Normative Power Approach, Planetary Politics, the European Union and the Middle East ‘conflict’


by Professor Michelle Pace, Roskilde University

In April 2023, in a pre-recorded congratulatory message on Israel’s 75th year of independence celebrations, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that: “Today, we celebrate 75 years of vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East. Seventy-five years of dynamism, ingenuity, and groundbreaking innovations. You have literally made the desert bloom, as I could see during my visit to the Negev last year”. This message drew harsh criticism from Palestine and from across the world for its blatant insult to the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and in the diaspora, a context which Amnesty International (2022), Human Rights Watch (2021) and B’tselem (2022) describe as apartheid. What von der Leyen ignored to mention is the desertification in the Negev which, as eloquently put by Kareem Rabie (2016), “results from an agglomeration of practices and interventions. …The blooming desert has been … grossly mismanaged politically, in terms of rights, and ecologically”, a subject that is further elaborated on by Eyal Weizman and Fazal Sheikh in The Conflict Shoreline: Colonization As Climate Change In The Negev Desert (2015).

In 1967, Israel occupied the whole of Palestine, seized control of all water resources and retains to this day exclusive control over all these resources in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). In Gaza, the water that is supplied is substandard and not potable. Israel weaponizes the water as it deems fit, ignoring the needs of Palestinians in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip (B’tselem). The insecurity and unreliability of water resources in the oPt are thus constantly challenged by concerns over inadequate availability, insufficient access to clean water, and the consequences of diminished and unsafe water supplies (not least to health and food security). Thus, Israeli colonization – coupled with the Middle East (ME) region’s predominant warm desert climate, as well as limited surface water and groundwater supplies – amplifies the challenge of meeting local drinking water needs, food production, and industrial consumptive use.

From the part of Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the Middle East and its severe climate (in)security received barely a mention in his broad conceptualization of security in the 21st century. In the meantime, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2023, underscores that water scarcity, rising temperatures and electricity interruptions contribute to this region’s instability. But the EU’s policies towards the Middle East – from their origins – embrace a paradigm that is far removed from the realities on the ground and is unfit for the 21st century ticking bomb of climate change.

This is the subject of my contribution to this year’s JCMS twentieth anniversary symposium on the Normative Power Approach (NPA) to the study of the European Union in global politics. Building on Ian Manners’ intervention article on the Arrival of Normative Power in Planetary Politics my own sheds light on how the constructed nature of the EU’s Normative Power in the Middle East conflict and the latter’s social and political fragility become amplified by the ‘force multiplier’ of climate mitigation. In the specific context of the Middle East ‘conflict’, the EU’s preferred 1967 paradigm does not address the inalienable rights of all Palestinians, including 1948 Palestinians and the Palestinian diaspora, whose right to have rights are part and parcel of the question of Palestine. It also fails to address the fact that Israeli colonization and expansion of settlements on Palestinian land makes the climate emergency not only a Palestinian challenge but equally so an Israeli one.

In 2018, Gaza sewage led to the closure of Israeli beaches and shutdown of the desalination plant in Ashkelon, which supplies Israel with 15% of its drinking water. As well-documented by Al-Haq, Israeli practices of displacement and dispossession of the occupied Palestinian population can be demonstrated by its practice of systematically targeting the resources necessary to maintain Palestinians’ livelihood: Exploitation of, and control over, water and land resources has been central to build  and develop Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise. According to a Time magazine 2023 report on the looming climate disaster and the Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’, average temperatures in Israel and the surrounding areas, have risen by 1.5°C between 1950 and 2017, with a forecasted increase of 4°C by the end of the century. (In comparison, worldwide temperatures have increased by an average of 1.1°C since pre-industrial times). In this climate emergency context, Israel and Palestine are not only inter-dependent but, crucially, co-dependent. In other words, what Israel’s colonization does to suppress occupied Palestinian populations will come back to haunt its own citizens.

My article draws attention to the urgent need of thinking on the co-constitution of all life on earth, particularly in a climate-conflict scenario such as that of Israel and Palestine. Such enduring ‘conflicts’ represent a microcosmic image of the planet as a whole. Building on Manners’ mode of simultaneous awareness as well as on debates within environmental security, I elaborate on the argument that climate change leads to an intensification of conflict. This in turn shifts our analytical gaze to the Israeli state’s colonial context, its occupation of Palestine and current/ongoing Israeli settler colonial practices. As a result of what is known as ‘slow violence’, the impact this has on current and future environmental destruction is presented.

Through this NPA, my contribution highlights the importance of emphasizing the protection of rights and human security of Palestinians and Israelis equally over the false EU prescription of maintaining the (failed) ‘peace process’. Instead of waiting for the ‘right political environment’, by which time the climate emergency becomes unbearable, the article conceives of non-adversarial relations by exploring the possibility of the subjective sharing of relations through a de-silencing of non-mainstream voices on the ME ‘conflict’ in order to realize what such ‘deep relations’ will entail.

As a case in point, it draws upon the extensive work of EcoPeace Middle East, an NGO composed of Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists taking action in concert and thus moving beyond the cycle of violence, wars and hatred through dialogic, democratic and inclusive action. As Julie Trottier puts it: ‘The essence of the EcoPeace Proposal is to recognise water as a flow and then to use continuous monitoring and ongoing mediation as the main management tools to achieve equity, efficiency and sustainability. She continues to argue that: ‘As mutually interdependent riparian states, Israel, Jordan and Palestine must have the right to access and use water from shared supplies. They must also accept the parallel responsibility to maintain the quality and quantity of flow in all shared natural water sources, within the limits set (and sometimes changed) by natural conditions’ (Brooks et al. 2020). The example of EcoPeace highlights what the EU could actually do to overcome obstacles towards broader societal change in the Israeli–Palestinian climate-conflict scenario, namely, that planetary politics require a continuous negotiation of relationships within Israeli–Palestinian living spaces in order to survive and thrive together. This example speaks to Manners’ subjective sharing of relations and corresponds to his development of explanatory theory which in turn brings together the principles of ‘mutual respect and recognition of the other’.

Along with the other contributions in this symposium, this piece invokes planetary politics as the space where we need – out of necessity – to think differently on how to advance climate security in the Middle East through cooperative initiatives. Otherwise, others will be writing the script for us.

This blog is part of a series considering the normative power approach to the European Union and applying this more widely to planetary politics. The introduction to this series can be found here.

Michelle Pace is Professor in Global Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark. A political scientist by training, her research focuses on the intersection between European Studies, Middle East Studies, Critical Migration Studies, Democratization Studies and Conflict Studies. She is the Danish Lead partner of the Horizon Europe project SHAPEDEM-EU which investigates the EU’s practices within its neighbourhoods to seek out their impact on the effectiveness of its democracy support. She is also the Denmark representative on the Management Committee of a COST ACTION network on migration and religious diversity, with a focus on tolerance in today’s societies. She has been/is the Principal and/or Co-Investigator on a number of large project grants funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, and the Wellcome Trust in the UK, and in Denmark on projects funded by the EU’s H2020 as well as the Erasmus+ Programme, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Carlsberg Foundation. She is currently writing a monograph on Denmark’s strict immigration policies, which is funded by a Carlsberg Foundation Monograph Fellowship. Pace’s work can be followed on Linkedin.