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Accueil du site ::  Publications ::  Les Cahiers Sirice ::  Cahiers n°10 :: 

Europe and the Mediterranean in the 1970s The Setting Up of the Euro-Arab Dialogue

Europe and the Mediterranean in the 1970s The Setting Up of the Euro-Arab Dialogue

Maria Eleonora GUASCONI

The relationship between the European Union and the Mediterranean is deeply rooted in Europe’s origins, history and identity. Two of the founding members of the European Community, France and Italy, both Mediterranean countries, for the historical and military legacy of their colonial past have always looked at this basin as an area in which to exert their influence. According to a well-known thesis, it was a crisis which broke out in the Mediterranean in 1956, the Suez Canal crisis, which gave new impetus to the last phase of negotiations, leading to the signature of the Treaties of Rome in March 1957.

During the 1960s, the framework of the relations between the European Economic Community (EEC) and the Mediterranean countries was characterized by a series of bilateral agreements, that were very different one from the other as the two association agreements with Greece and Turkey, signed respectively in 1961 and 1963, which confirmed the western choice of the two countries, both North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, and a long list of trade agreements with countries like Israel, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Malta, Cyprus, Egypt, Yugoslavia and Spain. These agreements established a network of economic and trade relations, which seemed to foreshadow the emergence of the European Community (EC) as regional power in the Mediterranean, but at the same time, they did not respond to a common logic or to a common policy.

At the beginning of the 1970s, several factors made the EC countries aware of the need to develop new initiatives towards the Mediterranean that were aimed at stabilizing this region and at strengthening the European role. The Mediterranean reached the top of the European agenda and in two years, from 1972 to 1974, the EC developed two initiatives that were directed to this region : the “Global Mediterranean Policy”, formally launched at the Paris Summit of 1972, which for the first time addressed the Mediterranean countries from Spain to Turkey as a region within a single policy framework, and the Euro-Arab Dialogue, launched after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which involved the members of the Arab League and was developed in the newly established framework of European Political Cooperation.

The aim of this essay is to shed light on the Mediterranean policies the EEC worked out during the 1970s, focusing mainly on the setting up of the Euro-Arab Dialogue (EAD).

Although it did not involve only Mediterranean countries and was not focused exclusively on the Mediterranean, nonetheless, I would argue here, that the Euro-Arab Dialogue represented the other facet of the Global Mediterranean Policy. It showed the EC’s attempt to engage in a dialogue with the Arab countries and was aimed at improving its capacity to play a role in such a complex and shifting scenario as the Middle East . In particular, the EAD represented the EC’s attempt to deal with contradictory pressures coming from the United States and from the Arab countries, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War and of the 1973 oil shock. The article is divided into three parts : the first tries to investigate the causes and goals which prompted the Nine to propose these two different policies towards the Mediterranean at the beginning of the 1970s, paying particular attention to the Europe-Arab Dialogue. The second evaluates how much the transatlantic disagreements over the Middle East and the divisions among Europeans with regard to the scope of the dialogue, influenced its achievements. The third section assesses the achievements of the Euro-Arab Dialogue, through the analysis of two important results that were reached in the European Policy Centre (EPC) framework : the 1977 London declaration and the Venice declaration of 1980.

Europe and the Mediterranean Challenge in the 1970s

At the beginning of the 1970s, the EC countries continued to perceive the Mediterranean as one of the crucial theatres of the Cold War, a heterogeneous region characterized by political, economic and social differences, troubled by local conflicts and a chronic economic instability. At the same time, the Mediterranean represented - for European countries – a link with the Middle East and North Africa, a link to the oil and raw materials that were fundamental for their stability and their energy security.

East-West dynamics, however, were not the only lens through which the European Community looked at the Mediterranean. This was partly a consequence of the process of Détente between the two superpowers and of a different European perception of the Soviet threat, which was receding from the sense of urgency of the 1950s and 1960s. Other issues also convinced the Europeans to pay new attention towards the Mediterranean for its regional instability, the problem of oil supply, the threat of terrorism, transatlantic disagreements over the Middle East and, lastly, the active role played inside the European institutions by a Mediterranean country such as France.

