How Europe can restore its credibility in the Middle East
As Israel has now resumed its massive bombardment of the defenseless Gaza Strip, Europe is once again paralyzed by divisions on how to react to the massive loss of life and Israel’s gross violations of international humanitarian law. While it is important to sort out its internal differences, the EU needs to move quickly to address at least some of the most pressing aspects of this devastating conflict.
When the UN General Assembly voted on Oct. 27 on a mild resolution calling for a humanitarian truce, the protection of civilians, the upholding of legal and humanitarian obligations and unhindered aid delivery, only about a dozen European countries, including some EU members, supported it. Four even opposed it (Austria, Czechia, Croatia and Hungary), while the majority abstained, including Europe’s largest countries, such as Germany, the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and the Scandinavian countries (except Norway, which voted for the resolution).
Outside of the UN, Europe is also divided between principled, duplicitous and complicit countries. A number of European countries, such as Belgium, France, Ireland and Spain, have staked out neutral positions, taking steps to help mediate the conflict and provide humanitarian assistance. Many have remained aloof to the suffering of Gaza’s civilians, even when hospitals were attacked and premature babies were pulled out of incubators and left to die. Worse still, a small minority of European countries have continued to provide material and active political support for Israel to continue its war of aggression against Gaza’s civilians.
European support for Israel is at odds with the global consensus against the Gaza war and the desperate calls by UN officials and humanitarian organizations working in the Strip to stop the war. It is also clearly inconsistent with the European position on the Ukraine war and the continent’s advocacy of peace and human rights and its championing of international law, including humanitarian laws, all of which have been brazenly violated by Israel’s sadistic destruction of Gaza and its killing of thousands of civilians, the majority being women and children.
While Ukraine in 2022 united the EU beyond expectations, the Gaza war redivided the bloc in 2023. In the EU’s responses to Israel’s war against Gaza, senior officials have struck different tones, reflecting the divisions between member states. They were unequivocal in their condemnation of Hamas’ attack, but were divided on Israel’s response. While most members insisted on prioritizing the delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza, many focused only on “unconditional” hostage release and Israel’s “right to defend itself.”
Most of the disagreement, however, was on a ceasefire, with only a minority of EU states demanding one. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, for example, called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to allow aid into Gaza, echoing UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He was joined by only a few others, such as Belgium and Ireland.
German officials, on the other hand, backed Israel unconditionally and expressed concern that a ceasefire would limit Israel’s “right” to self-defense. Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he had “no doubt” the Israeli army would follow international law. His deputy evoked the Holocaust as implicit justification for Israel’s excesses, as if Gaza’s children have to atone for Germany’s crimes. Germany’s Green foreign minister also defended Israel. Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer went as far as saying that “all the fantasies of ceasefires and the cessation of hostilities led to the strengthening of Hamas.”
Reflecting this disarray among its key members, the EU’s collective response has been difficult to discern. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, herself a German center-right politician, promptly traveled to Israel in a show of solidarity and expressed near-total support for Tel Aviv. By contrast, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell expressed a more nuanced position on the conflict.
In the past, the EU had a more or less even-handed approach, with a slight pro-Israel bias, and tried to act as an honest broker. The impression in the Arab world now is that the EU has been overboard pro-Israeli, especially at the start of the conflict, and has not done much to dispel that impression since. Queen Rania of Jordan has accused Western leaders of applying a “glaring double standard,” reflecting the views of many in the region.
While Europe quickly projected a unified position on Ukraine last year, its messaging on Gaza has been muddled. This division chips away at Europe’s credibility and lowers expectations from EU institutions.
Chafing at such criticism, European Council President Charles Michel said: “We do not have double standards. We have a fundamental standard, that we believe in international law.” He added that some were “attacking” the EU and “instilling doubts” about its credibility, but that “our unity will be our best argument when we are engaging with the Global South.” However, those reassuring words were lost in the actions on the ground and the disparate statements from individual member states and EU officials.
As Gaza is relentlessly bombed by Israel, hundreds of EU officials are reported to have written to Von der Leyen, criticizing what they described as her “uncontrolled” support of Israel. They said they “hardly recognize the values of the EU,” claiming that there was a “seeming indifference demonstrated over the past few days by our institution toward the ongoing massacre of civilians in the Gaza Strip, in disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law.”
They said they were saddened by the European Commission’s “double standards,” since it considers the blockade of Ukraine by Russia as an act of terror, while Israel’s blockade of Gaza is “completely ignored.” The EU’s ambiguous positions, they said, “seem to give a free hand to the acceleration and the legitimacy of a war crime in the Gaza Strip.”
While a unified position by the EU and Europe in general would be extremely helpful in terms of mediating the conflict in Gaza, it would also restore Brussels’ credibility and its diplomatic weight, which has taken a hit since this crisis started.
While Ukraine in 2022 united the EU beyond expectations, the Gaza war redivided the bloc in 2023.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Until such a unified stand is achieved, a division of labor may be helpful so as to avoid totally eclipsing Europe’s role in this vital region. This could be achieved by deconstructing the conflict into its main components and assigning responsibility for each to a particular state willing to take it up or to the EU bureaucracy.
There are at least six different issues that could be handled separately. First and most urgent is a call for a ceasefire, which some European countries have already championed.
Second, respect for international humanitarian law and accountability for all parties who have violated it.
Third, better access to humanitarian assistance, unhindered by logistics or Israeli restrictions. For example, Cyprus, supported by others in Europe, has proposed a maritime aid corridor from Larnaca to Gaza.
Fourth, a resumption of negotiations for the release of civilian hostages and detainees.
Fifth, containment of the conflict to avoid it further spreading into the West Bank or neighboring countries.
Sixth, reenergizing talks on the wider Palestine question. In September, the EU joined Saudi Arabia and the Arab League in launching a new initiative to revitalize peace efforts. The current bloody conflict makes it imperative to redouble those efforts.
By engaging on these six issues, the EU and Europe can reclaim their rightful roles as significant actors in mediating this conflict and contribute to restoring international peace and security.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily represent the GCC. X: @abuhamad1