At least three fault lines in the EU have become apparent since the Palestinian Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, which killed more than 1,400 people. The first fault line is at the top of the Union. The long-tense relationship between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on the one hand and Council President Charles Michel and Foreign Affairs Representative Josep Borrell on the other now appears to have broken beyond repair.
The consequences of the contradictions do not relate to the current conflict, but rather it is a fundamental problem that has never really been solved since the founding of the EU. It is the question of foreign policy competence within the EU and who can and can speak for the committees. But there are also fundamental political views within the Commission and Council. Von der Leyen has clearly supported Israel on behalf of the entire EU and emphasized the invaded country’s right to self-defense. Michel and Borrell, on the other hand, urge Israel to adhere to international humanitarian law and not to hit the Palestinian civilian population in counter-strikes in Gaza.
And then there are the EU member states: Disagreement in finding a common EU position on foreign policy issues has characterized Brussels for decades. This has been the case for decades, but it is always switched to “remote mode” when there is no geopolitical crisis to be mastered. In the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a contrast was only partially perceived, especially in the case of member Ukraine.
Things are different now with regard to the newly flared conflict in the Middle East. This divides Europeans like no other, and has done so for decades. Countries such as Spain, Ireland and the Nordic have significantly more sympathy for the Palestinians than Germany, the Netherlands or Austria. With the escalation of violence in the Middle East, this contradiction between the pro-Palestinian and the pro-Israel camps in Europe has fully broken down again.
The final contrast is between individual member states and the top EU staff in Brussels. Von der Leyen was sharply criticized in some European capitals for her arbitrary declaration of solidarity with Israel. Some diplomats even said the Commission president had thereby damaged her chances of a second term. Representatives of other governments, on the other hand, hardly leave Michel and Borrell in good stead. The foreign representative is spreading positions that do not correspond to the consensus of the 27 EU countries, diplomats say. The fact that Borrell invited not only his Israeli colleague but also his Palestinian colleague to the first video conference of EU foreign ministers after the Hamas attack two weeks ago so that he could explain his view of the situation caused incredulous shaking of the head in Brussels.
An example of Brussels’ incompetence can currently be seen in the EU’s efforts to influence the parties to the conflict. Borrell told a ministerial meeting that he supported a “humanitarian pause.” This demand was not without controversy because it meant a de facto ceasefire – without using that term – so that the civilian population in Gaza could be supplied with humanitarian aid from Egypt. In practice, this would require Israel to suspend its military actions against Hamas.
At the same time, a draft for the final declaration of the last EU summit was circulating in Brussels. The EU joins the call for a “humanitarian pause,” the document said. However, there was no explicit reference to Israel’s right to self-defense. The draft came from the office of Michel, who, unlike von der Leyen, has not personally spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the Hamas terrorist attack on October 7th. To become the EU’s official policy line, the formulation had to be approved by all 27 heads of state and government at the summit.
The call for a ceasefire, which is also made by the United Nations and Arab states, is supported by some EU countries, including Spain, Ireland and France. Irish Foreign Minister Micheál Martin said: “The suffering of innocent civilians, particularly children, has reached a level that requires an immediate cessation” of fighting.
However, other EU states, including Germany and Austria, are against calling for a ceasefire – at least at this point, while Hamas is still firing rockets at Israel, holding abducted civilians hostage and the Israeli military has only just begun its counteroffensive has. We have to be “careful about what we demand,” said Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg at the meeting of foreign ministers. First of all, Israel has the right to defend itself. In addition, Hamas must immediately and unconditionally release all hostages. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also made it clear that it could not be about a ceasefire at the moment, but that the “fight against terrorism was essential”. “There will only be peace and security for Israel and the Palestinians if terrorism is combated,” she said. At the same time, the Palestinian civilian population must be given humanitarian help. Doing both is “squaring the circle,” says Baerbock. But Europe has to create this now.
Borrell said after the meeting that there was a “consensus” among the 27 ministers that a humanitarian ceasefire was necessary. However, according to diplomats, this was not a correct representation of the opinion among the EU governments, but – typical of Borrell – his somewhat free interpretation of the situation. There has been a debate on the question of a ceasefire, said a diplomat, but at the moment a number of countries are still against the EU demanding one.
In this respect, it is unclear whether all EU countries can agree in the long term to demand a military pause from Israel. Many government officials and diplomats are rather skeptical. It is said that it may simply be too early for that.
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