From the rise of the colonels’ regime in Greece in 1967, to Muammar al-Gaddafi’s 1969 coup d’État in Libya, from the conflict between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus to the Arab-Israeli conflict, these events all contributed to shape a European perception of the Mediterranean as an area of instability close to its borders and a threat to the security of its members. This is clearly stressed in several documents of the European Commission : “Le maintien de la paix et la stabilité économique et politique de la région méditerranéenne – is written in a note of Emile Noël of March 1972 – troublée de façon permanente par des antagonismes et des crises intérieures, doivent être un objectif majeur de la Communauté en raison de son appartenance à cette même région”.

The question of oil supply was another crucial issue. The heavy dependence of European countries on oil from the Mediterranean and in particular on Arab oil-producing countries and the need to assure oil supplies to their economy, started a debate among EC members on the need to shape a new approach towards the Mediterranean well before the 1973 oil shock crisis. As oil supply turned out to become a security issue for European countries, and in order to tackle the new situation European foreign policy makers sought to rethink their relations with the Mediterranean and with the Arab world. This explains the activism of some EEC members, primarily France, that were heavily reliant on Arab oil and were supporters of an Arab-friendly policy. Furthermore, these EEC countries were intent on developing a new European approach towards the Mediterranean and the Middle East. France, in particular, was the main promoter of a review of the European policy towards the Mediterranean and of the need to shape a global policy to tackle the Mediterranean issues and would become one of the main actors of the Dialogue with the Arabs. In February 1971, the French member of the European Parliament, André Rossi, presented a report which dealt with the EEC trade policy in the Mediterranean to the Commission and to the other member states and was to represent the first step towards the shaping of a Global Mediterranean Policy. In spite of Georges Pompidou’s initial opposition, the newly established framework of European Political Cooperation (EPC) provided the French government with an opportunity to push for a Middle East Agenda, as shown by the Foreign Minister, Maurice Schumann’s suggestion to include the Middle East as one of the first topics to be discussed in the EPC along with the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe. The threat of terrorism, linked to a dramatic escalation of terrorist attacks by Arab-Palestinian groups in Western Europe also contributed to increase European countries’ attention to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The highpoint was represented by the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, when eleven Israelis athletes were taken hostage and killed by a Palestinian commando. The new attention devoted by the Community to the Mediterranean was strictly linked to the European ambition to play a role in the international arena, which emerged at the beginning of the 1970s. In particular, the re-launching of the integration process promoted by the Hague Conference in December 1969, which ended the long querelle over Great Britain’s admission to the EEC, gave impetus to a series of initiatives that enlarged the EEC’s capabilities and would show their importance in the future. From the first attempt to establish a European Monetary Union through the Werner Plan, to the setting up of the EPC framework, from the Lomé agreements, to the declaration on European Identity issued in Copenhagen in December 1973, these initiatives promoted a debate on the Community’s ambition to strengthen its international dimension and a reappraisal of its identity and political future.

These issues inevitably involved the question of the relationship with the United States and witnessed the European aspiration to achieve a more independent stance from its traditional ally. From the monetary turmoil, which followed the collapse of the Bretton Woods System in 1971, to the disagreements over the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the onset of the oil crisis, from the failure of Kissinger’s “Year of Europe” to the different approaches towards détente developed on the two sides of the Atlantic, the 1970s saw a change in the conditions upon which the transatlantic relationship had been established. The Middle East, in particular, was one of the main issues of transatlantic disagreements. Whereas the European countries did not all share the same attitude towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, as Germany and the Netherlands were strongly pro-Israel, they regarded the Middle East conflict as a regional issue, which could threaten European stability. They were mainly concerned with threats to their economic security resulting from the Arab oil weapon, whilst the US perceived the Arab-Israeli confrontation through an East-West lens, being preoccupied with the conduct of the Soviet Union and the global balance of power.

The Difficult Establishment of the Euro-Arab Dialogue

Historians have generally indicated the genesis of the EAD in the unexpected arrival of four uninvited Arab ministers to the European summit, held in Copenhagen in December 1973, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War and of the oil shock. Although there is some evidence that France was already promoting the idea of a Euro-Arab Dialogue before Copenhagen, the European decision to start a dialogue with the Arabian oil producing countries was debated well before the Copenhagen summit.

Since the beginning of the Seventies, in fact, the EC member countries had started a debate on how to face the consequences of an oil price rise and France had been an active promoter of a political and economic dialogue with these countries, in the attempt to “Europeanize its Arab policy”. Whilst the attempt to develop a common energy policy was unsuccessful and the European countries preferred to conclude bilateral agreements with the Arab oil producing countries, the results achieved were more encouraging within the European Political Cooperation framework. The Declaration on the Middle East, issued on 6th November 1973, for example, represented “a historical novelty” as the European countries harmonized their different positions and spoke with a single voice over such a complex issue as the Arab-Israeli conflict. In particular, recalling the UN Resolution 242, they urged Israel “to end the territorial occupation which it had maintained since the conflict of 1967”. Furthermore, they had supported the Arab stance on occupied Palestine casting the Palestinian issues as a political problem.

One month later, at the December 1973 Copenhagen Summit, the Nine issued a declaration which committed the Europeans to reach a dialogue with the members of the League of Arab states. The aim of the dialogue was twofold : on the one hand the Europeans wanted to compensate their exclusion from the Middle East peace process, by strengthening European presence in the region ; on the other, they tried to mitigate their dependency on oil from the Middle East by increasing their economic interdependence with the Arabs. In a report drawn up by Emile Noël, the Euro-Arab dialogue deal was clearly stressed : “It was the oil crisis just after the Israeli-Arab war of 1973 which made Europe realise, begrudgingly, her complementarity with the Third World. Europe need(ed) the petrol and raw materials of the Third World while the Third World need(ed) the equipment and technology of Europe”.

The Nine responded favourably to the Arab initiative of a dialogue and decided to include it into the framework of the EPC, which thus became an important benchmark of the European capacity to speak with one voice in such a drifting scenario as the Middle East. In particular, it represented one of the first European attempts to develop a common action in foreign policy, thus encompassing the rigid separation between economic issues, tackled by the Community, and political issues managed through the EPC, between “low and high” politics. The fact that the idea was adopted represented a remarkable achievement, both for the strong opposition unfolded by the United States and for the different attitudes held by the European members with regard to the scope of the dialogue. The American reaction to the establishment of a dialogue between Europe and the Arab countries was, in fact, very negative, as the US regarded it as a challenge to their energy programme and an element that could compromise Kissinger’s step-by-step peace diplomacy in the Middle East. Since the establishment of the dialogue, the Nixon administration had started a diplomatic offensive aimed at splitting the European front. Although Richard Nixon, in several speeches held in 1974, strongly criticized the European initiative, the main criticism came from Henry Kissinger himself, at that time Secretary of State. During a conversation with the British Foreign Minister Alec Douglas-Home, held in December 1973, he affirmed that : “It was intellectually absurd that 8 million Bedouin should hold ransom the whole of the industrialised West, at any other time in history it would have been suicide”.

Kissinger thought that the Euro-Arab dialogue was “une solution désastreuse” and talked of “European masochism to bring all the 20 Arab countries together in one room”.

In his famous “Pilgrim speech” held in London on December 12th, two days before the opening of the Copenhagen summit, Kissinger launched the idea of creating an Energy Action Group, designed to address the challenges coming from the energy crisis and to reassert American leadership over its allies. As is well known, the Washington Energy Conference of February 1974, which decided to establish an International Energy Agency representing the consuming countries in their negotiations with the oil producing countries, split the European front, resulting in France not participating in the International Energy Agency and West Germany, on the contrary, embracing the American stance.

