Summary: Europe and the EU’s response to the Gaza war displays deep splits and layers of contradictions that are reinforcing the conviction among non-western populations and their leaders that a racist double-standard is at play.
We thank Kelly Petillo for today’s newsletter. Kelly is a Middle East and North Africa specialist with the European Council on Foreign Relations and a contributor to AD podcasts. You can find her podcast “Syria’s forgotten refugees” here.
If February 2022 marked Europe’s moment of newfound unity, the aftermath of 7 October 2023 is set to be remembered as one of the most divisive times for the European Union.
Europe’s initial response to the horrors that unfolded in Israel on 7 October has been described by EU diplomats as a “cacophony”. Shortly after the attack by Hamas, EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen stated that Israel has a right to defend itself without reservations and travelled to Israel with EU Parliament President Roberta Metsola to meet with Israeli president Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Meanwhile, EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi publicly declared that EU aid to the Palestinian authority would stop.
Many EU representatives were furious. High-level officials from the EU Commission and Parliament, member states like Spain (which currently holds the EU presidency) and Ireland, and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell publicly pushed back against those initial EU positions, emphasising that Israel needs to respect international norms and that EU aid would continue. On 17 October members of the European Parliament filed a letter asking for Olivér Várhelyi to resign. Circa 800 EU staff members have voiced their concerns over von der Leyen’s position.
According to von der Leyen’s critics, she went too far in expressing unconditioned support to Israel, which should be contained within the language of international humanitarian law, and failed to acknowledge the Palestinian right to self-determination. The EU Commission President is also seen as overstepping her position since she has no official mandate to speak on behalf of the Union on foreign policy matters. Von der Leyen reportedly undertook her visit to Israel without prior consultation of, and agreement by, the Council of EU foreign ministers which is responsible to formulate the Union’s foreign policy. Such criticism also comes against the backdrop of divisions that emerged last month following allegations that von der Leyen’s commission secured the Tunisia migration pact without consulting EU member states.
It took the EU eight days to agree on a joint statement. This was more in line with the EU’s traditional position on the Israel-Palestine conflict as it included language on the need for Israel to balance its right to defend itself under the contours of international humanitarian law, as well as the need to sustain humanitarian aid to Palestine. Two days later Charles Michel chaired an emergency meeting to further consolidate the EU position.
As the criticism towards the Commission mounts, von der Leyen announced the EU will triple its humanitarian aid to Gaza, bringing the total to €75 million. Still, and as human rights groups and UN experts warn about war crimes on both sides, she continues to vocalise her support to Israel.
As EU officials held vigils in Brussels to remember the Israeli victims of the 7 October attacks and buildings across the EU were draped in the Israeli flag, all over the world, including in Europe and the UK, people took to the streets to protest against both Hamas and Israel’s actions. As the war continues, Europe also grapples with exacerbated challenges around antisemitism and disinformation.
Arguably no other issue has the ability to reveal the deepest weaknesses underpinning the EU more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is deeply rooted in the national histories of EU member states and exposes existing differences in values among them. Anyone who has been involved in EU policy discussions on Israel and Palestine has likely personally witnessed at least one animated exchange among officials, MEPs and party members. For Europeans, questioning Israel’s actions (both before and after 7 October) means shaking the post-World War II consensus which led to the formation of the United Nations and the EU itself, thus putting into question the multilateral systems Europe relies upon.
While it is too early to talk about the consequences of the Israel-Gaza war for Europe, one thing is already clear: our inability to express solidarity with the Palestinians in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s attack on Israel, following perceptions of double standards after the start of the Ukraine war, deeply eroded trust among non-Western populations and leaders, many of whom widely support the Palestinian issue.
This is set to become a long war. So far, divisions have prevented European Union from securing a ceasefire or any degree of humanitarian relief for the Palestinians in Gaza. Many European voters who feel for civilians in Gaza are growing to completely distrust their leaders. The people of Gaza, too, and all Palestinians, are losing their hope in the EU. And if European leaders do not step up their engagement, a regional war might unfold. Other leaders like Putin might even take advantage of Europe’s internal stasis to deliver a peace that is not in line with Europe’s terms, one that reflects the worldview that strongmen who disregard international norms are the only ones who can deliver. People will not forget how Europe responded at the start of the war but it is not too late to play a positive role on emerging dynamics.