In recent weeks, Europe has launched diplomatic efforts in an attempt to reinvigorate stalled peace talks in Yemen. A European delegation comprising the ambassadors to Yemen of the European Union, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden recently paid a visit to Aden and Sanaa, where they met with representatives from President Hadi’s internationally recognized government and a number of senior Houthi leaders. The British ambassador also met with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Advisor to the President, and the chair of the committee on follow-up to the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement.
Motivations and methods of European diplomacy
Europe is motivated by economic, security, political, and other humanitarian concerns. It is worried that the conflict in Yemen will continue — a worry that is heightened by the tension in the region between Iran and its opponents, which, if the situation in Yemen explodes, may lead to a devastating war across the entire region. Not only would this threaten oil supplies and international navigation, but it would exacerbate the already challenging humanitarian situation, pushing migrants and refugees to flee towards Europe en masse. European interest is therefore motivated primarily by concerns regarding the impact that the conflict in Yemen may have on the regional crisis, which centers on the tension between Iran and the United States and their respective allies. Europeans interventions are driven mainly by the desire to reduce the potential damage of the ongoing conflict, rather than the desire to necessarily achieve strategic goals. These interventions cannot be separated from the new direction taken in European foreign policy, which requires European actors to play a more active role on the international stage. This is reflected in the fact that Europe has launched a number of initiatives and has intervened in more than one pressing issue in the region, such as the events in Libya. In a move that may also be motivated by this new policy, the European Council on Foreign Relations recommended, in its report published on January 23, 2020, that greater efforts be made to mediate between the two sides.
Europe is acting on the basis of its belief that the war must be brought to an end and that, now more than ever, the time is ripe for a political settlement. Such a settlement must be comprehensive, as new conditions in the country mean that partial solutions or agreements will not be sufficient. Any settlement must be based on the realities on the ground, which may mean that the bounds of the Stockholm agreement will need to be overstepped and, most importantly, that those involved in the conflict may have to reconsider the three references for a political solution, without necessarily overstepping or doing away with them.
Europe claims that its intervention is part of efforts to support the work of the United Nations. No officials, nor any of the European players, have declared the existence of a European initiative, vision, or integrated plan for peace. Nonetheless, there are indications that European intervention is part of an effort to implement a more comprehensive plan in cooperation with regional and international partners. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen himself announced the intention to launch a comprehensive peace plan in 2020. According to the British ambassador (AlHadath Channel, January 28, 2020), the envoy has various ideas and suggestions for a peace plan, on which he appears to have come to an agreement with Europe and the United States. According to reports, diplomatic sources have expressed their confidence that Europe, the United States and the United Nations share a vision on how to proceed, which is awaiting the approval of the Arab coalition. This vision is based on an expansion of the military, security, and humanitarian aspects of the Swedish agreement and on the political aspects of John Kerry’s initiative regarding arrangements for a final solution (Alarab, January 30, 2020). In related news, reports have also discussed the efforts that the Sultanate of Oman is making to bring the various parties in Yemen closer together. It is not known whether this Omani intervention is related to European or UN action (Asharq Al-Awsat, January 22, 2020).
Discussions between Europe and the parties involved in the conflict in Yemen are focused on three areas: discussing and supporting the implementation of the Stockholm and Riyadh agreements and forming a new Yemeni government; resuscitating efforts to achieve a political solution; and promoting peace between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia.
Recent action on Europe’s part is a sign that Yemen is receiving increasing international attention and that there is a growing desire to see an end to the conflict. While such action reflects the new conviction of the international powers that the partial agreements and solutions have failed, as well as their willingness to reconsider and even overstep the current references for a political deal, it is also an indication of greater international intervention in Yemen, meaning that regional players involved in the conflict want, or are at least open to, efforts to reach a peace agreement that would put an end to the war.
Future of European diplomacy
Europe’s advantage lies in its history and in the important diplomatic, political, and cultural role that it continues to play. As German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recently stated, European countries — or rather, most European countries — have reliable channels of communication with all parties involved in the conflicts in the Middle East. Europe has other cards to play too, namely arms sales and economic influence. In an apparent attempt to motivate local actors in the conflict, on January 30, 2020, the European Union pledged to continue its partnership with and firm support for Yemen and the Yemeni people in all areas of cooperation. A few days earlier, the European Commission announced that $382 million of its initial annual humanitarian budget for 2020 had been allocated to Yemen and Syria.