The threats coming from Washington did not put the EAD off the European agenda, but they influenced its achievements. As a consequence of American pressure, for example, the Europeans decided to depoliticise it from its start. In spite of French pressure, that also wanted to include political aspects of European-Arab relations and the central issue of oil in the dialogue, other European countries, such as Germany and Great Britain, were unwilling to strain their relations with the United States and insisted on a purely economic character of the dialogue. Therefore, the talks dealt mainly with industry, science and technology, infrastructure, financial cooperation, commerce, agricultural development, labour social and cultural issues, but did not cover the central issue of oil.

The result was a paradox : the EC countries used a procedure designed exclusively for foreign policy goals, such as the EPC, focussing only on economic issues, in order to deal with the Arabs.

The impasse in the Euro-Arab dialogue that was created by the negative American reactions, was overcome by a German initiative. During a meeting held on 21st-22nd April at the castle of Schloss Gymnich, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs agreed on the so-called “Gymnich Compromise”, a gentlemen’s agreement providing for consultation with the United States on a case-by-case basis. The overcoming of this impasse testified a climate change in transatlantic relations during 1974, and was linked to a fortuitous change of European leaders in three main European countries : Harold Wilson returned to power after Edward Heath’s defeat in the February elections, Valery Giscard d’Estaing would become President after the death of Georges Pompidou in April and Helmut Schmidt would become Chancellor in May after Willy Brandt’s resignation.

However, American pressure was not the only cause for delay to the start of the Euro-Arab dialogue. In 1974 several executive meetings took place between the European and Arab partners, but the Arab League’s insistence on including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a full member of the dialogue, caused a deadlock in the negotiations with France followed by Italy, Luxembourg and Ireland supporting the Arab request. The other countries, in particular West Germany, Britain and the Netherlands, were strongly opposed to it.

Only in February 1975, at a meeting of the EC Foreign Ministers held in Dublin, a compromise, the so called “Dublin compromise”, was reached, allowing the PLO to participate in a collective Arab delegation. Each side would be represented by a single delegation composed of ambassadors and experts in various fields. The organization of the Euro-Arab dialogue was thus defined : the General Committee, composed by diplomats, would be the main decision-making body and would be supported by a series of working groups. The European Commission also took part in the discussions represented by its Deputy Secretary-General, Klaus Meyer, who had the task of coordinating the work between the EC and the ECP.

It was only in 1976 that the first General Committee of the EAD was held at an ambassadorial level in Luxembourg. On that occasion a series of projects were proposed by the Europeans, which included : the setting up of a spatial and non-spatial telecommunications network ; the improvement of transport facilities in the Arab countries ; rural development of the Darfur region in Sudan ; the measure of trade promotion ; the setting up of a polytechnic institute in the Arab world for the training of researchers and a joint research project in the field of solar energy.

From London to Venice : an Assessment of the Euro-Arab Dialogue

The shift in US policy towards the Middle East, which characterized the early phase of President Carter’s foreign policy seeking for a comprehensive peace settlement among Israeli and the Arab countries, instead of the step-by-step diplomacy promoted by Henry Kissinger and the worsening of the economic crisis in the second half of the 70s which affected European countries faced with inflation, recession and unemployment, encouraged the Nine to focus on the Euro-Arab dialogue, with the hope of avoiding a new energy crisis.

Probably the most fruitful year for the dialogue was 1977 : two general Committee meetings took place in Tunis and Brussels, an agreement was reached with the Arabs on the financing of the EAD. The Arabs decided to invest 15 million dollars and the Europeans 3,5 million. At the London summit in June, the Nine issued a declaration which emphasized the need for “giving effective expression to Palestinian national identity” and for a “homeland for the Palestinian people”, thus reflecting a radical shift in the position of some traditional allies of Israel, such as West Germany and the Netherlands and an harmonization of the European countries’ approach to the Arab-Israeli issue with a more explicit backing of Palestinian rights.

