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What role should EU have in resolving Syria crisis?

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Marisa Matias, the chair of the delegation of the European Parliament for relations with the Mashreq countries, speaks about the EU’s role in the Syrian conflict, while tackling the refugee crisis and ways the EU is helping host countries, like Jordan and Lebanon, deal with the massive influx of displaced Syrians.
Portugal's presidential candidate Marisa Matias visits the National Conservatory of Music in Lisbon, Portugal January 13, 2016. Portugal will elect their next president on January 24.   REUTERS/Rafael Marchante - RTX229W6

Marisa Matias, a member of the European Parliament, has stressed that Europe’s goal in Syria should be to preserve the unity of that country.

Matias, who is based in Brussels, is the chair of the European Parliament's delegation for relations with the Mashreq countries (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria). In an email interview with Al-Monitor, Matias referred to a widespread misunderstanding within the EU that the Syrian conflict is of an ethnic and religious nature. She warned that such a view risks undermining the goal of a “united Syria.”

Matias said that a Syrian-led political process involving all “counterparts” was the only way to bring about a stable post-war period in Syria, and she called for the European Parliament to play its part in achieving this end. She also said that Europe should not issue judgments or evaluations on Middle Eastern countries like Syria. She voiced her support for a stronger EU role in promoting direct talks between the various parties to the Syrian conflict, saying that the EU still only plays a minor role in the Middle East as a whole.

Matias further expressed her firm belief that the EU needs to do much more when it comes to easing the burden of refugees who have fled to countries that neighbor Syria, like Lebanon and Jordan.

The text of the interview follows.

Al-Monitor:  Are there any major initiatives or steps we can expect soon from the European Parliament related to the conflict in Syria. And if yes, what exactly are they?

Matias:  The European Parliament has very limited powers [in terms of] foreign policy. It mostly works [in the political sphere] to reach a political solution for the conflict. Only a Syrian-led political process, where all counterparts are at the same level, could bring a stable post-war period to Syria. And the European Parliament should raise this voice on all the possible resolutions or [tools at its disposal].

Al-Monitor:  How do you evaluate the policy of the EU toward the Syrian crisis since it erupted in 2011?

Matias:  I think mainly the EU focused on the humanitarian aid in the conflict, while using political leverage toward a political solution. But I am afraid [that] the EU is only playing a minor role as a distant mediator in the Middle East in general. The EU should engage more to promote direct talks among the different parties in the conflict. Additionally, the EU has a very widespread misunderstanding whereby it considers the Syrian conflict as having an ethnic and religious origin. Our goal should be preserving the unity of Syria in all its entity, and we would only undermine this if we consider it possible to envisage a division of the country based on ethnicities or religious groupings.

Al-Monitor:  What is your view regarding the reason behind the turmoil in Syria? Do you believe the Syrian official line that the Syrian government is fighting terrorism, or do you stand by the view that President Bashar al-Assad is waging war on his own people?

Matias:  My role as chair of the delegation for relations with the Mashreq countries is based on my deep belief that we should never judge our partners. No lessons should be given, as well as no evaluation. The only thing that counts is that all counterparts must be involved in the process, in order to reach a sustainable political solution.

Al-Monitor:  Is there any communication between the EU and the Assad government, or does the EU intend to do so in the near future?

Matias:  Since the [Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union] conclusions on Syria on May 2011, ‘The EU has decided to suspend all preparations in relation to new bilateral cooperation programs and to suspend the ongoing bilateral programs with the Syrian authorities under ENPI [Euro-Mediterranean Information System] and MEDA [Mediterranean Cooperation Fund] instruments.’ The latest EU position is stated in the Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions of May 23, 2016. No changes appear in the strategy adopted toward Syria in this sense.

Al-Monitor:  Do you support an EU "closed-door" policy for refugees who are fleeing the conflict zones in the region, or do you think that Europe should take some of the burden from countries, like Lebanon and Jordan, who are suffering from a huge influx of refugees, and take in some of the refugees who are in these countries?

Matias:  As I had the opportunity to say on several occasions, my personal position on the refugee crisis is very critical toward the EU policy. The EU should not let the burden of the refugees’ influx on the neighboring countries increase and should do more — much more — on this. It is public that I personally voted against the EU-Turkey deal [which stipulates that migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey are now expected to be sent back to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum or their claim is rejected], while I am extremely worried about what is prepared with Libya.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think that the EU has provided sufficient financial support to Lebanon and Jordan in order to deal with the refugee influx?

Matias:  Referring to my previous answer, I think the EU should step up its role, also on the financial side. I personally find questionable the recent financial package agreed to with Jordan [in December 2016 which amounts to a maximum of 200 million euros ($216 million)], both for the limited amount of money provided, but also related to the conditionality clause that has been applied.

Al-Monitor:  Is the EU providing any form of political assistance to help Lebanon in particular deal with the refugee situation?

Matias:  The renewed political agreement between Lebanon and the EU was adopted less than a year ago. The new partnership priorities set for the upcoming four years aim at improving the living conditions both of refugees temporarily staying in Lebanon and of vulnerable host communities.

In addition to the partnership priorities, a compact has been agreed to as well [on Nov. 15, 2016], providing an EU allocation of a minimum of 400 million euros [$432 million] in 2016-2017, in addition to the bilateral assistance of more than 80 million euros [$86 million] for those two years. Through this, the EU and Lebanon committed in a mutual way to improve the situation of refugees in the country but also in helping Lebanon as a whole and its local communities.

Al-Monitor:  Are there any new initiatives we can expect from the European Parliament regarding the assistance provided to Lebanon and Jordan in order to tackle the refugee influx?

Matias:  Lebanon is the country hosting the highest number of displaced persons and refugees, both per capita and per square kilometer. Jordan as well is hosting a total amount of Syrian refugees equal to at least 10% of its own population, on top of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. As in the case of Lebanon, the EU has agreed to a set of partnership priorities and a compact with Jordan. In addition to that, an agreement was reached in July 2016 on simplifying rules of origin requirements to Jordanian exports to the EU, provided job opportunities are offered to Syrian refugees, alongside Jordanians. Jordan committed as well to providing access to education to over 165,000 Syrian children and increasing opportunities for Syrian youth to receive vocational training.

Al-Monitor:  How do you evaluate the current situation in Egypt and the policies of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi? Do you believe that Sisi must carry out certain reforms, particularly when it comes to human rights? And do you think his policies contribute positively to stability in Egypt?

Matias:  As expressed in the report following the last official visit in Egypt [the visit by the European parliamentary delegation headed by Matias between Oct. 30 and Nov. 3, 2016], concerns are expressed [by members of that delegation] over the shrinking of the political and public space in Egypt. It is without saying that a strong civil society is the backbone of a pluralistic and democratic system, where human rights and fundamental freedoms need to be carefully protected.

Al-Monitor:  What kind of projects, if any, are being discussed regarding EU support for Egypt, especially given its dire economic situation?

Matias:  In December [2016], the EU and Egypt signed two EU assistance programs aimed at strengthening social safety nets and fostering inclusiveness and sustainable economic development in the country. In particular, the new EU Facility for Inclusive Growth and Job Creation is meant to be a mechanism of support by the EU to Egypt in its process of reforms imposed by the IMF [International Monetary Fund]. This is supposed to improve the environment or business creation and economic development, as well as to facilitate access to finance for SMEs [small- and medium-sized enterprises], which play a key role in the Egyptian economy.

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