Is Europe finally coming around to the idea of a Palestinian state?

The EU’s efforts to recognise such a state may be slow, but they should not be mocked

A national demonstration in support of Palestine in Dublin last month. PA
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The EU has grown ever more divergent from the US in its policy towards Palestine and Israel, with a strong lobby building for recognition of the Palestinian state.

The fact that the bulk of the 27-member bloc has not crossed the Rubicon, despite the failure to achieve a ceasefire after more than seven months of war in Gaza, must not be mocked. Systematic steps are being taken by some member states to achieve something that, for reasons of history and practicality, cannot be easily wished into place.

For a measure of how difficult this is, one need only look at the arguments advanced in 2018 by Simon Coveney, Ireland’s then foreign minister. Mr Coveney faced down a heavy diplomatic campaign by Israeli officials six years ago to declare that recognition was at the top of the Irish agenda.

At the time, it seemed as much for Irish domestic consumption as a response to the situation on the ground, where the peace process was in danger of outright collapse as the US announced it was moving its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem in contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 478. After all, it had been Irish government policy since 1980 that the Palestinian people “had a right to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent state in Palestine”.

Clearly, the push for recognition is a political response to the current failure of peace

That right was given a lift by the UN General Assembly on Friday when it backed the resolution that said that “the state of Palestine is qualified for membership in the United Nations in accordance with Article 4 of the Charter and should therefore be admitted”. The UN vote is important to give full voice to the Palestinian position in the world body, but only its members can recognise other states.

The current Irish government and Mr Coveney’s successor, Micheal Martin, have joined Spain to push for the delayed Palestinian recognition. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy high representative, has said that those countries could come together on May 21 to make their declaration.

The long-held majority position in the EU has been that of the Oslo Accords, which is that recognition of the Palestinians should be the culmination of a two-state agreement with Israel.

Eight EU members – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Sweden – have long recognised Palestine as a state. As it stands, the list could expand this month, with some combination of Belgium, Ireland, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain joining that list.

Outside the EU – and the West more broadly – the idea is not subject to the same dividing lines, with 139 of the 193 members of the UN recognising the state of Palestine.

Mr Martin has said that delaying recognition of a Palestinian state is no longer credible or tenable. In a nod to how countries have reacted to the outbreak of a war that seemingly cannot be restrained from outside, Dublin’s position is that recognition would create conditions for a more equal negotiation to happen.

US President Joe Biden’s current standoff with Israel will not disguise the fact that Washington has used its veto at the Security Council as recently as April 18 to block a resolution paving the way for full UN membership for Palestine.

The EU’s formal position is unlikely to change. France may have backed the resolution that the US vetoed, but it has not lent its support to the Irish and Spanish initiative. Meanwhile, no one sees any prospect of Austria, Germany, Greece and Hungary watering down their strong backing for Israel.

Another big symbolic mover on this issue would be the UK. Students at the Oxford and Cambridge universities occupied campus grounds last week, with some holding banners pointing out that Oxbridge men wrote the Balfour Declaration. That document is seen as the first step to denying a Palestinian state.

UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron moved London’s position when he took office late last year, saying that there would be British recognition of a Palestinian state. He added that this may not come at the outset of revived peace process, but it doesn’t have to be the very end either. As former ambassador Vincent Fean said after the UN vote, the UK has wasted 10 years and more waiting for “the right time” to recognise the state of Palestine.

Clearly, the push for recognition is a political response to the current failure of peace. As such, it can be seen in conjunction with attempts to develop a legal response to the war, with South Africa leading an appeal to the International Court of Justice under the Genocide Convention. While there was Palestinian disappointment that the Court’s decision was not a demand that Israel declare a ceasefire, there remains a hope that it will eventually press for one.

Politics is an important factor in how the conflict ends, and for that reason, the impact of the Europeans declarations lined up in less than 10 days’ time should not be underestimated.

Published: May 13, 2024, 4:00 AM