BERLIN, Dec. 28 (UPI) -- Europe in 2006 has become increasingly engaged in security conflicts in the Middle East, a trend that looks to continue next year in light of ever-sinking U.S. standing in the region because of failure to stabilize Iraq.
Before the Middle East could take hold of London, Paris and Berlin, however, energy security was the topic of the moment in the first weeks of 2006, when a gas price row between Ukraine and Russia sent European politicians into near-hysteria.
When Russian state-controlled energy giant Gazprom temporarily cut off Ukrainian gas supply, Europe's politicians scrambled to find new energy security strategies to diversify their supply sources.
The issue of energy security was slow to die down mainly because Russia placed it at the top of the agenda for its Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, in what observers said was an obvious bid to demonstrate Russia's newly acquired status as an energy superpower.
The summit, however, was soon completely ignorant to energy security questions when during the first meetings, Israel started its bombings of Lebanon, which culminated in the July War.
While Europe wasn't united either in the first days of the conflict, the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the volatile security in Afghanistan and the disaster in Iraq has weakened U.S. standing in the region, causing experts to call for greater European engagement there.
"The Americans desperately need support in the Middle East and it can only be the Europeans," Avi Primor, former Israeli ambassador to Germany, said recently in Berlin.
Murhaf Jouejati, a visiting professor at George Washington University born in Syria, said Europe should act as a "counterweight" to the United States to help stabilize the region.
Those are wishes for the 2007. But the ending year has already featured greater European engagement in the broader Middle East.
Germany, France and the United Kingdom -- the so-called European Union 3 -- for the entire year made tireless diplomatic efforts to convince Iran to halt its controversial nuclear program. Those efforts were fruitless, however, and Iran is set to continue dominating the diplomatic agenda in 2007.
Europe did not only talk, however. This summer, several European countries sent their troops to aid the multinational United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon tasked with keeping peace in the region after the Israeli-Lebanese war. Europe's governments have so far been reluctant, however, to send significantly more troops into Afghanistan, where the fighting escalated this summer and the death toll is rising ever since.
The same is true for Iraq; British Prime Minister Tony Blair has suffered strong popularity setbacks because of his steadfast support of U.S. policies and his unwillingness to bring home the roughly 3,000 British soldiers stationed there.
For any government that has opted to stay out of the conflict, such as France and Germany, sending troops to current-state Iraq would be political suicide, and leaders know that well.
Britain and France have lost political clout in 2006, as both countries are headed by outgoing leaders; French President Jacques Chirac won't be able to be nominated again, and Blair is also taking his hat -- their lame duck standing has boosted the importance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in 2006 scored some foreign policy successes by reviving ties with the United States in a friendly, yet positively critical manner.
Merkel is set to gain even greater importance in Europe and in the ongoing diplomatic struggle to restore peace in the Middle East: On Jan. 1, 2007, Merkel's Germany will take over the EU and the Group of Eight presidencies, and Germany's first female chancellor has announced she wants to revive the Quartet on the Middle East, comprised of the United Nations, the United States, European Union and Russia.
Speaking of females -- Europe in 2006 saw a rise of women power in politics: In France, Segolene Royal became the Socialists' next presidential candidate in the battle to succeed political heavyweight Jacques Chirac; beating conservative rival Nicholas Sarkozy, the country's interior minister, is not an impossible task, observers say.
Both France and Germany have a large Muslim community, and religious coexistence was threatened on two separate occasions that angered Muslims all over the world.
Danish newspaper cartoons satirizing Prophet Mohammed that were later reprinted in several European publications sparked a wave of furor in several Muslim countries, with hundreds of thousands taking the streets in violent protests.
The cartoons also brought a pair of Lebanese students to place two bombs on regional trains in western Germany, but luckily, neither device exploded. A few months later, controversial remarks by Pope Benedict XVI's on Islam angered Muslims, nearly leading to a cancellation of the pontiff's trip to Turkey a few weeks later.
Turkey has been another controversial issue that has unveiled tensions in Europe over the country's planned accession to the European Union. Many Europeans are against accession because they feel the country's 70 million Muslims don't fit into the culture and value framework that is the EU.
Others argue that Turkey could serve as an important link between the West and the Islamic world, bridging the gap that has so greatly widened in 2006.