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EU's vaunted unity is disintegrating over Gaza crisis

EU's vaunted unity is disintegrating over Gaza crisis

Hamas's attack and Israel's response have pitted member states and institutions against each other, and it's spilling over in public.

Analysis | Europe

Back in 2019, when the current European Commission assumed its term, its president, German conservative Ursula von der Leyen, proclaimed the ambition to build a “geopolitical Commission,” or to bolster the EU’s ability to act collectively in shaping the international order on a par with such players as the United States and China.

The crisis in Gaza, sparked by the horrific atrocities perpetrated by the terrorist organization Hamas, and concerns about the extent to which the Israeli response would conform to international law, has shattered that ambition, giving way to cacophony and an image of deep divisions within the EU.

That, perhaps, was inevitable given how divisive the Israel-Palestine issue is in the EU — unlike the Russian war in Ukraine that elicited a remarkably unified response from the bloc. The divisions run through the EU’s 27 member states reflecting their different historical experiences and public opinion sensitivities, with Ireland and Spain seen as traditionally most sympathetic towards the Palestinian cause, while Germany, Austria and eastern European states, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, leaning towards Israel.

There are also divisions between the EU institutions themselves, such as Von der Leyen’s Commission, the European Council chaired by the former Belgian prime minister Charles Michel and the European External Action Service, the EU’s fledgling diplomatic service led by the veteran Spanish politician Josep Borrell.

To make matters even more complicated, the Gaza crisis revealed divisions within the Commission itself. And the political color of EU member state governments matters too. For example, Sweden, ruled for a better part of the last century by social-democrats, was traditionally seen as supportive of the Palestinian cause, but flipped to a more “pro-Israeli” side under the current right-wing government (which enjoys parliamentary support from a party with neo-Nazi roots).

These structural weaknesses were compounded by some ill-judged moves from influential EU quarters. Fresh from the shock of Hamas’s attack, Hungarian Oliver Varhelyi the EU commissioner responsible for close regional relations — which includes Israel and Palestinian autonomy — announced a freeze in EU development funding for Palestine worth 300 million euros annually.

Varhelyi, an ally of the country’s prime minister Victor Orban, who in turn, enjoys close relations with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, apparently acted without a consent of other EU bodies, or even the Commission itself.

However, he may have been forgiven for acting on an assumption that his boss, Commission President Von der Leyen, would back such a move. In her immediate reaction to the terrorist attack on Israel, she declared her unqualified support for Israel’s right to self-defense “today and in the days to come.” Many in the EU interpreted the absence of any reference to international law as going beyond the indispensable expression of sympathy to Israel, essentially amounting to giving a blank check for any sort of retaliation.

Von der Leyen promptly visited Israel in a show of support. A number of EU member states — Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Slovenia, and Denmark — resented what they saw as Von der Leyen’s usurpation of the EU foreign policy prerogatives which are reserved for the Council. In a highly unusual move, the EU foreign policy chief Borrell rebuked her as not speaking on behalf of the EU. Varhelyi’s attempt to freeze aid to Palestinians was shut down, with the EU instead committing to a review to ensure that the aid does not inadvertently fund terrorism.

In a move resembling the activation of the “dissent channel” in the U.S. State Department, 842 EU civil servants issued an open letter in which they strongly criticized Von der Leyen’s perceived pro-Israeli tilt. The officials, having condemned in the strongest terms the Hamas terrorism, stated that they “hardly recognize the values of the EU in the seeming indifference demonstrated over the past few days by our Institution (Commission) toward the ongoing massacre of civilians in the Gaza strip.”

They also deplored what they called “the patent show of double standards which considers the blockade of water and fuel operated by Russia on the Ukrainian people as an act of terror whilst the identical act by Israel against the Gazan people is completely ignored.”

Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian Institute for Foreign Affairs and one of Europe’s foremost foreign policy thinkers, took Von der Leyen to task for failing to see how the failure to mention the imperative that Israel respects international humanitarian law “seriously undermines European credibility, starting with our support for Ukraine.”

With this backdrop, Borrell moved towards proposing a humanitarian pause to facilitate aid to Palestinians trapped in Gaza. However, even that proposal does not enjoy the unanimous support among EU member states — while some heavyweights like France favor it, others, like Germany, reportedly do not.

It certainly doesn’t help that even those EU leaders who try to perform a balancing act between support for Israel’s right to defend itself and Palestinian aspirations to statehood, like the French president Emmanuel Macron, carelessly throw out ideas that could only lead to a broader regional conflagration they profess to want to avoid. During the visit to Israel on October 24, Macron suggested that the international coalition against ISIS could rally against Hamas too.

The inconvenient truth is that Iran and its partners — the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria — were also a de-facto part of that coalition. It is a well-known fact that in Iraq, the U.S. and pro-Iranian forces coordinated their actions against ISIS. If, however, the anti-ISIS template is applied in the war against Hamas, it would have Iran and its formidable network of regional allies and proxies on the other side of the equation. That would make Western assets in the region vulnerable to their attacks.

Indeed, since the start of the Gaza war there has already been an uptick in attacks against U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq. The Russian factor should also be taken into account given the current enmity between the U.S. and EU on the one hand, and Russia on the other, and Russia’s increasing reliance on Iran in Ukraine, a broader war in the Middle East could also draw in Russia against the U.S. and EU.

The lack of a unified, coherent, and realistic response by the EU to the war in Gaza has clearly exposed a glaring gap between its leaders’ geopolitical rhetoric and their capabilities to shape outcomes on the ground.

Israel, Kibbutz Reim, 2023-10-14. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen visit to Israel Kibbutz Reim. Here is the President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola and President of Israel Isaac Herzog. Photograph by Bea Bar Kallos. Israel, Kibbutz Reim, 2023-10-14. Via Reuters

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