Friday

23rd Feb 2024

Opinion

EU's Mideast policy flip-flops means summit risks irrelevance

  • Many in Europe — including MEPs, civil society organisations, academics as well as Jewish and Palestinian human rights advocates — are troubled by the commission chief's one-sided actions and statements (Photo: ec.europa.eu)
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EU leaders meeting online on Tuesday for an emergency summit on the Israel-Palestine crisis must move fast to stop the bloc's slide into geopolitical irrelevance.

They must also send an urgent message of unity and healing to their Jewish and Muslim citizens. The risks of non-action are real and significant.

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Repeated policy flip flops and competing messaging by top EU officials over the last 10 days have already dealt a huge, possibly fatal, blow to the bloc's foreign policy credentials.

To their credit, EU foreign ministers have consistently condemned the devastating terror attack on Israel by Hamas but also "called for the protection of civilians and restraint, the release of hostages, for allowing access to food, water and medicines to Gaza in line with international humanitarian law."

But global headlines have been dominated by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen's very visible, vocal and unconditional support for Israeli actions — in the name of the EU.

To critics in the Global South, the commission chief has demonstrated Europe's hypocrisy and double standards.

Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, has warned European institutions to show they value the protection of Palestinian children, women and men as much as they care for the wellbeing of Ukrainians.

There is also dissent and unease at home.

Many in Europe — including European parliamentarians, civil society organisations, academics as well as Jewish and Palestinian human rights advocates — are troubled by the commission chief's one-sided actions and statements.

Such concerns cannot be waved away by slick PR videos and glib statements.

In the difficult days ahead, leaders must be careful not to exacerbate potentially volatile domestic divisions, including a feared rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Their focus should be on uniting rather than dividing their citizens and acting fast.

The current mess could have been avoided.

Member states splits

True, EU divisions over policy towards the Middle East are deeply embedded in member states individual history, geography and geopolitical views.

During the last UN vote on the Arab-Israeli conflict — on involving the International Court of Justice, held in December last year — Austria, the Czechs, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, and Romania voted No, in line with Israel.

Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Portugal, and Slovenia voted Yes, while the other 12 EU countries abstained.

Yet despite the divergences, wise leadership once ensured that the EU was viewed as an important, credible and trusted actor in the Middle East.

Europeans were in the vanguard at many key moments. In 1980, the then nine EU states issued the ground-breaking Venice Declaration leading to recognition of the PLO.

The EU also played a significant role from the 1994 Oslo Accord to the end of the second intifada in 2005.

Europe's traditional stand on the Israel-Palestine conflict was even-handed and responsible, centring on achieving a two-state solution.

Those days need not remain a distant memory. The EU can and — in these geopolitically charged times — must act in a wiser and more responsible fashion.

If they are truly serious about preserving EU ambitions to be a geopolitical actor which respects international law and the multilateral "rules-based order", EU leaders will have to denounce and condemn Hamas, demand the immediate release of all hostages, but also urgently correct the impression that they are ready to accept collective punishment of all Palestinians.

The message must be both public and part of any ongoing private contacts between EU governments and Israel. Difficult as it may seem, leaders must also use the summit to call for de-escalation and reiterate Europe's backing for a lasting and sustainable peace based on the two-state solution.

This must go hand in hand with diplomatic action to prevent any regional escalation of the conflict.

As conditions in Gaza deteriorate, urgent humanitarian aid must continue.

The commission's move to increase its humanitarian funding to Gaza from €25m to €75m is a good first step. However, more funds — both humanitarian and development aid — will be needed in the coming days and weeks.

Through their more balanced statements, several EU politicians including Ireland's Leo Varadkar, Spain's Pedro Sánchez and Netherland's caretaker prime minister may have managed to make up for the commission chief's words and actions.

Remarkably also, even as their boss remained silent on the issue, EU commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarčič and the bloc's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell have told Israel that "civilians must be protected", "critical infrastructure must not be targeted" and that Israel must not break international law by imposing a total blockade of Gaza.

Such statements are proof that there are still EU policymakers who can act with cool heads and warm hearts. It's an important policy lesson on responsible diplomacy for all 27 EU leaders, commission officials and members of the European Parliament.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an EUobserver columnist, independent EU analyst and runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She recently won the Catalonia European Journalist Association's prestigious Career Award 2023 for her work on EU affairs and focus on building an inclusive Union of Equality.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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