EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com)
Israel’s annexation plans and Europe’s sanctions problem

The last few days have been busy for European politicians: parliaments in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany have passed resolutions on Israel’s annexation plans for West Bank territory. Over 1,000 members of parliaments from across Europe signed a letter denouncing President Trump’s Israel-Palestine “peace” plan, and calling on European leaders both to reject any form of West Bank annexation and to act to protect international law.

Yet, today, with the door open for annexation under Israel’s coalition agreement — which required that no action on the matter be taken before July 1 — even discussing sanctions is still off the table in Brussels. Instead, the European Union is mulling over an array of weaker options as a possible response of formal annexation, like limiting Israel’s participation in some of EU-Israel bilateral programs and stressing “consequences” for EU-Israel relations.

In Europe, plans to annex West Bank territory are seen largely in the context of Trump’s “Peace for Prosperity plan for the Middle East,” which the EU has criticized for departing from internationally-agreed parameters.

Subsequently, in response to the annexation provision in the coalition agreement of the Netanyahu-Gantz government, EU member states — as well as the Union’s High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell — have been repeatedly cautioning Israel against annexation, based on the argument that it would violate international law. But aside from expressions of concern and vague promises of consequences, Brussels so far has refrained from laying out, even in broad brush strokes, what those consequences might be.

Why is there this reluctance in Brussels to talk about sanctions as a response to annexation? For Americans — and even for some Europeans — the EU’s foreign policy decision-making process likely appears opaque. In reality, that process is better described as cumbersome and inefficient-by-design.

Notably, most meaningful decisions and statements require unanimity among the EU’s 27 foreign ministers — something difficult to achieve on almost any issue, let alone on an issue as fraught and contentious as relations with Israel. Some have blamed this lack of consensus for the EU’s silence when it comes to sanctions as a response to possible annexation of West Bank territory by Israel — and it certainly is a factor. However, understanding the EU’s reluctance to discuss the possibility of sanctions requires diving a bit deeper into Europe’s foreign policy dysfunction.

Another factor is Europe’s longstanding marginal role in the so-called Middle East peace process. The EU’s general preference for a non-confrontational relationship with Israel certainly has to do with Europe’s uneasy history in intervening in matters related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, one of key reasons why the Union secured the role that it did in the Middle East peace process was precisely because of the non-confrontational stance towards Israel. The peace conference in Madrid in 1991 is a case in point: Israel initially refused to let Europe have a seat the table in light of existing tensions over its position on the conflict, changing its mind only after it was assured that Europe’s position had been neutralized.

Another factor relates to the EU’s default avenue for dealing with Israel-Palestine issues: the Quartet. The irony today is that with Israel and the current U.S. administration seemingly on the same page on Israel’s extension of sovereignty over parts of the West Bank (notwithstanding potential quarrels over the specific modalities of the U.S. plan itself or the extent of annexation), the only remaining actor in the Quartet framework other than the EU is Russia.

But Russia — which is playing its own game across the Middle East — does not yet appear motivated enough to assert itself to counter the U.S. plan and Israel’s annexation aspirations. Complicating matters further, the EU has just renewed sanctions against Russia over annexation of Crimea in 2014, rendering low-to-non-existent the chances of substantial EU-Russia cooperation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And finally, with no credible peace process in sight, and convinced that there is little hope of influencing either U.S. or Israeli policies, EU officials still hope that by keeping sanctions — which the EU believes will be the death of diplomatic dialogue — off the table, some new angle or opportunity for productive engagement on the conflict will emerge.

This latter point is key. The EU’s inability to seriously discuss sanctions as one of the possible responses to West Bank annexation has less to do with challenges built into its decision-making processes, than with deep failures in the EU’s pragmatic understanding of sanctions as a key foreign policy instrument.

Judging from recent instances where the EU has applied sanctions (as in the case of Crimea but also Belarus — the last remaining dictatorship in Europe), it is clear that EU decision makers today view sanctions not as a tactic that is credibly expected to compel a change in behaviour by the sanctioned state. Instead, they are seen as a means to express disapproval for and to challenge unacceptable behaviour.

Today, when the multilateral rules-based order is increasingly challenged, Europe’s ability to recognize and embrace sanctions’ complementary purpose in its foreign policy toolbox — that is the use of sanctions as a deterrent to violations of international law, and the imposition of sanctions as a tool to signal to states to roll back violations they have committed — will determine Europe’s role as an international actor. Such recognition, however, requires Europe to move from an outdated, exclusively negative narrative that sees sanctions as a means to impose pain, to a more positive narrative that establishes the role of sanctions as an instrument that is central to Europe’s ability to protect and uphold international law.

Europe’s conflicted view of sanctions is key to explaining why the EU is so afraid of comparing Russia’s annexation of Crimea to Israel’s potential annexation of West Bank territory. Were the EU to fully acknowledge the parallel between the two cases, it would become even more difficult for Brussels to justify its lack of coherence in its responses. Instead, Borrell has said there is a difference between annexing territory belonging to a sovereign state, and annexing occupied territory — other than the fact that both actions violate international law, which is unacceptable.

Brussels’ inconsistent, feeble response to looming annexation by Israel, and its likely inability to muster a coherent, meaningful response if and when annexation occurs, has highlighted the need to depoliticize Europe’s foreign policy. Current discussions on extending qualified majority voting when it comes to human rights-related sanctions have raised hopes for a much-needed impetus to change EU foreign policy that may make it easier for Europe to adopt human rights-related sanctions.

Prospects of this change, even when related to individuals violating human rights, remain rather unlikely. And when it comes to Israel-Palestine, abandoning unanimity does not offer much more room for hope, given that such sanctions would depend on big European states like Germany, whose support cannot be always taken for granted with its deep Israel-related political sensitivities.

Fundamentally, fixing Europe’s awkwardness and inconsistency about sanctions isn’t merely a matter of tweaking the EU’s decision-making process. It requires normalizing and even codifying sanctions as a tool for deterring and remedying violations of international law, ensuring in instances of violations, that EU response is not up for debate. Only by doing so will Europe be able to restore and retain its diplomatic credibility, while securing its relevance as an international security actor.