21st Feb 2024

MEPs spar over EU leadership's confused response to Israeli war

  • EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (l) and European parliament president Roberto Metsola in Israel last Friday, a few days after Hamas massacred civilians in Kfar Azza (Photo: European Union, 2023)
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A widening political dispute is emerging over the EU's foreign diplomacy powers, as a handful of MEPs call for the resignation of Hungary's EU commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, amid a confused Brussels' response on Israel.

The brewing acrimony centres around the presidents of the European Commission and the European Parliament for having skirted the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during their lightning visit last Friday (13 October) to Israel, in the wake of the Hamas massacre in the south of the country.

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  • Several MEPs are demanding the resignation of EU commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, for his pre-emptive announcement of a halt to all aid to Palestinians (Photo: European Commission)

But centre-right politicians, including the president of the European People's Party (EPP) Manfred Weber, have in response pounced on Europe's centre-left foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.

Germany's Weber criticised Spain's Borrell for not going to Israel to speak on the behalf of the EU, while pointing out that the United States had sent their top emissary, secretary of state Antony Blinken.

"I'm wondering more, where is Joseph Borrell? Question mark. That is my question on the table," Weber told reporters in Strasbourg on Tuesday (17 October).

"I also learned that Joseph Borrell was not in Israel over the last four years," he added.

Borrell was on his way to Oman for the planned EU-Gulf Cooperation Council a day after Hamas launched a brutal assault against Israeli civilians on 7 October. He then went to China.

But he was also among the lone EU voices calling for the humanitarian needs of some 2.3 million Palestinians trapped in Gaza and declared the Israeli siege as illegal, a message that was not echoed by von der Leyen and Metsola.

"Borrell is carrying out excellent work," said Iratxe García, president of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group of MEPs.

"We need diplomatic initiatives. And this does not mean photographs," she also said, in a separate swipe against von der Leyen and Metsola who had their photos taken with senior Israeli leadership.

And she faulted Varhelyi for his 9 October announcement on X, formally known as a Twitter, where he suspended all payments to Palestinians under the EU's development portfolio.

Varhelyi issued the statement without first consulting other senior officials inside the bloc's executive, in a widely criticised move.

"Várhelyi's action marks not only an act of insubordination in relation to the VDL's [von der Leyen] commission but also a 'coup' against the Council of the EU and the balance of power among the European institutions," said Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC Paris.

The EU has dispersed €192m for the Palestinian Authority and for cooperation projects. And it has since tripled its humanitarian assistance to over €75m to support civilians in need in Gaza.

Calls for Varhelyi to go

"This is not the first time that commissioner Varhelyi has freelanced in terms of defining himself, as identifying himself as a spokesman for institutions," said Stéphane Séjourné, co-leader of the liberal Renew Europe group.

"Today, we have a problem with structure and coordination," he said.

The statements come ahead of emergency talks among member state leaders on the Gaza war, also on Tuesday. But it also comes as pressure mounts for Varhelyi to resign.

A letter signed by a handful of left-leaning MEPs is demanding Varhelyi step down. Sent on Tuesday to von der Leyen, the letter outlines a number of grievances against Varhelyi.

And they say Varhelyi had no authority to unilaterally decide to suspend EU development aid to Palestine.

Given that the European Parliament cannot force the removal of a commissioner, the move is unlikely to muster much attention in the European Commission.

"We can only censor the commission as a whole and we have no right to target one commissioner," said Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian MEP who co-chairs the Greens.

"One can demand his resignation. I have some doubts that the said commissioner will give a positive answer to that to the demand," he said.

Several Green MEPs had signed the letter, as have several socialists and liberals, as well as the co-chair of the Left, Manon Aubry.

Diplomatic spat between Israel and Spain over Gaza

Comments by a Spanish cabinet minister this week have sparked tensions between Israel and Madrid, prompting a harsh exchange and complicating the two countries' diplomatic relationship.


Only Palestinians paying thousands of dollars leave Gaza

Despite the high risk of dying from war, starvation or disease, Gazans are still not allowed to enter Egypt. Except those who bribe the authorities. And the EU mission EUBAM Rafah cannot be deployed due to security reasons.

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