Belgium's De Croo warns of risk to EU's reputation over Israel-Gaza war 'double standard'

Prime Minister says now is the time to discuss a two-state solution

Alexander De Croo, Belgium's Prime Minister, and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street in London on Tuesday. EPA
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European countries may need to answer for their “double standards” in the Israel-Gaza war, the Belgian Prime Minister warned on Tuesday.

During a visit to London to meet British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Alexander De Croo called out the civilian death toll in the “atrocious” war in Gaza, as it reached more than 25,400 people.

European leaders turning a blind eye to Israel's war in Gaza put the EU’s reputation overseas at risk, Mr De Croo said.

“We as Europeans are being challenged all the time on whether we have double standards or not,” he said.

“That question is being asked by some countries, and I think we should have an answer,” he said, responding to a question from The National at an event at the London School of Economics, which took place after his meeting with Mr Sunak.

Belgium began a diplomatic dispute with Israel in November after it criticised the civilian death toll in Gaza.

The country is set to preside over the European Council from January, taking over from Spain, another critic of Israel’s military campaign.

The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, renewed pressure on Israel to accept a two-state solution on Monday during a summit in Brussels aimed at paving the way to peace in the Middle East.

Yet major leaders, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, are yet to call for an immediate end to Israel's military campaign.

Mr De Croo defended his position, repeating his calls for a ceasefire and a revival of the peace process.

“When you have that quantity of human lives lost, that demands a ceasefire," he said. "That is our position.

“If there is a moment to talk about a two-state solution it's now, and let's use that moment to do it."

Mr De Croo said he would not take a partisan view of the conflict.

“Very often we are being pushed into one camp or the other. I am not in one camp.

“I can at the same time say that the terrorist attacks of Hamas are atrocious, that hostages need to be released immediately, unconditionally.

“I can at the same time say that with the military operations, more needs to be done to have no more civilian casualties."

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Lamenting the “cruel” detainment of hostages, he said that negotiations had been more effective in securing their release than Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

“Hostages have been liberated a few weeks ago … because people talked to one another,” Mr De Croo said.

He questioned whether Israel’s military campaign in Gaza would effectively ensure Israel’s security in the future.

“I understand that Israel wants to eliminate the terrorist threat to its population; that’s a very legitimate concern," he said.

"But are current operations contributing to that? I need to be convinced."

Mr De Croo was in London meeting Mr Sunak to discuss a security agreement, under which UK law enforcement members would be sent to Belgium to deal with people-smuggling operations.

The pair also discussed “solutions” to illegal migration, which included “partnerships with third countries”, a statement from Mr Sunak's office said.

They agreed to continue working together on sanctions to inhibit Russia's war machine, and to use assets seized from Moscow to support the rebuilding of Ukraine.

Turning to developments in the Red Sea, they agreed it “was critical to take strong action to defend freedom of navigation and counter Iran’s malign activity in the region”, the statement said.

Belgium would continue to work with the UK despite its departure from the EU, Mr De Croo said after the meeting.

“We are aligned. We are in a different decision system. Do we know that we will work together and that we need to work together? There is absolutely no doubt,” he said.

Co-operation was needed to uphold an “international order” that had come under threat due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the rise of populist parties.

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“Between parts of the world that have so much in common, democracy, a rules-based order, the rule of law, a free market, the universality of human rights … there is gravity,” Mr De Croo said.

“It is something we can fight or something we can lose."

The EU’s influence overseas was also essential for its support of Ukraine, Mr De Croo said, to ensure that Russia did not bypass economic sanctions through other countries.

“Maintaining economic sanctions is important. It does takes time,” he said.

“Making sure there’s no back door to the economic sanctions means using our influence throughout the world."

European unity on Ukraine is needed to defeating Moscow, Mr De Croo said, as he called for the continued supply of weapons to Kyiv.

“The unity which in Moscow was being doubted, it still is there. I do not see any signs on the horizon that it is under pressure,” he said.

But Mr De Croo lamented hesitancy to support Ukraine among some EU members.

“That really is a bottleneck today.”

Updated: January 24, 2024, 11:31 AM