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12th Apr 2024

Column

EU's Gaza policy: boon for dictators, bad for democrats

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EU leaders must snap out of their comfortable and self-soothing alternate reality. The EU's collective failure to adhere to international law and its own human rights commitments in Gaza has plunged the bloc's credibility, authority and global standing to an all-time low.

The reputational damage is far-reaching, long-term and probably irreversible.

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  • There is no sign that EU governments are ready to pull an emergency brake on their exports of arms and ammunition to Israel

It is impacting the EU's role and influence in the United Nations and in countries in the Global South.

Most significantly it is endangering the EU's important and once robust outreach to pro-democracy and human rights activists in the Arab and Muslim world — and beyond.

It has taken pro-Israeli EU politicians, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, six gut-wrenching months of Israel's deadly assault on Gaza, following the October 7 Hamas terror attack, to acknowledge the need to protect "civilian life".

As Israel prepares for an offensive on Rafah and Gaza faces utter annihilation — and despite Monday's UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire — there is no sign that EU governments are ready to pull an emergency brake on their exports of arms and ammunition to Israel.

Germany, which provides 28 percent of Israel's military imports, has seen its exports increase by nearly tenfold between 2022 and 2023, with sales ramping up last November.

Demands for an immediate suspension of the EU-Israel pact due to Israel's persistent human rights violas remain unheard and several EU states have yet to resume funding for UNRWA even though Israel continues to bar aid from entering famine stricken northern Gaza.

The EU's policy on Gaza means that "rarely will anyone soon in the Global South listen when Western politicians insist on international law, says Middle East analyst Amro Ali.

The inconvenient truth is that this was predictable. Let's be clear: the EU's deteriorated standing does not displease Arab and other strongmen.

Predictable failure by 'ATM EU'

As demonstrated by the growing number of EU's 'cash for migrant deals', the EU's failures in Gaza are not an obstacle when it comes to tapping into 'ATM EU' by leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

While they woo dictators and autocrats, however, EU policymakers are becoming ever more estranged from the world's democrats.

The real tragedy, as highlighted in a recent analysis, is the erosion of one of Europe's key assets: its "huge reserves" of soft power.

In the past, even as the EU's direct political influence over Middle East governments faltered, skilled European diplomats managed to maintain an impressive outreach to citizens in the region.

An array of EU initiatives like the 2021 New Agenda for the Mediterranean sought quite successfully to win the "heart and minds" of students, women's groups, trade unionists, entrepreneurs, academics and think tankers.

Faced with a shrinking civic space and often-repressive governments at home, those struggling to secure human rights, democracy and the rule of law turned to the EU for support and funding.

It was not just about the money. Participation in the EU's 'civil society dialogues' was high because unlike restricted domestic conversations, they were animated, frank and open.

Having participated in many such discussions, I can vouch for their fiery energy. No-holds-barred discussions between young Arab men and women and senior EU policymakers were especially impressive.

It is these activists, who believed in the EU's rhetoric on values and relied on the EU for support, who now feel betrayed and vulnerable.

Europe's "hypocrisy is beyond the pale when contrasted with the unlimited support for Ukraine's population. The Germans in particular stick out like a sore thumb", says Magda Abu-Fadil, an Arab-American veteran foreign correspondent, editor and academic based in Lebanon.

Europe's double standards are constantly highlighted by Arab social media with comments, memes, videos and cartoons, she says.

Over 75 percent of Arabs view the French and German positions on Gaza as "bad or very bad" according to a recent opinion poll.

The breach in trust will not be easy to repair.

EU officials once waxed lyrical about civil society actors across the world as "unique partners" who were "the engines of change, the ones on the frontlines, fighting for equality and justice."

If, as predicted, far right parties increase their weight and influence in the next European Parliament and by extension over the new European Commission, the EU — except for some member states — is likely to draw ever closer to Israel.

Egregious migrant deals will also likely become the norm across Fortress Europe, with the EU providing a constant financial lifeline for Arab autocrats.

Many may believe that this is proof of a stronger and more muscular geopolitical Europe. Others argue that the hit to the EU's reputation will survive the Gaza "crisis".

This is wishful thinking.

Public outrage at the West's response to Gaza's destruction runs much deeper than many in Brussels and other EU capitals want to recognise.

"We're witnessing an epistemological rupture or deep fracture not just with European leaders or politics but with the West as a whole," warns Middle East researcher and analyst Yasmine Akrimi.

An EU which is in retreat from its values, engages in more selective outrage and sets up a hierarchy of rights is a boon for the world's autocrats.

But it is a tragedy for those who harbour dreams of democracy, believe in the universality of human rights and aspire to live in a more just world.

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 has recently won the European Woman in Media award and the Media Career Award 2023 for her outstanding work and powerful voice 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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