EU divisions on Gaza risk weakening it on the foreign policy stage

Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative, at a meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg on October 23, 2023.
Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative, at a meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg on October 23, 2023. Copyright Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Shona Murray
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The EU was late to clarify that Israel had an obligation to minimise casualties while the country was bombing and cutting off fuel, water and medical supplies to a civilian population.


The EU's response to Hamas's horrific terrorist attack in Israel earlier this month cast a shadow on the bloc's ability to agree cohesive statement on deeply consequential foreign policy matters, despite having managed to stay aligned for nearly two years on Ukraine.

At an EU summit last week, member states spent hours debating whether the bloc should call for a ceasefire to allow vital humanitarian aid into Gaza.

In the end, they coalesced around the idea of "humanitarian pauses" - intermittent moments to allow unfettered access for goods to go into Gaza.

They also reiterated that Israel has the right to defend itself, and should abide by international humanitarian law - the rules of conduct during an armed conflict that are designed to minimise casualties and not cause unnecessary suffering to civilians.

But the statement to Israel to respect the rights of civilians came late, despite the besieged population in Gaza being cut off from food, water, fuel, and crucial medical supplies, and the ever-increasing death toll of women, children, men.

The EU's partners in the region including King Abdullah of Jordan condemned the late and lackluster pronouncement to protect Palestinians.

“The message the Arab world is hearing is loud and clear: Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones. Our lives matter less than other lives. The application of international law is optional. And human rights have boundaries - they stop at borders, they stop at races, and they stop at religions," King Abdullah said at a conference in Cairo on October 23.

This is a “very, very dangerous message, as the consequences of continued international apathy and inaction will be catastrophic—on us all," he added.

Yet the growing humanitarian disaster and the intensity of Israel's military campaign are unlikely to change the EU's position, according to Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group.

"I think Germany may even be more pro-Israeli in its stance and articulation of Israel's right to defend itself than the United States. And I don't think that position within Germany - which commands support across the coalition is likely to change in the short to medium term, regardless of how the ground invasion progresses in Gaza and the civilian casualties and the devastation we're all now likely to see," he told Euronews.

As the war escalates so can divisions within the EU, which could further delegitimize the bloc as a foreign policy actor.

It's "clearly going to open up a rift within the European Council between those countries that have a slightly different position and perspective on the conflict."

"And that, again, will subtract from European legitimacy", especially as the divisions among member states "are only going to get worse," Rahman also said. 

Last week, the EU committed to supporting - alongside regional partners - an International Peace Forum aimed at resuscitating long-lost hope of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestinians.

Pierre Vimont, a former head of the EU's External Action Service - the EU's foreign office - also believes the impact of Brussels's ambivalence over the rights of Palestinians has diminished it in the eyes of other parts of the world. Still, he insists, the EU has a role to play.

"It has now to deal with a kind of handicap with regard to Arab countries and more globally, more generally, with many partners in the South that have lost somewhat their confidence in the European Union diplomacy. So we have to rebuild that. We have to reach out to all of them," he told Euronews.

"Never forget that it was the European Union that came up with the idea of a two-state solution, the need for self-determination for the Palestinians, the support for the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) as the representative of the Palestinian people." 

"These were breakthroughs that were done by the European Union and that were followed afterward by the US, who took over, who took up some of the European ideas," he said.

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