EU struggles to bridge its Middle East divide

GDS : Cette difficulté européenne d’approche s’explique en grande partie par les relations complexes du trio institutionnel de l’UE et par la primauté des États membres sur les questions géopolitiques. Sans faire émerger de position commune, le haut représentant de l’Union pour les affaires étrangères et la politique de sécurité, Josep Borell, et le président du conseil, Charles Michel, se trouvent contraints dans leurs positions. Le défi posé par ce déséquilibre pourrait-il faire peser un risque politique sur la Présidente de la Commission ?

If Ukraine was the EU’s geopolitical awakening, the Israel-Palestine conflict might be its moment of truth – and so far the optics have not been great.

After confused messaging by the EU’s executive over the suspension of aid to the Palestinian Authority earlier this week – and a furious backlash by EU countries and other Commissioners – some around Brussels started asking whether the chief of the Berlaymont cannot keep her own house in order.

A week later, EU diplomats (and also increasingly more and more EU officials in the upper echelon) acknowledge that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen acted without member states’ mandate when she expressed unqualified backing for Israel in her statements.

On Tuesday (11 October), EU foreign ministers condemned attacks 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”.

Just like in all her public statements since the Hamas attack last weekend, von der Leyen has made no call for Israel to respect international law – whereas the UN, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell (quite vocally), and various European national leaders have.

“I know how Israel responds will show how it is a democracy,” von der Leyen said on Friday (13 October), standing alongside Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a quick visit to Israel as a show of solidarity.While acknowledging the suffering of innocent Palestinians, she did not repeat the position of member states voiced earlier in the week. In fact, she did appear out of step.

Borrell, who over the week had been more nuanced on the situation, meanwhile doubled down the same day, calling Israel’s siege of Gaza illegal and dismissing its evacuation order as ‘unrealistic’. The same was done by Commissioner Janez Lenarčič, who is in charge of the EU executive’s humanitarian aid portfolio.What added to more bad optics for von der Leyen was that the trip to Israel together with European Parliament President Roberta Metsola (both EPP), who had been invited by Israel’s parliament, was missing one EU institution that has the coordination of foreign policy in its portfolio.“

The EU lack of coordination

The [European] Commission’s trip to Israel was not coordinated and neither mandated by the European Council nor the EU member states,” an EU official confirmed to Euractiv when asked if European Council President Charles Michel had been asked to join the duo.

Michel, seeing the urgency, called on Saturday evening (14 October) for an extraordinary virtual EU summit next Tuesday, stressing the “utmost importance that the European Council, in line with the Treaties and our values, sets our common position and establishes a clear unified course of action that reflects the complexity of the unfolding situation”.

Many in Brussels and the capitals saw that as a warning shot towards von der Leyen.“Frankly, the increasing view among member states is that [von der Leyen] overdid and this might have some repercussions for her,” one EU diplomat said.

“No wonder Michel called an urgent EU summit where leaders will need to thoroughly discuss what the bloc’s common way forward on this issue is,” the diplomat said.Even more poignantly, an Elyseé source stressed that “the position of member states is expressed by High Representative Borrell and European Council President Michel”, while von der Leyen would largely “speak for herself”.

In what appeared to be an attempt to turn things around, von der Leyen said on Friday she had spoken with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and announced the EU will be tripling its humanitarian aid for vulnerable civilians in Gaza and the wider region.

An Israel right to defend itself ?

“The Commission supports Israel’s right to defend itself against the Hamas terrorists, in full respect of international humanitarian law,” she said.But the damage might already have been done.“So far, the mishandling of this case by von der Leyen and the EU as a whole undermines the position of the EU as a credible actor and honest broker between Israel and Palestine,” Ricardo Borges de Castro, head of the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre (EPC) told Euractiv.

“It projects an image of double standards to the ‘Global South’, which is likely to also make the West’s case of support to Ukraine even more difficult; stokes polarisation within European societies that could incite more antisemitic as well as anti-Muslim attacks; and fuels divisions between and within EU institutions and countries,” he added.

To many, von der Leyen appears to be repeating the precedent she set by expressing solidarity with Ukraine in February last year, and the EU’s executive subsequently taking on a large chunk of leadership over member states on the issue.

Back then, many saw the European Commission slowly starting to fill the political leadership vacuum increasingly left by Michel and the national governments.However, this time the key difference is that member states are deeply split on many aspects of the conflict in the Middle East, which is being fought with far less clear terms.“

Let’s be clear, this is not Ukraine where we had a very clear view about the status on the ground and when it came to international law,” a second EU diplomat said, adding a warning about the Middle East.“Let’s not forget the repercussions the wider issue might have on the individual national security of certain member states that used to be more involved in the region.”

Those indeed might be even more far-reaching than von der Leyen had expected.While anti-Semitic incidents in EU member states have been ignored for far too long, the security risks emerging in France last week recall the not-so-distant era of problems with Islamic radicalisation no one wants to see back on European streets either.

A European Commission that doesn’t speak for all of its citizens is risky, but one that makes clear political choices without coordination or weighing the consequences is dangerous.

And, while her Ukraine crisis response has been von der Leyen’s strongest asset, speculation about whether she might have damaged her chances for a second mandate has started.

EU - Israel

Global Europe –