Here's an EU peace plan for the Middle East - Not new, but four centuries old

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

The EU’s foreign policies are at best a work in progress, and at worst a joke. Getting so many member governments to agree to common positions on highly sensitive international issues has rightly been described as akin to herding cats.

That may serve as an excuse, but it’s not a justification. The EU must work far harder on developing its external relations, and its member states must recognise that their own vital self-interest is to act collectively to head off trouble rather than wait and react.

The sorry aftermath of the Arab Spring of 2011 is testimony to this. Although not directly responsible for the popular uprisings that swept autocrats from power in a number of countries, the EU now rues its failure to harness them to help create a peaceful new order in the Middle East.

The Arab world’s volatility remains a danger to itself and to its European neighbours

It is debatable whether the turmoil of post-Gaddafi Libya or Syria’s horrendous and protracted conflict could have been avoided. What is beyond argument, though, is that the EU has so far accomplished little to stabilise the situation. The Arab world’s volatility remains a danger to itself and to its European neighbours.
Now an Anglo-German project is putting forward an idea that diplomats in the European External Action Service would do well to ponder. Somewhat counter-intuitively, they have delved back four centuries into 17th century Europe to propose an imaginative history-based approach to peace-making between Arab protagonists.
The suggestion in a new book by Cambridge University specialists working with German diplomats is that key aspects of the negotiating process that led to the Treaty of Westphalia could be adapted to shape a new peace-keeping drive in the Middle East. They believe that the multilateral and flexible approach that brought an end to the Thirty Years War could guide similar efforts today.
The religious differences between Catholics and Protestants that triggered three extraordinarily bloody decades of war in central Europe bear some resemblance to those that now divide rival Islamic sects. So too does the malign role of warlords and militias and the speed with which local conflicts turned into proxy wars in a geopolitical power struggle between major players. Around a third of the population of what is now Germany lost their lives.
The ensuing treaty of 1648 is not in itself a model, but a guideline. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president of Germany and previously its foreign minister, has been very supportive of the Cambridge initiative and has neatly summed up its relevance: “The Peace of Westphalia is not a blueprint for peace in the Middle East. But if we look closely enough we will see that it does offer a number of instruments, methods and idea. It is up to us to extract them, refine them and make use of them in our diplomacy.”

The Westphalia settlement was based on reforms within 17th century Europe that the EU could usefully champion for the Middle East of today

With the EU on the threshold of next year’s European elections and a fresh five-year mandate for a new leadership, now is clearly the moment for a far more active foreign policy mode. The Westphalia settlement was based on reforms within 17th century Europe that the EU could usefully champion for the Middle East of today.
Religious issues that had long been hotly disputed were in large part shifted across to civil judiciaries. The autocratic powers of feudal rulers were reined in, and the common people’s freedom to challenge despotic government through courts of law was increased. If similar reforms were to be accepted throughout the Middle East, runs the argument, new limitations on the sovereign powers of states would help to protect religious minorities and lead to greater stability.
No one can say whether initiating a Westphalia-style settlement is feasible, or whether even if begun it would yield peace in the Middle East, most notably in Syria and Yemen. What is clear is that Europe must stop playing at international relations from the back foot. In tennis terms, it’s time the EU moved from the baseline to the net and began to volley.

Related activities

view all
view all
view all
Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo