EU scrambles to unify its position on Israel-Gaza war

Heads of states to meet on Tuesday, amid claims European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has been biased towards Israel

Smoke rises over Gaza, amid the continuing Israeli bombardment of the Palestinian enclave. Reuters
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The EU is seeking to unify its position on the Israel-Gaza war with an extraordinary meeting of 27 heads of state on Tuesday.

The virtual meeting comes after sharp criticism was directed against the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“We felt the need to bring some order, that’s a fact. What we have seen last week was going in many directions and not reflecting the council position or member states’ position,” an EU official said on Monday.

This position was echoed among other European officials and diplomats, who have privately said that Ms von der Leyen had no mandate to represent the EU during her trip to Israel in the wake of attacks by militant group Hamas.

The surprise large-scale incursion killed over 1,400 Israelis. Israel has responded with a siege of Gaza and bombardment which has killed almost 2,800 Palestinians. In both cases, most of those killed were civilians.

“This is the time to stand in solidarity with Israel and its people. And this is why I am here,” said Ms von der Leyen in Israel on Friday as she stood alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Hamas's despicable actions are the hallmark of terrorists. And I know that how Israel responds will show that it is a democracy,” she said.

Departure from agreed language

By not echoing the UN call to protect civilians and abide to international law, Ms von der Leyen departed from “agreed EU language,” one diplomat told The National. “That’s potentially damaging,” they said.

They said that even more care than usual should have been put in any EU statements on Israel and Palestine due to the “very volatile situation after Hamas’s horrific attack”.

Analysts have previously told The National that Ms von der Leyen’s initial failure to request that Israel respect international law gave the impression that she endorsed Israel’s siege and strikes on Gaza.

The siege has been sharply criticised by some EU countries. Ireland’s Foreign Affairs minister Micheal Martin said on Sunday that “even wars have rules”.

“There is no doubt about the brutal criminality of Hamas and their utter disregard for human life, including the lives of their fellow Palestinians. But we absolutely must distinguish between Hamas and Palestinian civilians in Gaza,” said Mr Martin.

French MEP Nathalie Loiseau, who chairs the European Parliament’s security and defence committee, wrote on X that she did not understand what Ms von der Leyen “has to do with the EU’s foreign policy, which she is not in charge of”.

In the past days, Ms von der Leyen’s office seems to have tried to rectify the impression that she is biased towards Israel.

A video published on social media on Sunday shows previously unpublished footage of Ms von der Leyen telling a crowd around her during her visit to Israel that “I’m very grateful that you said very clearly that Hamas are the terrorists but that we have to care for the Palestinian people in humanitarian needs”.

In parallel, the European council, where national leaders meet to discuss topics such as security and foreign policy, issued a statement over the weekend both condemning Hamas and supporting Israel’s right to defend itself “in line with humanitarian and international law.”

In his invitation for Tuesday’s meeting, which will be held virtually due to its last-minute nature, European Council President Charles Michel told the bloc’s heads of states that “it is of utmost importance that the European Council in line with the Treaties and our values, sets our common position and establishes a clear unified course of action that reflects the complexity of the unfolding situation.”

Mr Michel and Ms von der Leyen have a notoriously bad working relationship. Tensions resurfaced recently over a migration deal with Tunisia.

In an apparent swipe at Ms von der Leyen, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said at a press conference that the EU’s position on foreign policy was determined by the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Ministers Council, which he chairs.

Israel’s right to defend itself “has a limit”, he said, speaking from China on Sunday.

But many say the damage has already been done.

The apparent disunity between Ms von der Leyen and other EU institutions has further compounded the chaotic impression given by the European Commission in the wake of the Hamas attacks after it announced the suspension of aid to Palestinians before backtracking.

“The EU needs to speak with a strong voice, and there’s a real sense that what Ursula von der Leyen did is just really unhelpful,” said the diplomat.

In defence of Ms von der Leyen, the European Commission’s spokesman Eric Mamer on Monday said that she had every right to travel to Israel to show her solidarity.

“She has done so before and will continue to do it,” said Mr Mamer.

“I don’t remember anybody criticising the president for going to Ukraine after the outbreak of the war in March when she went to Bucha and saw the body bags after the Russian attack against Ukraine.”

Such comparisons do not hold, said the diplomat, who described Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year as a “black and white situation where there were no dissenting voices”.

The EU official said that the bloc should be “careful” when “expressing a position in a certain field”.

The focus now is on rebuilding unity and shifting the debate towards the need to provide humanitarian assistance to the region and pushing back against hate speech in Europe as antisemitic incidents are on the rise.

Discussions of calling for a ceasefire, which the EU, like the US, has not expressed so far, will also be on the agenda at Tuesday’s meeting.

Neither Mr Borrell nor Mr Michel plan to visit Israel soon. They will be travelling on Friday with Ms von der Leyen to Washington for an EU-US summit during which they will continue discussing the conflict in Israel and Palestine.

“We think it’s important to first have a clear policy,” said the official. “Then you work on travelling and the way you communicate.”

Updated: October 17, 2023, 8:25 AM