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"Europe and America are condemned to disagree"

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An interview with Martin Ortega, a Research Fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies (ISS-EU) and a specialist in the Middle East and the political and legal implications of the use of force by the EU.

café babel: Where will America's plans to redraw the map of the Middle East lead? Can we expect a domino effect, starting with Syria?

Martin Ortega: The US has very ambitious projects in mind for this region. That is clear. On the other hand, the content of these problems remains obscure. Why? Because Washington holds many different positions. On one side the Pentagon, which is currently the prevailing force that led Washington into Iraq by establishing the conditions for war and reconstruction. On the other side the State Department, which has a more multi-lateral vision of the reorganisation of the Middle East. There are, of course, other options thanks to the debate about American democracy that is still very much alive. What, then, are America's plans for the Middle East? One suspects that, eventually, the idea is to establish a weak democracy in Iraq, supported by the presence on the ground of American armed forces, which will allow the US to have a strategic influence throughout the region. In this respect, political developments in Iran, Syria and the Gulf, as well as Israel and Palestine, will be 'supervised' by the US from their position of strength in Iraq.

How should the EU respond to America's plans for the Middle East? Can it be satisfied with non-military methods?

This issue is at the very centre of EU political debates at the moment. It is a pertinent question and one to which it is very difficult to respond because the initiatives taken by American forces have put Europeans in a very difficult situation: either they follow the Americans and, in consequence, accept their leadership and their plans for the Middle East; or they say 'no' and present an alternative project. Currently, Europeans are divided over this point. The countries who say 'yes' assert that this is the only way to influence American policy and to introduce a bit of flexibility and rationality. The countries who oppose the US maintain that American policy is in the process of weakening the principles and order established after the Second World War. That is why differences between them stem from 'principles'. It is difficult to recommend one policy over another to the member countries or to the EU. Nevertheless, I think that, in the long term, the EU's vision for the region and world order is different from the US. That is why it is condemned to hold a different position from Washington. It is a deep cultural and historical issue and it is, thus, difficult to avoid. Even if Europeans want to continue to be at America's side, eventually in the long term I wonder if this is possible, since, for Europe, for example, it is difficult to comprehend the idea of a permanent American presence in the region that is unilaterally imposed. It is equally difficult for Europeans to understand the absence of a negotiated diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is why I think Europe should reinforce its political and military capabilities. The EU should be more determined to defend its principles, its ideas and its vision for the Middle East, even if agreement between member states is difficult to achieve. An effort must be made. And, from a military point of view, the construction of a Europe with defence capabilities must be continued even if, for all that, it does not mean that these military means will be used without US agreement, or when US policy differs from Europeans. I do not believe that people can think that development of our military forces will run counter to the US. This European force will be created in order to carry out tasks that have American agreement, normally under the command of the UN. In my view, it is inevitable that the EU develops a more in-depth political presence in this region and elsewhere.

We have witnessed deep divisions between member states over the Iraqi crisis. In your opinion, is this split due to a true difference of interests or to the dysfunction of the European institutions?

Different points of view over the war in Iraq have been provoked by a different vision of principles. It is not economic interests that diverge, as some would like to see it. It is not an institutional issue. Even if different factors have played a part, such as the elections in Germany and others, if we look at the European position as a whole, it concerns a position of principle. It was felt by most Europeans that one cannot change a regime by force, even if this regime is dictatorial, and that illegal actions are handled within the framework of international law. Certainly, military intervention without a mandate from the Security Council was accepted in Kosovo and elsewhere. But, this was because there was a threat of a humanitarian disaster. That is to say, it was only globally accepted for humanitarian reasons. In Iraq this aspect was not urgent. And that is why in Europe, and many other countries throughout the world, there was opposition to this logic. A revealing sign of this position of principle was that, while politicians in each country held different positions, public opinion held a homogenous one. Today, action is rendered legitimate through public perception. That is why the EU's position was one of principle.

What other lessons can the EU draw from the Iraqi crisis?

The lesson to be drawn is that Europe must have a stronger presence on the international scene. That does not mean that this presence must be systematically in opposition to the US. Europe must remain at Washington's side when 'principles' are respected. This is the strength of the transatlantic relationship. When this is not the case, Europe must draw Washington's attention to the necessity of returning to law and order once more. Both Europeans, or certain Europeans, and the US are sometimes tempted to act against the principles of pacifist international relations. There is a shared sense of responsibility to remind them that these principles constitute the foundations of peace and long term international security.

Translated from « L'Europe et les Etats-Unis sont condamnés au désaccord »