BRUSSELS: The European Union faces growing animosity across the Muslim world and beyond due to accusations of pro-Israel bias and double standards over the war in Gaza, the bloc’s foreign policy chief has warned.
Josep Borrell said he feared such acrimony could undermine diplomatic support for Ukraine in the Global South and the EU’s ability to insist on human rights clauses in international agreements.
He said the EU had to show “more empathy” for the loss of Palestinian civilian lives in Israel’s war against Hamas, launched in response to the deadly Oct. 7 cross-border assault by the Palestinian militant group.
His comments came in interviews with Reuters during a five-day Middle East trip that took him to the rubble of Kibbutz Be’eri devastated by Hamas, the West Bank, a regional security conference in Bahrain and royal audiences in Qatar and Jordan.
On the trip, which ended on Monday evening, Borrell heard Arab leaders and Palestinian civil society activists complain that the 27-nation EU was not applying the same standards to Israel’s war in Gaza that it applies to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“All of them were really criticizing the posture of the European Union as one-sided,” Borrell said.
Waving his mobile phone, he said he had already received messages from some ministers signalling they would not support Ukraine next time there was a vote at the United Nations.
“If things continue a couple of weeks like this, the animosity against Europeans (will grow),” he added.
In response to the criticism, Borrell stressed human lives had the same value everywhere and that the EU had unanimously urged immediate humanitarian pauses to get aid to Palestinians in Gaza and quadrupled its humanitarian aid for the enclave.
But Arab leaders want an immediate end to Israel’s bombardment, which has killed at least 13,300 Palestinians, including at least 5,600 children, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run government.
They have lambasted both the EU and the United States for not condemning Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza, in contrast to the West’s response to the invasion of Ukraine.
Israel has stressed that it is responding to the deadliest attack in its history, in which about 1,200 people were killed and 240 taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies.
It says it is attacking civilian areas as that is where Hamas operates and it is trying to avoid innocent casualties.
As High Representative for foreign policy, Borrell is charged with crafting common positions among EU members.
A neighbor of the Middle East and home to substantial Jewish and Muslim populations, the EU has a major stake in the latest crisis. Although not in the same league as the United States, it has some diplomatic weight in the region, not least as the biggest donor of aid to Palestinians.
But the bloc has struggled for a united stance beyond condemnation of the Hamas attack. It has largely limited itself to support for Israel’s right to defend itself within international law and calls for pauses in fighting.
Individual member countries, meanwhile, such as Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary have stressed strong support for Israel while others such as Ireland, Belgium and Spain have criticized Israel’s military action.
France has called for a humanitarian truce that would pave the way for a cease-fire.
Borrell, a veteran Spanish Socialist politician, last month declared that some of Israel’s actions contravened international law — to the annoyance of some EU member countries.
He avoided such direct public criticism on his trip. He also sought to show understanding for the pain felt by Israelis, recalling his own experience on a kibbutz in the 1960s.
But he said the EU also should do more to demonstrate it also cares about Palestinian lives and this could come through stronger calls for aid to get into Gaza and a renewed push for a Palestinian state under the so-called “two-state solution.”