The day after the barbaric attacks by Hamas on Israel, the EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, Oliver Varhelyi of Hungary, announced the suspension of aid to the Palestinians. He was soon rebuffed by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, and by several countries and members of the European Parliament. In the end, it was decided to “revise” European aid to the Palestinians rather than suspend it. At the same time, the EU announced an increase in humanitarian aid to Gaza and the establishment of an air bridge to deliver it via Egypt.
This sequence of events illustrates the extent to which, on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the unity of the 27 Member States remains difficult to achieve. While the EU’s unanimously condemned of the attacks and affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself, shortly after Ursula von der Leyen was criticised for having visited Israel to show support without expressing concern about the fate of the Palestinians in Gaza.
In the past the European Economic Community – replaced by the EU in 1993 – was able to develop consensual positions on this issue, but it now seems infinitely more difficult. It is therefore hard to see how the EU could weigh in sufficiently to influence the outcome.
The 1980 Venice Declaration, on Palestine enabled the nine Member States to express their support for the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. Two years later, French president François Mitterrand, spoke before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. He expressed his attachment to the state of Israel, but also the prospect of a Palestinian state. Mitterrand’s position was subsequently adopted by the EU itself.
Despite such firm declarations, Europeans had little influence on the Middle East peace process. During the Cold War, a bipolar system had spread to the Middle East: the United States sided with Israel while the Soviet Union supported the Arab and Palestinian cause. Nevertheless, the Security Council’s positions – in particular 1967’s resolution 242, which called for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied territories – marked a consensus among the powers on the need to return to the partitioning of Palestine planned in 1948-1949. In 1980, the same Security Council, in resolution 478, refused to recognise Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem.
It was under the aegis of the United States (principally) and the Soviet Union (moribund at the time) that the peace process was really launched at the 1991 Madrid Conference. The Europeans found their place in this complex and hesitant process with the 1996 appointment of a special representative – Spain’s Miguel Moratinos was the first holder of the post – and the 2002 establishment of the “quartet” (the United States, Russia, the EU, and the UN) to play a mediating role.
The EU supported the peace agreements, funded the Palestinian Authority and launched a mission to assist the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, evacuated by Israel in 2005. However, faced with a conflict that continued to escalate – Benyamin Netanyahu’s rise to power in 1996, the second Intifada from 2000 to 2006, the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, and Israel’s increased colonisation of the occupied territories – the EU Member States struggled to speak with a common voice and make it heard.
The EU is not condemned to impotence, however. Member States have taken united and resolute action on the Iranian nuclear issue since 2003, combining sanctions and diplomacy. There are elements of consensus on civil aid to the Palestinians, support for the peace process and opposition to the policy of force, including the colonisation of the occupied territories. Europeans have not always remained passive regarding Israel. The 1995 Association Agreement, which organises with cooperation Israel, did not meet between 2012 and 2022, as the Israelis objected to the EU’s positions on settlements in the West Bank.
Still, the Member States haven’t agreed on any sanctions. All they did in 2019 was to agree to label (rather than ban) Israeli products from the occupied territories, after Israel proclaimed itself to be the “nation-state of the Jewish people”, a discrimination against non-Jewish citizens, particularly the country’s Arab minority.
Despite some points of agreement, the Member States (and the UK, a former member) have strikingly different visions of the Israeli-Palestinian question – a fact that limits their effectiveness.
Starting in 1917, it was the UK and France that encouraged the rebirth of a Jewish national home in the ancestral land of Israel. While London generally remained close to Israeli positions, Paris was more careful about the Arab world and defended Palestinian rights. Germany and Austria, for their part, bear the scars of the Nazis’ crimes and are more inclined to align themselves with Israel’s positions. This is also the case for the Netherlands and in a number of Central and Eastern European countries. Spain, for its part, has often taken a position close to that of France, a position that may have been relayed by Spanish figures in key positions in European diplomacy – Javier Solana and Miguel Moratinos in the past, Josep Borrell today.
In reality, no European country is powerful enough to stand alone as a major player; but together, they are too divided. Their voices verge on inaudible, especially when it comes to going against Washington’s positions.
While the EU has adopted a common position in UN General Assembly texts more than 90% of the time, the divisions reappear as soon as the issues become sensitive. This is how the votes of the Member States were divided on the UN’s reaction to the Israeli offensive in Gaza in 2008-2009, on the admission of Palestine to UNESCO in 2011, and then on granting it UN observer in 2012. In the last case, 14 countries (including France) voted in favour, the Czech Republic against and 12 countries abstained, including Germany and the UK.
As the right-wing “illiberal” axis has strengthened in both Israel and the west, the rhetoric of the “war against Islamist terrorism” and a “security above all” vision, political analysis of the conflict has suffered. In this light, it is not surprising to see figures such as Viktor Orban, Georgia Meloni and Marine Le Pen fully aligning themselves with the Netanyahu government’s security policy.
The legitimacy of the European institutions to carry out strong diplomacy above the Member States is fragile. If the EU were to introduce majority voting in foreign policy – foreign policy currently requires unanimity – this would perhaps facilitate things, but it’s not sure that strong autonomous actions not aligned with the United States’ position could reach even a majority.
At this stage, coordinated action by France, Germany and the UK, as in the case of Iran, does not seem to be in sight either. Unfortunately, the Israeli-Palestinian issue shows the limits of European power.
By Maxime Lefebvre, Affiliate professor, ESCP Business School