May 27, 2017

Raimon Obiols, Spanish MEP, Socialists and Democrats

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Raimon Obiols comments on the changes across the Arab world, the Spanish transition to democracy, and Palestinian reconciliation efforts beneath the Israeli occupation. 

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Are we moving towards a more unified European foreign policy?

I think the need for a European foreign policy is growing quickly and dramatically. Europe is going through a period of crisis that involves a lot of introspection but the demand for a cohesive foreign policy inside and outside Europe is increasing. Paradoxically, as the European External Action Service (EEAS) is taking steps to expand, Europe's global visibility is getting smaller.

Has the European response to the changes in the Mediterranean region been adequate?

There has been a positive rethinking of the Mediterranean policy. For a long time it run with a "realistic" paradigm that was broken by the processes of change initiated in Tunisia and Egypt, and later expanded to other countries like Libya and Syria. These realities have forced the EU to revise its guidelines – it was an orientation that European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, Stefan Füle, very precisely defined as "strategic pragmatism". The defence of short-viewed "realism" in relations with authoritarian regimes has led to great difficulties and also implies a price to pay regarding public opinion.

Expectations have not been met with the launching of the Union for Mediterranean (UfM) a new instrument which is meant to develop new Mediterranean policies. This institution is now in a kind of deadlock as a result of this excessive European "realism" and a lack of clarity in its relations with the European instruments. There is also a lack of functionality in the structure of the UfM. One of the main problems is that the UfM was presented with over-enthusiastic grandiloquence as a new and unstoppable process in the Mediterranean which in historical terms was equated to the Treaty of Rome and the creation of the European Communities, but in fact the situation was way below what was reasonably expected.

The European Commission has adopted a new approach that the European Parliament has approved. The approach is based more on what is called the "more-for-more" policy. EU agreements with third countries in the southern and eastern Mediterranean are now meant to contribute in developing reforms in democratic national processes. This approach is the one that should have always existed, but now is the time to look forward. I think this is a positive new orientation. Now everything depends on the course of some variables that we cannot control or predict. These variables are mainly the internal developments in each of these countries, but also the role that Europe can and should play in these developments.

Seeing what happened in Libya with the European intervention under the umbrella of NATO, which measures could be taken in Syria that is closer geographically to Europe and has major geo-strategic regional implications? 

Drawing a parallel between the intervention in Libya and a possible intervention in Syria is not very wise. The enormous complexity of the situation in Syria and the region should be noted. In a region that is living seismic changes, probably the only reasonable process today is to denounce the situation of violence and the violation of human rights by the Syrian government and to support UN efforts. The European Union's sanctions have increased, as has support for a unified non-violent opposition in Syria. But the regime is not moving in a vacuum. It has a support base within the country. An armed intervention in Syria would increase the problems with the existing ones, even in humanitarian terms. It is really a difficult and tragic situation against which we must not lower our guard but we must not get carried away.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen arrives in TripoliNATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen arrives in Tripoli, Libya. Source: NATO.

What is your view on the emergence of political Islam in the region?

Categorizations and simplifications lead to mistakes. Islamist movements are not homogeneous. We see different expressions of Islam, even contradictory, and we see developments that I consider to be positive. Take for example the separation of Hamas from the Syrian regime. Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, made a statement in Cairo placing his movement next to the opposition against the Syrian regime. Hamas is no longer a force that is instrumental or monopolized by Syria and Iran in international relations. This marks an evolution from the Palestinian movement.

There are other examples which rely more on empirical events rather than on assumptions. Hamas' leader was the first leader of the Arab world to visit Tunisia after the elections. This confirms a landscape that is deeply changing. In this context, the decisive evolution is what will happen in Egypt in the forthcoming months. If Egypt is able to stabilize the process of democratic development through broad agreements that give more tranquillity and security to the country and that allow for the coexistence between centres of power that are set in a landscape of enormous complexity, then Egypt may begin to play an important regional role again.

Are we seeing the emergence of national coalition governments?

The Egyptians asked me about the democratic transition in Spain and I replied that they are in a completely different context, but there are certain parallels between the two processes. The end of the Franco era and the establishment of a parliamentary democratic system in Spain was a pact not between strengths but between weaknesses. The Spanish transition was a transition that was eventually agreed upon because neither the democratic opposition that fought against Franco's dictatorship was strong enough to establish its programme, nor were those who resisted through a controlled gradual reform process in power strong enough to develop their project. What happened was a compromise and hybridization process between one project and the other.

In Egypt, it would be possible and desirable to see such hybridization because everyone has weaknesses; and weakness may lead to agreements. The Muslim Brotherhood for example has political, electoral and social forces, but they are not strong enough to break the power of the armed forces. The military feared that after the defeat of Mubarak that would also happen to them but they were not strong enough to oppose the democratic will that was expressed freely. This may involve a balance of strengths and weaknesses – putting more emphasis on the weaknesses than in the strengths - and thus the possibility of a scenario of consensual democratic transition. But even the contrary - a very negative clash - is possible.

What position should Europe take regarding the Palestinian national reconciliation?

Europe must speak and collaborate with the coalition government that emerges from Palestinian reconciliation – if that develops and consolidates (which is not a certainty), but could emerge with the respect of the results of eventual elections.

What concrete steps could Europe take for such reconciliation?

The situation of "status quo plus settlements" is blocking everything. This is not a static but a deteriorating situation. Changing this situation does not depend entirely on a European initiative – Europe simply does not have the power weight and the unity itself to develop a minimally significant initiative. Everyone agrees that the Quartet is obsolete, Oslo is over, and the Road Map must be re-defined. Everyone agrees that there is an enormous paradox between this blocked situation and the changes occurring in the region. In Israeli politics, no one talks about a possible re-launch of peace negotiations. What remains of the Israeli left is almost 100% focused on domestic social issues. What was called the peace camp has been restricted and the general public opinion has been moving to the right. It is a very worrying situation.

20111212143043990621 20Israel increased Jewish settlements after Palestinians gained UNESCO membership. Source: Reuters.

The Israel centres of power and intelligence believe that the Arab protests will weaken or subsume the Palestinian cause in the wider landscape of changes, struggles and conflicts in the region and that this may give Israel a period of breathing space to pursue the status quo policy and to increase settlements. The repeated statements by members of the Israeli government about the possibility of pre-emptive attacks on Iran clearly imply a strategy of postponement of negotiations with the Palestinians.

What is your position towards the Israeli intention to destroy a solar/photovoltaic plant built by Spain in Area C of the West Bank?

We pressured Israel not to destroy it. I was recently in the West Bank and saw Bedouin schools that Israel wants to destroy. In a valley with several villages and schools built with Italian solidarity, you can see on the hilltops around them growing Jewish settlements. What we must do is to be present on the ground, explain what is happening, and to diplomatically and politically oppose this Israeli expansionist policy.