With the gruesome bloodletting in Gaza nearing the mark of 10,000 dead from Israeli attacks, the EU attempted to end the confusion and disarray within its ranks by organizing an in-person summit in Brussels that brought together its 27 members. It was a show of unity and a signal that the EU is an independent player in world affairs, as Josep Borrell, the bloc’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, has frequently asserted.
The principal outcome of the conclave was the EU call for “corridors and pauses” in the ongoing conflict to provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza’s beleaguered residents. This was the result of compromise: some members, like Spain and Ireland, wanted a “pause,” but others, including Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, felt this word would be too close to a ceasefire, which Israel has categorically rejected and the US has not had the temerity to insist upon.
The “pauses” proposed would be short intervals in the fighting of a few hours, when aid — food, water, medicines and fuel — could be rushed to the needy. Few noted the irony that, after receiving the aid, the needy would soon be once again exposed to the virulent Israeli bombardment that has already taken the lives of several thousand of their neighbors.
The Brussels conference merely papered over the divisions within the EU over the Gaza war. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had earlier rushed to Israel and expressed support for his host, saying: “Brutal terror. The execution of defenseless civilians. Murdered infants. Humiliated holocaust survivors.” While backing Israel’s right to defend itself, Scholz failed to see the horrific parallels in Israel’s own actions in Gaza.
Ireland would have none of this. Leader Leo Varadkar has described Israel’s actions as resembling “something more approaching revenge … I don’t think that’s how Israel will guarantee its future freedom and future security.” And Spanish Social Rights Minister Ione Belarra has accused Israel of “planned genocide” in Gaza and of “war crimes.”
Divisions within the EU go back to the early days of the Gaza war. Immediately after the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7, European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi unilaterally announced that the EU would suspend all assistance to the Palestinians. Several states quickly rejected this, pointing out that, given Israel’s “complete siege” of Gaza, the need for humanitarian assistance was greater than ever. The assistance was restored.
The war has affirmed that the EU has little capacity to emerge as an independent player on the world stage.
This mishap was followed by the visit to Jerusalem by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, during which she expressed solidarity with Israel and sharply condemned Hamas’ “despicable actions.” She expressed full confidence that Israel would, in its response, “show that it is a democracy.”
But she failed to insist that, while defending itself, Israel must abide by international humanitarian law and she made no reference to the siege of Gaza. Borrell said that Israel was violating international law by enforcing its “complete siege” of Gaza. Later, Von der Leyen was sharply attacked in the European Parliament by Irish member Clare Daly, who described Israel’s bombings as “collective punishment,” “illegal” and “war crimes.”
Anger within the EU about the perceived pro-Israel stance of some of its senior officials was reflected in a joint letter to Von der Leyen that was signed by more than 800 staff members. The letter accused the European Commission of giving a “free hand to the acceleration and the legitimacy of a war crime.” It also noted that the commission, in its response to the massacre of civilians in Gaza, had been indifferent to the “values of the EU” and had exhibited “double standards” in describing the Russian blockade of Ukraine as an act of terror, while ignoring the identical actions of Israel against the Gazan people.
Despite these dissenting voices, the Gaza war has affirmed that the EU has little capacity to emerge as an independent player on the world stage. The EU as an institution and the leaders of its major member states remain closely aligned with the US in extending full support to Israel, as they have done in regard to Ukraine. They seem to be going along with President Joe Biden’s view, expressed on Oct. 19, that the Gaza war constitutes “an inflection point in history.” Biden had then linked the threat that Israel faces from Hamas with that faced by Ukraine from Russia on the specious basis that Ukraine and Israel confront foes that “want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.”
Obviously, for the US, NATO matters more than the EU. On Oct. 9, Biden rallied the major European states — France, Germany, Italy and the UK, all NATO members — and, in a joint statement, they affirmed that “we will remain united and coordinated, together as allies, and as common friends of Israel, to ensure that Israel is able to defend itself.”
A practical expression of this oath of Western unity is the silence of these states as Israel mercilessly wreaks death and destruction in Gaza and is actively planning to depopulate the Strip. In the words of an Israeli strategic affairs commentator, Giora Eiland, Israel plans to create “conditions where life in Gaza becomes unsustainable” and it becomes “a place where no human being can exist.”
Thus, while the EU spins into disarray and sinks into strategic irrelevance, it is NATO, led by the US, that will uphold Western unity and interests.