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Middle East crisis overshadows EU summit devoted to the economy

The Middle East crisis will dominate the meeting of the European Council.
The Middle East crisis will dominate the meeting of the European Council. Copyright European Union, 2024.
Copyright European Union, 2024.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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European Union leaders are gathering in Brussels for a special two-day summit focused on the bloc's economic competitiveness.

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But the agenda is set to be overshadowed by the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, which the West fears could soon spiral out of control and turn into a wider regional conflict.

The concerns have been simmering since the start of the Israel-Hamas war and escalated dramatically after an Israeli airstrike hit the Iranian consulate in Damascus, killing seven members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. In retaliation, Tehran launched its first-ever attack on Israeli soil with 300 drones, ballistic and cruise missiles, the vast majority of which were intercepted by Israel.

The barrage opened a new chapter in the long-running shadow war between the two nations, with the EU and the US vowing to tighten sanctions on Iran but calling on Israel to avoid a new attack that would further fan the flames.

This atmosphere of uncertainty and tension will impregnate the meeting in Brussels, which was initially conceived as a head-first dive into the bloc's economy but has since then been altered to allow for a discussion on foreign policy.

The first day of the meeting, set to begin on Wednesday evening after a reception with the King of Belgium, will touch upon the ongoing situation in Israel, Iran, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, as well as the war in Ukraine and relations with Turkey.

"The European Council calls on Iran and its proxies to cease all attacks and urges all parties to exercise the utmost restraint and to refrain from any action that may increase tensions in the region," reads a draft version of the conclusions, seen by Euronews.

Lebanon is a particular source of concern, given its fragile government, financial troubles and sectarian divisions, which have made the country a breeding ground for Iranian influence. Hezbollah, a Tehran-backed Islamist movement with a powerful paramilitary, took part in the attack against Israel by firing rockets across the border.

Diplomats worry Lebanon, home to 1.5 million Syrian refugees, could be dragged into the conflict and trigger a migration exodus towards European shores, which is already visible in nearby Cyprus.

The island state has recorded more than 2,000 arrivals in the first three months of this year, a huge increase compared to the 78 seen in the same period of 2023.

The draft conclusions underscore the EU's commitment to Lebanon's stability and "determination to support the most vulnerable people" in the country, but make no explicit reference to the migratory pressure placed on Cyprus. The language, though, could be tweaked as discussions advance on Wednesday evening.

Additionally, leaders are expected to echo the recent UN Security Council resolution and call for an "immediate ceasefire" in Gaza, where more than 33,000 people have been killed since the start of the Israeli offensive. The European Council will demand the "unconditional release of all hostages" held by Hamas and the "full, rapid, safe and unhindered" provision of humanitarian aid for Palestinians.

The foreign policy talks will also examine the current state of EU-Turkey relations, which remain a strategic priority for all leaders despite the strain caused by accusations of sanctions evasion, democratic backsliding and the decades-long dispute with Cyprus.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior diplomat admitted that Turkey is a "vital question" for Cyprus but warned that relations with the bloc should not be seen solely through that lens. "There's more to that," the diplomat noted.

Wednesday will feature a virtual speech by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who recently chastised the West for failing to protect Ukrainian skies from Russian strikes, as they did in Israel in response to Iran's attack. 

In the first weeks of the invasion, Kyiv pleaded with NATO to impose a "no-fly zone" over the battered country but the request was repeatedly ignored, as allies argued the military intervention risked triggering Article 5 of collective defence and an all-out confrontation with Russia.

"European skies could have received the same level of protection long ago if Ukraine had received similar full support from its partners in intercepting drones and missiles. Terror must be defeated completely and everywhere, not more in some places and less in others," Zelenskyy said on social media.

The gathering could also give an additional spur to plans to use windfall revenues from Russian assets frozen in the EU to help arm and reconstruct Ukraine. 

With international affairs absorbing all the energy on Wednesday, the issue of economic competitiveness will move to Thursday. The debate will be based on a comprehensive report drafted by Enrico Letta, a former Italian prime minister, that introduces recommendations to deepen and strengthen the single market, with an eye on competition posed by the United States and China.

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