Munich (Special to Informed Comment) – The European Union’s initial response to the current Israel-Hamas war has been chaotic. Shortly after the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel – which left at least 1,400 Israelis dead – Olivér Várhelyi, the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, announced the suspension of “all payments” by the European Commission to the Palestinians.
The decision would have had very serious consequences as the EU is the biggest donor of aid to Palestinians in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The European Commission finally announced that it was tripling its annual humanitarian assistance for Gaza to over 75 million euros (around 80 million dollars, or 35 dollars per person). The plan is for aid to be distributed through the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Although two convoys of aid have entered the Gaza Strip so far, Israel is only letting in a trickle of the aid Gazans need.
Várhelyi, who was put forward as EU Commissioner by the far-right Hungarian government led by Viktor Orbán, a close ally of Benjamin Netanyahu, acted unilaterally in announcing a halt of aid to Palestine and over 70 members of the European Parliament have called for his resignation. Nevertheless, he has not been officially reprimanded by his superior, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The whole controversy about aid to Palestine, which supposedly could have facilitated the terrorist attacks by Hamas on October 7, bears no relation to reality. As the EU ambassador to Palestine recently explained to Al-Jazeera, the EU delivers budgetary aid “only to the Palestinian Authority” in the West Bank and aid to the Gaza Strip ruled by Hamas is limited to “a social aid allowance package which benefits poor families in Gaza.”
The second element of chaos in the EU response to the Israel-Hamas war is the result of von der Leyen’s visit to Israel alongside the President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola. In the aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attack against Israel, von der Leyen had already posted on X that the EU “stands by Israel today and in the next weeks.” The statement appeared to condone what was already expected to be a particularly harsh Israeli response against the Gaza Strip, which has later materialized with at least 4,651 Gazans dead.
On October 10, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated that some of the actions carried out by Israel in the aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attack were “not in accordance with international law.” During her visit to Israel on October 13, however, von der Leyen spoke next to Netanyahu and did not make a single mention of the need for restraint in Israel’s response to the Hamas attack. All she said was that “how Israel responds will show that it is a democracy.” By the time von der Leyen met Netanyahu, around 1,400 people had already been killed in the Gaza Strip due to Israeli bombings.
The statements by von der Leyen were criticized by numerous EU member states, with Ireland being one of the most vocal, but also within the EU institutions, both openly and behind closed doors. In a not-so-veiled reference to von der Leyen’s statements during a a press conference in Beijing on October 14, Borrell stated that the official position of the EU concerning foreign policy is determined “by the guidelines, the high-level political decision of the European Union Council, chaired by President Michel and by the Foreign Affairs Council ministers chaired by me.”
Meanwhile, Iratxe García, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament – the second largest – expressed that in their visit to Israel both Metsola and von der Leyen had failed in their duty “to represent the position of the Union as a whole.” A report by Politico documented serious discontentment within EU institutions – including the EU Commission – with von der Leyen’s failure to stress in Israel the importance of complying with international law. More recently, a letter signed by 842 staff members of EU institutions accuses the EU Commission of giving “a free hand to the acceleration and the legitimacy of a war crime in the Gaza Strip.”
In the current institutional infighting in the EU, the President of the European Council Charles Michel – engaged in a long-running rivalry with von der Leyen – is seen as being on the side of EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. Their shared conviction that the EU Commission President is overstepping her attributions in representing the EU internationally is not a new phenomenon.
In July of this year, von der Leyen traveled to Tunisia together with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and announced a migration deal with Tunisian President Kais Saied, who has been ruling Tunisia in an authoritarian way since his coup in June 2021. Several EU member states expressed incomprehension when faced with the final contents of the EU-Tunisia deal and the unilateralism of the EU Commission headed by von der Leyen in pushing forward the agreement, which unraveled afterwards.