In spite of these achievements, President Sadat’s dramatic visit to Israel in November 1977 and the start of the Camp David peace process, changed the landscape of the Middle East and stressed the return of the US to a step-by-step approach. These events, which consecrated the central role played by the United States in the Middle East and marked the difficulties of Europe to ascertain an influence in that area, had serious consequences for the prosecution of the dialogue. In 1979, as a consequence of the divergence with the Europeans over the Camp David peace process and of Egypt’s expulsion from the Arab League, the Arabs decided to suspend the dialogue, which then came to a standstill. In spite of these difficulties, the Europeans proposed a new initiative towards the Middle East, with the aim of reactivating the dialogue. At the Council of the heads of state and governments, which took place in Venice on 12th and 13th June 1980, the Nine issued a declaration, which boldly stated the “right to existence and security of all the States in the region, including Israel, and justice for all the peoples”, implying the “recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and the acknowledgment of the Palestinian right to self-determination and of the PLO to play a role”.

As to the Euro-Arab Dialogue, the declaration stressed the importance the Europeans attached to this dialogue and the need also to develop its political dimension. Although the declaration had been watered down because of the negative reaction of the Carter administration towards the Nine’s previous proposal of an amendment of the UN Resolution 242, Israel denounced it, accusing the Europeans of “Munich surrender” and the PLO expressed a negative assessment. These critics stressed the difficulties faced by Europeans, challenged by external pressures and internal disagreement. In spite of the Nine’s efforts to organize other meetings with the Arab countries in 1980, (in particular, in November a meeting of the General Committee in Luxembourg was organised), the dialogue reached another dead-lock. “Le dialogue se trouve une fois de plus dans une impasse”, quoted a report of the 1982 European Commission- suggesting that “la partie européenne du Dialogue euro-arabe est de l’avis qu’il est opportun d’attendre une nouvelle impulsion arabe”.

During the 1980s other factors would make a European initiative towards the Mediterranean less likely, especially through the EPC framework : the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the euro-missiles crisis, increased the European sense of vulnerability, posing new challenges and threats to their security that would be debated mainly inside NATO ; the enlargement to the southern countries of Greece, Spain and Portugal, which would become EEC members respectively in 1981 and 1986, absorbed most of the attention of the member countries that, in this way, devoted less attention to the other Mediterranean non-member states. It was only after the end of the Cold War that the unfolding of a new series of initiatives testified a renewed European interest towards the establishment of a Euro-Mediterranean space – from the Renovated Mediterranean Policy to the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, launched in Barcelona in 1995.

In a 1981 report drawn up for the President of the Commission, Roy Jenkins, the Commission’s evaluation of the EAD appeared rather negative : “This basic conceptional difference of approach between an Arab political and a European economic/technical approach has ever overshadowed the Euro-Arab Dialogue, which has therefore produced little concrete results”. In particular it was stressed that, in spite of the approval by the General Committee of twenty projects dealing with industrialization, infrastructure, agriculture and rural development, trade, scientific and technological cooperation, transfer of technology and cultural cooperation, “none of them had been implemented”. If the limited tangible results achieved by the Euro-Arab Dialogue stressed the difficulties of the EC to implement its declaratory policies as well as the limits of the intergovernmental mechanism of EPC, therefore, in my opinion, the dialogue cannot be considered a failure. Ten years after the 1970 Davignon Report, together with the Global Mediterranean Policy, the EC countries had enhanced their presence in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East, had harmonized their approach towards the Arab-Israeli conflict and had issued a declaration which is still considered a landmark in the European approach to the Middle East, indicating a series of principles with the purpose of reaching peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict, with reference to the two-state paradigm, which would become a point of reference for future EU policies for the Middle East. Moreover, thanks also to the Euro-Arab Dialogue, at the beginning of the 1980s the EPC appeared a well rooted mechanism of consultations among the members of the European Community. In spite of its intergovernmental structure, it would be officially institutionalized by the 1986 Single Act, thus strengthening the international dimension of the Community.


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