday, despite vigorous efforts by the Palestinian Authority and Egypt to thwart the move. The first expression of this decision will be a first-of-its-kind meeting between Israel’s prime minister and all the leaders of the EU member states in Brussels this April.

     (…) As a result of the upgrade in relations, Israel’s foreign minister will start meeting three times a year with all 27 EU foreign ministers. Other ministers will meet once a year with their European counterparts. Israel and the EU will also conduct a strategic dialogue on issues such as the peace process, the Iranian threat, counterterrorism and organized crime. In addition, the EU pledged to help Israel integrate into UN agencies and to include Israeli experts in EU peacekeeping forces. Separately, the ministers decided to shelve a proposed action plan for the peace process in 2009, in response to Israeli pressure.  [3]

     After the war against Gaza, we could see on television prime minister Olmert thanking the leaders of six European countries “for their extraordinary support to Israel and their preoccupation for its security». Silivo Berlusconi declared: «When I hear that missiles has been fired on Israel, I feel as if they have been fired on all the Western world.»
Many reasons can explain this changes in Europe and France policy. One of them is a kind of “new thinking” concerning the Palestinian problem. In the 1980 and even the 1990’s, this conflict was viewed as a conflict between an occupying power and an occupied people. After the 11th of September, a new vision began to take shape: that Palestine was one of the front of the “clash of civilization” between the West and Islam.

     What is strange in these positions is that there are in contradiction with the European interest in the Middle East. The conflict around Palestine put in danger all the development of the region and can have destabilizing effects on Europe.

     Europe should accept the idea that this conflict is not between two equal players, but between an occupier and an occupied. If Europe really thinks that the solution is an independent Palestinian state, it should pressure really for this, accepting the idea that only concrete pressures on Israel can bring a change of politics. Unfortunately, for the moment, only the civil society has understood this principle and has tried to impose through its Boycott-Disinvest-Sanctions campaign.


* Dr. Alain Gresh: Deputy director of Le Monde diplomatique, He is writing a blog: “Nouvelles d’Orient”,

[1] See, Bichara Khader, L’Europe et la Palestine : des croisades à nos jours, L’Harmattan, Paris, 1999, p. 357.

[2]  See, Samir Kassir, Farouk Mardam-Bey, Itinéraires de Paris à Jérusalem. La France et le conflit israélo-arabe, Tome II: 1958-1991, Les livres de la Revue d’études palestiniennes, Paris, 1993, pp 101-102.

[3] 9 December 2008.


Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 22/12/2010