The disagreements over the EU position after the eruption of the Israel-Hamas war have been broader and more public than observers might have expected. At the same time, they hardly come as a surprise. The long-standing position of the EU on the conflict has been support for a two-state solution and the Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by Mahmoud Abbas. In the face of the growing number of settlements in the West Bank – where the PA suffers a profound crisis of legitimacy –, the worsening of the situation in the Gaza Strip under Israel’s siege and frequent bombings, and the establishment of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history in December 2022, the two-state solution already appeared more distant than ever before the recent events.
Still, calls for a two-state solution were the EU’s go-to discourse, one that has proven unable to keep pace with the fast-developing events during the last two weeks in Israel/Palestine. The cracks in the common EU position, which was always the lowest common denominator between countries with different understandings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are now more evident than ever.
It is difficult to establish, however, to which extent the current clashes within the EU derive from policy differences regarding the Israel-Hamas war or the ongoing battle of egos at the top of the EU, with an eye to the next European elections in June 2024. Von der Leyen will likely try to secure a second term at the head of the Commission but there seems to be growing opposition to this.
For all of its internal quarrels, the EU appears to be united on some key points regarding the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Firstly, the official position of the EU does not include a call for a ceasefire. There is no mention of a ceasefire or a truce in the statement that followed the U.S.-EU Summit on October 20 – during which von der Leyen and Michel held separate meetings with US President Joseph Biden, in another proof of internal tensions – nor in Michel’s address to the Cairo Peace Summit on October 21. Spanish President Pedro Sánchez called for a humanitarian ceasefire during the summit, and the Irish Parliament passed a motion to that effect, but they do not represent the common position.
Secondly, the EU agrees that the conflict in the Middle East should not undermine the EU’s support for Ukraine in its war against Russia. After von der Leyen and Michel held on October 17 an extraordinary European Council meeting via video conference with the leaders of EU member countries, both EU leaders pointed out that Russia could use the conflict in Israel/Palestine to weaken the West.
Russia’s condemnation of the bombings of civilians in the Gaza Strip is deeply cynical considering Moscow’s conduct in Syria and Ukraine. However, von der Leyen has also been subjected to more well-grounded criticism for failing to condemn Israel’s strikes against civilians in the Gaza Strip in the same stark terms she uses when Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure is bombed by Russia. Western support for Ukraine in its war against Russia has contrasted with a Global South that has remained largely neutral, and this is even less likely to change – especially in Arab countries – after what many perceive as Europe’s hypocrisy in its response to what is happening in Israel/Palestine.
And last, but certainly not least, the EU presents a united front regarding fears that Israel’s offensive against the Gaza Strip could lead to a new wave of refugees reaching Europe. In the press conference after the European Council meeting, Michel said that in a country like Egypt, the arrival of refugees “can have a very difficult impact on the country, and it can also have direct consequences for us in Europe.”
In the wake of the EU-Tunisia agreement on migration, the EU had been exploring the possibility of reaching a similar agreement with the authoritarian regime of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Margaritis Schinas, a vice-president of the European Commission, stated that “the need to engage with Egypt is even more pressing” after the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. Meanwhile, Al-Sisi has recently said that he would not accept the arrival of Gazan refugees into Egypt.
It is also not clear to what extent Gazans would be willing to leave their homes. Although the situation within the Gaza Strip is one of complete collapse, and a ground Israeli invasion appears to be around the corner, many Gazans “are already refugees whose families fled present-day Israel during its establishment in 1948 and were subsequently denied the right to return to their homes,” explains Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The image the EU presents regarding the Israel-Hamas war is, on the one hand, one of institutional infighting and disagreement on the importance of emphasizing the need for Israeli compliance with international law. On the other hand, the EU displays a united front in its desire to not let the conflict in Israel/Palestine undermine its support for Ukraine against Russia as well as in preventing the conflict in the Middle East from leading to a wave of Palestinian migrants trying to reach Europe. And until now, and with no indication that this could change soon, the EU has refrained from calling for a ceasefire.