Most importantly, the current European diplomatic movement enjoys the support of the international community. According to reports, the plan that is being drawn up by Europe and the United States can be imposed via the UN Security Council. One possible indication of this is the fact that, at the end of January, the United Kingdom and the European Union presented a draft resolution supporting the ceasefire in Yemen. In its most recent statement (January 30, 2020), the Security Council emphasized the need for all parties to fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian law and to ensure accountability for humanitarian violations in Yemen.
There are, however, limits to what Europe can achieve. Europe has many weaknesses, and there are roadblocks that it must overcome. Europe does not possess a deep understanding of the Yemeni conflict and its complexities, nor of the network of overlapping factors that govern it. The policy of distance-creation and of hiding behind US actions that European States have pursued in recent decades has left them lagging behind and has weakened their presence and influence outside Europe, allowing other powers to dominate. Europe’s role and capabilities are therefore seen as modest, a view that has been strengthened and perpetuated by Europe’s failure to preserve the Iranian nuclear agreement and to mediate between Iran and the United States.
In Yemen, views vary among the parties to the conflict regarding Europe’s efforts to intervene. While it was assumed that the arrival of the European delegation in Sanaa would encourage the Houthi Ansar Allah (Supporters of God) movement to engage with Europe and its aims, it does not appear to have been the case. The Houthis seem to have stood their ground during discussions with the European delegation. According to reports, leaders of the movement have said that the authorities in Sanaa have set out conditions for the resumption of negotiations, namely a comprehensive ceasefire on all fronts, the complete lifting of the blockade, and the urgent adoption of confidence-building measures, most importantly neutralizing the economy, paying public employees’ salaries, reopening Sanaa International Airport, and authorizing commercial and humanitarian ships to enter the port indefinitely. It will undoubtedly be difficult to meet these conditions at this stage.
In comments on the endeavors of the Special Envoy, the internationally recognized Yemeni government refused to resume negotiations on the comprehensive framework for a solution discussed by the Special Envoy, and requested that the Stockholm Agreement be implemented first. In related news, while the European delegation’s visit inspired a sense of prestige and pride among the Houthis, as they viewed it as a political victory, an implicit recognition of their authority, and a break in the political isolation imposed on them, for the same reasons it aggravated President Hadi’s government and inspired anger among its supporters. Although it is not the positions of local actors involved in the conflict that will determine the outcome, but rather the positions and desires of their regional allies, they still present a source of confusion, particularly as they are a drain on time and diplomatic energy.
The most important factor continues to be that Yemen remains the center of a regional tug-of-war and that the conflict is fueled by a dense stratum of political, geostrategic, and even religious rivalries and contests between regional powers, some of whom see Yemen and the events occurring in the country as important to their national security. Seldom have political conflicts in Yemen been so complex and so intertwined with regional and international concerns. The success or failure of Europe’s mission in Yemen will remain largely dependent on the positions and desires of regional parties with an influence over the conflict.
Although all parties to the conflict appeared to agree that the war needs to end and that this would be in all their interests, the challenges of achieving and maintaining a political agreement remain significant. Regional parties may, for example, seek to keep the conflict in Yemen alive so that they can use it to place pressure on their opponents or even to settle other issues that are more important to them. This is the case with Tehran, whose relations with Europe remain strained; statements by Iranian officials nowadays reflect a great lack of confidence in Europe and its regional diplomatic efforts. As for Saudi Arabia, any vision or plan for peace will have to provide sufficient guarantees regarding relations with the Houthis in the post-war period, including mechanisms for disengagement between the Houthis and Iran.
Europe has recently increased its diplomatic activity in Yemen, motivated primarily by the desire to minimize the risks of the conflict. Europe appears to be working with the United Nations and with regional and international parties to develop a comprehensive peace plan. Its work in Yemen reflects a growing international interest in the conflict and the desire to see it brought to an end, and suggests that international pressure on the parties involved in the conflict will increase. European diplomatic efforts face a number of challenges, however, most importantly the complex and overlapping nature of the interests held by the regional powers that have influence over the parties involved in the conflict. Nonetheless, Europe has a valuable opportunity to effect change, as it is supported by the international community and is working in cooperation with the United Nations and with effective regional and international powers.
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