9th Dec 2023


Some uncomfortable truths for EU's 140 ambassadors this week

  • Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, created some excitement last year by scolding his diplomats for not being assertive enough in 'communicating the EU's narrative' (Photo: European External Action Service)
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EU ambassadors, posted in over 140 countries across the world, are set to meet their bosses in Brussels this week. They must use the opportunity to speak truth to power.

The yearly internal gatherings of EU envoys organised by the European External Action Service are usually fairly humdrum affairs.

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  • Shada Islam: 'EU governments stand accused of adopting a chaotic, underwhelming and often one-sided stance in the Israel-Palestine war'

Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, created some excitement last year by scolding his diplomats for not being assertive enough in "communicating the EU's narrative".

"Old recipes do not work anymore" he complained, urging EU representatives across the globe to be faster, bolder and show more empathy in a messy multipolar world.

When they discuss the Middle East this week, the EU's ambassadors in the region and across the Global South should do just that.

With over 8,000 Palestinians — 40 percent of them children — killed during three weeks of Israel's disproportionate military response to the horrific terror attack by Hamas, EU governments stand accused of adopting a chaotic, underwhelming and often one-sided stance in the Israel-Palestine war.

If Europe is to salvage its reputation and re-align its moral compass, EU ambassadors — many of whom are skilled and experienced diplomats — must hammer home some uncomfortable truths in their meetings with Borrell, EU Council president Charles Michel and Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.

First, there is no point in denying that as Gaza turns into a tragic graveyard for thousands of children, the EU's hard-won reputation as a stalwart defender of the international rules-based order lies in tatters.

Many European governments are accused of not only "refusing to meet their treaty obligations" under the Geneva Conventions but also arming Israel's assault and providing political and diplomatic cover for it.

For as long as the Middle East conflict rages on, it is therefore counterproductive to release endless clips of EU meetings with presidents and prime ministers, spend time and money on Global Gateway conferences or to engage in self-congratulatory talk of a 'geopolitical Europe'. Today, none of this really matters.

Second, that does not mean that Russia's war against Ukraine and other conflicts should be neglected. It does mean that for the moment — and probably for months to come — the world's attention will be on ending the humanitarian tragedy in Gaza.

Unfair though it may seem, Europe's global credibility therefore depends on how strongly it pressures Israel on agreeing to a humanitarian ceasefire, protecting civilians and allowing more aid into Gaza.

Third, what happens in the Middle East has repercussions elsewhere. Von der Leyen and many EU governments' decision to stand by Israel even as it contravenes the rules of war by meting out collective punishment on innocent Palestinian men, women and children, has convinced many across the world that the EU does not practice what it preaches.

Not surprisingly many have called out the EU's double standards.

The EU is developing a reputation where "it says one set of rights applies to a certain group of people — people close to Europe — and another set of rights applies to people outside," according to Tirana Hassan, the executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Reputation in shreds

The perception, rightly or wrongly, will be hard to shake off. It will also widen the existing gulf between the EU and many Global South nations over the Russia-Ukraine war.

Fourth, EU differences over the Middle East — as illustrated by the latest UN vote on a ceasefire and setting up humanitarian aid corridors — make a mockery of suggestions that the bloc could play any useful or credible role in any future post-conflict Middle East, including through the organisation of an international peace conference.

The EU did once command respect in the region as an 'honest broker' and was seen as a serious partner in the region by successive US governments.

Today, despite being Israel's largest trading partner and the biggest aid donor to Palestine, the erstwhile perception of the EU as an even-handed actor lies in shreds.

Fifth, even as they talk up the virtues of democracy, EU diplomats must have an honest collective reflection on how the world views the widening disconnect between the Middle East policies of most European governments and the pro-peace demonstrations taking place across the continent, often with the participation of Jewish organisations.

Finally, the world is watching as EU governments grapple with a rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia and too many leaders succeed in dividing rather than uniting their Jewish and Muslim citizens.

Much of this may seem beyond the purview of the EU's diplomatic service. Yet, as we have learned through experience, the internal and external are intimately connected.

As the bloc's official representatives abroad, EU ambassadors have a responsibility to provide their bosses with a much-needed reality check on the reputational risks facing the bloc — and to suggest ways to correct course.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an EUobserver columnist, and independent EU analyst and commentator who 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.


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

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