29 May 2018

The European Parliament’s resolutionary war

By Mitchell Belfer

With Europe tying itself in knots over the twin problems of Brexit and the cresting wave of populism, EU foreign affairs are undoubtedly playing second fiddle to internal matters at preset.

The danger of such a state of affairs is that important gains made in democratizing foreign policy are squandered. And that the vacuum is filled by an assortment of narrow interests that do not necessarily reflect wider European values or strategic interests.

Concerns over a democratic deficit in foreign policy were heeded in the 2010 Lisbon Treaty, which gave the European Parliament fresh powers in the area and added a co-decision making mechanism intended to make Commission decisions more transparent and accountable.

Unfortunately, the change has not had the desired effect. Far too many European Parliamentarians have assumed foreign affairs positions that run counter to their constituency’s interests, their state’s foreign policy and the other branches of the Brussels bureaucracy. So, the democratisation of foreign policy has not streamlined the process, but rather contributes to confusing it — and the EU is no closer to having an accountable and transparent foreign policy.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with the so-called Rule 135 which authorises “a committee, an inter-parliamentary delegation, a political group or Members reaching at least the low threshold (one-twentieth of Parliaments Component Members) to request the President in writing to hold a debate on an urgent case of a breach of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.” This is an important device in the European Union’s toolbox. For it to work properly, it has to be handled with care.

Sadly, over the course of the 2014-2019 parliamentary mandate, Rule 135 has become deeply politicised and is used in an inconsistent, even arbitrary, manner. Even more troubling is that some MEPs are waging a resolutionary war by abusing the process and proposing resolutions that isolate states from the wider international community.

Since the wider Middle East has been at the centre of strategic thinking of the EU, it is important to also gauge the glaring inconsistency in European policy making when considering the regions’ largest (Iran) and smallest (Bahrain) states.

Whereas Bahrain has entered European parliamentary discourses as a target of criticism, Iran has gradually been rehabilitated. And, despite the handful of European Parliamentarians that consistently targeted Bahrain with Rule 135 resolutions — while never focusing on Iran — nothing has really changed on the ground: Bahrain remains a religiously tolerant and progressive state while Iran remains a closed, theocratic, Islamic Republic.

It is a sad fact that since the beginning of the 2014 mandate not a single resolution has been proposed — let alone passed — against Iran despite the grotesque human rights abuses that have been carried out in the name of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. During the same period, Bahrain had to deal with no less than four Rule 135 resolutions against it — often as part of an agenda that included ritualistic murder of albinos in Malawi, genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar and violence against Christian pastors in Sudan. Bahrain does not belong on such a list. Iran does.

Such an inconsistency is not restricted to the cases of Bahrain and Iran — it is a widespread problem. During the same period the European Parliament sought to exercise Rule 135 only five times against China, once against Venezuela and, shockingly, also only once against North Korea.

The choice to add or omit, praise or criticise, partner with or against a country falls on the shoulders of MEPs, and it is through them that Europe is represented internationally.

It is therefore more than a requirement, but an institutional prerogative, that European Parliamentarians approach foreign policy with good conscience, impartiality and a sense of civic responsibility. Failure to do so risks unravelling Europe’s own international reputation as an honest broker in international relations.

Mitchell Belfer is President of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre (Rome, Italy) and Senior Lecturer at the Metropolitan University Prague.