Diplomatic cacophony in the European Union

Diplomatic cacophony in the European Union

On Saturday, October 7, the Hamas terrorist group launched an attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip. This attack, the deadliest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, generated a wave of solidarity and emotion across the European continent.

The EU must respond quickly by formulating a common official position. But the geopolitics of the Middle East is a thorny subject and dissonances are quickly evident at the heads of institutions, raising questions about the coherence of European foreign policy in the region.

Act I, The Lone Rider

The same evening of the attack, the European Commission chose to display the Israeli flag as a demonstration of its solidarity. Its president Ursula von der Leyen reiterates her support on several occasions, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises to eradicate Hamas.

However, as several member states later criticized it, it did not mention Israel’s obligation to respect international humanitarian law, which implies the need to take precautions to protect civilians and preserve access for humanitarian aid.

A surprising reaction that looks like unconditional support, when the subject of the rights of Israel and Palestine – where Hamas is located – is extremely sensitive within the Union, and the positions of the 27 member states are strongly divided.

Hence the surprise was even greater when Neighborhood Commissioner Oliver Varheyli announced, without prior consultation with the Member States, to “suspend all aid” to Palestine, on Monday October 9, two days after the start of the violence.

Several countries, including Ireland and Luxembourg, great supporters of the Palestinian cause, are outraged in the press and on X.

In fact, the treaties attribute EU foreign policy to the Council, the sum of the 27 member states, and not to the European Commission.

Act II, The snub

The European executive was quick to correct Oliver Varheyli’s announcement via press release. Development aid invested in infrastructure will be reviewed due to doubts about its possible misappropriation by Hamas. But humanitarian aid to Palestine, which covers essential needs (water, food) and of which the Union is the first donor, is preserved.

But the damage is done. In the Middle East, the Israeli siege of Gaza has begun, presaging a major humanitarian catastrophe. Around 2.3 million inhabitants no longer have access to water, food and electricity.

The member states felt compelled to call out the European Commission’s chief.

“She is accused of going beyond his duties by taking initiatives, sometimes unfortunate as in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, in terms of foreign policy,” reports Le Monde.

The official position is defined the next day, interpreted as a snub to Ursula von der Leyen.

“Israel has the right to defend [itself], but it has to be done accordingly with international law, humanitarian law, and some decisions are contrary to international law,” warns the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell on Tuesday (October 10) in reference to the siege of Gaza.

Act III, The recidivist

One might have thought the case was closed. But the president of the European Commission renews her position by going to Israel. A whirlwind trip which is not mandated by the 27, and where she does not use the ministers’ vocabulary, but her own, used a week earlier.

“I know that Israel’s reaction will show that it is a democracy,” she declared on Friday, October 13, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The reaction of the President of the Commission is increasingly criticized, “with one official accusing her of giving a “blank cheque to Israel” and others accusing her of exceeding her powers”, the Irish Times adds.

The member states are speaking again, and this time it will be under the leadership of their European Council’s President Charles Michel. He convenes an extraordinary European summit by videoconference where the heads of state defined a united position. The speech was hammered home ever since.

Act IV, The Embarrassing Catch-Up

Following the meeting of the heads of the 27 member states, Charles Michel underlines that the European position must remain cautious. “This conflict has extensive resonance throughout the world, and it has generated a great deal of fragmentation, division and polarisation among our people and societies,” he said.

“It is for that reason that we also need to cooperate at the European Union level to try to diffuse tensions,” he added, in a dig at the Berlaymont’s landlord.

At the Commission, which Ursula von der Leyen heads, some 850 officials sent a letter of complaint, accusing her of “unconditional support” for Israel. They express their concern about “the seeming indifference demonstrated over the past few days by our institution toward the ongoing massacre of civilians in the Gaza Strip, in disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law”.

The reputation of Europeans in the Middle East, and even beyond their borders, has been impacted by the inconsistency of messages, reports an anonymous senior European official to the Financial Times.

“I mean, let’s be frank. This is a gift from heaven for Russia,” said a senior EU official. “I think it’s damaging what’s happening… because Russia is exploiting the crisis and saying, ‘Look, the global order that has been built after the second world war is not working for you,’ and addressing 1bn inhabitants in the Middle East or in the Arab world.”

Ultimately, “Europe has to hold the line here,” a European minister told the Financial Times, adding. “We were a bit of a mess to begin with but I think we’re better co-ordinated now in terms of defending fundamental rights and making sure we see both sides.”

Act V, The final scene?

Member states’ leaders meeting in Brussels end of October called for the setting up “humanitarian corridors and pauses” to allow aid into the Gaza Strip, after a week of intense division over whether to call for a cease-fire.

But countries such as Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic were relectant to call for any cease-fire or truce in the fighting, as they saw it as a contradiction to Israel’s right to defend itself.

The split among the 27 remains and became obvious to the whole world to see at the UN General Assembly’s vote on a resolution to call for a humanitarian cease-fire, on Friday (17 October).

The split among the 27 remains and became obvious to the whole world to see at the UN General Assembly’s vote on a resolution to call for a humanitarian cease-fire, on Friday (17 October).