Brussels — Following days of confusing and sometimes contradictory messaging about the EU’s stance on the developing Israel-Hamas conflict, leaders of the bloc’s countries on Tuesday are to try to rally around a clear statement.
“We felt the need to bring some order,” one EU official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue more freely.
A videoconference of the leaders, taking place at 15:30 GMT and chaired by European Council President Charles Michel, will seek to supersede initial steps taken by the European Commission and its chief, Ursula von der Leyen.
Von der Leyen, who has cultivated a profile as the “face” of the European Union, last Friday flew to Israel to tell its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Europe backed Israel’s right to defend itself.
But that message was delivered without the caution being voiced by other Western leaders – and by the EU’s own top foreign policy official Josep Borrell – that Israeli action must abide by international humanitarian law.
Israel has the right to defend itself in full compliance with international humanitarian law.
We reiterate the importance of the provision of urgent humanitarian aid.
This conflict has many consequences, including for the EU.
The Union has always been and must always be a… pic.twitter.com/1ffMMJmW3Z
— Charles Michel (@CharlesMichel) October 15, 2023
Several EU governments bristled at von der Leyen taking it on herself to wade into foreign policy matters, which are decided by member countries, without prior consultation and straying from their national positions.
“Foreign affairs is a matter for member states, it is a matter for the (European) Council,” an EU official said.
The commission aimed the same allegation of non-coordination at one of its own last week: Oliver Varhelyi, the commissioner responsible for relations with countries neighbouring the EU.
Varhelyi had gone it alone to announce that all disbursement of EU development aid to Palestinians had been frozen because of Hamas’s bloody attack in Israel launched October 7.
After a disconcerted pause, the commission corrected that to say that it will see if payments for development projects in Palestinian territories “need to be adjusted” but that humanitarian aid was not affected.
‘Source of annoyance’
Von der Leyen, too, after running into flak for her declarations in Israel announced after her return that the commission would triple its humanitarian aid to Palestinians to 75 million euros ($79 million).
The resulting impression left by these individual forays and U-turns is that the EU’s stance on the conflict is chaotic and not worthy of a bloc that wants to project an image of geopolitical heft, EU lawmakers and Brussels observers say.
“This is a source of annoyance for member states,” one EU diplomat said.
The diplomat added that a meeting of EU foreign ministers last week should have set the tone for Brussels’ public stance, especially the emphasis on referencing international humanitarian law, which also reflected the UN’s position.
Palestinians in Gaza are in need of humanitarian aid.
They cannot pay the price of Hamas’ barbarism.
On top of tripling humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza, we are organising an EU Humanitarian Air Bridge to Gaza through Egypt.
With the first two flights this week.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) October 16, 2023
“But that was rendered unclear basically by the actions of the president of the commission,” the diplomat said.
“I don’t understand what the commission president has to do with EU foreign policy, which she is not in charge of,” said French MEP Nathalie Loiseau.
Commission spokesman Eric Mamer sought Monday to draw parallels between von der Leyen’s trip to war-ravaged Ukraine, under attack from Russia, and her criticised voyage to Israel, during which she inspected the site of a Hamas massacre.
“I don’t remember anybody having criticised the president for going to Ukraine after the outbreak of the war… when she went to Bucha and she saw the body bags,” he said.
“The president can travel wherever she wants.”
Upcoming EU summit
Tuesday’s videoconference was preceded by a statement by EU leaders on Sunday strongly condemning Hamas’s “terrorist attacks” while also mentioning “the importance to ensure the protection of all civilians at all times”.
Both the statement and the meeting are an attempt “to bring things back on track so that the EU is speaking about the situation, and not speaking about the EU speaking about the situation,” the diplomat said.
The videoconference — coming a week before leaders are to meet in person at a regular Brussels summit — was to discuss various aspects and implications of the conflict, not least on diplomatic efforts to prevent it escalating into a regional conflagration.
The consequences for European countries, which have public fault-lines exposed by polarisation over the conflict, and the effects of migrants and refugees flowing from the conflict zones to nearby countries and to Europe would also be discussed, EU officials said.
Hamas, a Palestinian militant group backed by Iran, sent fighters through the Gaza Strip’s heavily militarised border, killing more than 1 400 people in nearby Israeli towns, kibbutzim and at a rave party, most of them civilians. They also took nearly 200 hostages, according to Israel.
Israel responded by declaring war on Hamas, and has been relentlessly bombing Gaza, killing around 2 750 people, most of them ordinary Palestinians, among them more than 700 children. Its forces are massed along the border with Gaza for what looks like an imminent ground invasion.
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