The outbreak of the worst violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades, triggered by Hamas’ horrific attack on 7 October and Israel’s disproportionate military response, marks a turning point in the unravelling of Europe’s role in the world.
Only a few months ago, the story was one of Europe, slowly but surely, acting as one. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian courage and US military support enabled Ukraine to stand. Washington’s assistance far outstripped what Europeans collectively could muster. But as the war dragged on, European governments rose to the challenge.
And political unity in support of Ukraine has held despite setbacks, notably those created by Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Eleven packages of sanctions on Russia, the hosting of millions of Ukrainian refugees, the victory over Moscow’s attempt to weaponise Europe’s energy dependence, and the sustained increase in military and economic assistance have been pillars of a concerted strategy. The European Union decisively reopened discussions on new members joining, recognising that after the invasion of Ukraine, enlargement is a strategic imperative.
Meanwhile the transatlantic relationship is in a good place: we would need to rewind to the 1990s to find a time in which the bond was as strong. More broadly, Europe has pursued its energy transition through agreement on its Green Deal; bolstered economic and technological security to chart its way amid the growing US-China rivalry; and sought ways to engage countries in the global south.
A “geopolitical EU Commission”
This has been done via diplomatic outreach and a new momentum behind the €300bn “Global Gateway” initiative, which is designed to boost green growth and infrastructure. The explicit link drawn between the Global Gateway and the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (Imec), launched at the G20 summit in Delhi in September, reflected how Europe had to refashion its policies to make them more appealing to the global south.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, came to office in 2019 declaring that she wanted to lead a “geopolitical commission”. Most of us took that to mean an EU equipped to navigate, on behalf of its 450 million citizens, a world of dangerously growing geopolitical rivalries. And until a few months. ago, a geopolitical Europe seemed to be in the offing.
That is when it all started to go wrong. In western Africa, Europe, represented essentially by France, too burdened by colonial baggage to succeed in its 10-year military operation to root out jihadist forces, has been booted out. A string of military coups, coupled with the breakdown of governance, the devastating effects of the climate crisis, food insecurity and a surge in outward migration, all point to a massive European policy failure. What Brussels calls its “integrated approach”, whereby enhanced security for western-friendly African governments, would be combined with development aid and democratic reforms is moribund.
EU leaders redirected their gaze to north Africa, with a tawdry cash-for-migrants deal signed in July of this year, pushed by the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, to in effect buy Tunisia’s services as a gatekeeper, stopping migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. As might have been predicted, the Tunisian dictator, Kais Saied, later reneged on the deal, wanting his cash with zero strings attached.
This short-sighted policy now lies in tatters. Instead the EU hides its lack of vision behind African organisations: after the coup in Niger in August, it was the member governments of Ecowas that delivered an ultimatum to the ringleaders to restore democracy. Europe was left mouthing that it had all along preached “African solutions to African problems”. Appealing as the slogan sounds, it conceals only that Europe is clueless about what to do.
In the western Balkans, the situation is not – yet – so dire, but despite the revival of the prospect of EU membership for candidate countries, violence has flared between Serbia and Kosovo. Again the EU has been helpless in stopping it, let alone able to cajole a diplomatic agreement between Belgrade and Pristina.
Far worse is the situation in the Caucasus. To be fair, EU failings are not from lack of effort. The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, should be credited for mediating an agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the 2020 war. But this ultimately collapsed as the conflict turned violent through Azerbaijan’s siege on Karabakh, followed by its military takeover and the ethnic cleansing of almost all the 120,000 Armenians from the enclave. And we still cannot say it’s over, with Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey and implicitly by Russia, claiming a corridor through sovereign Armenian territory to connect it to its exclave of Nakhchevan, which it could try to seize by military force.
The full extent of the unravelling of the “geopolitical Europe” ambition has been clear since the renewed outbreak of war in the Middle East. Europe, like the US and the Gulf monarchies, had implicitly bought into the cynical Israeli narrative that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be bypassed. Israel’s overwhelming force and subjugation of the Palestinians, alongside the elimination of the Palestinian question from the regional equation through the normalisation of Israel’s ties with the Arab world, were part of a strategy. This implicitly accepted that stability in the Middle East was possible without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a world in which fragmentation, polarisation, conflict and violence are gaining the upper hand, a multilateral union that stands united and lives up to its democratic principles is needed
The policy was first endorsed by Donald Trump with his 2020 Abraham accords, between Israel on the one hand and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco on the other. The same approach has been pursued under Joe Biden. A normalisation agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia would have represented its crowning achievement. Europe however, fell into its traditional role in the Middle East: playing second fiddle to the US. The Imec initiative, featuring precisely Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, alongside India and the EU, is further evidence of this.
Bypassing the Palestinian question at least meant the EU could dodge the problem that its own hard-fought internal consensus on the conflict – a two-state solution based on 1967 borders – had been coming adrift. Those EU governments that unconditionally sided with Israel had started passively following Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s undermining and rejection of the two-state solution.
The tragic events in the region since 7 October have brutally exposed Europe’s contradictions. There has been a baffling cacophony of voices, from EU aid for the Palestinians being suspended and then restored, to ambiguous messaging on the need for Israel to defend itself within the limits of international humanitarian law.
Whereas some European leaders, such as Michel or the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, have been clear in their messaging on Israel’s legal obligations, others including Von der Leyen have been highly ambiguous, causing friction within European institutions and beyond. Semantically, the differences may seem marginal; politically, they amount to the difference between approaching a fire with a water hose and a gas canister.
When it has looked as if Europe’s approach was hitting rock bottom, the EU has continued digging. Heads of government argued over whether to call for a humanitarian pause in the bombardment of Gaza or a ceasefire, eventually converging on the far weaker former formulation. But the ink was barely dry on that agreement in the European Council when the 27 EU countries split threefold at the United Nations general assembly, with eight voting in favour, 15 abstaining and four voting against a Jordanian resolution calling for a truce and the respect for international humanitarian law.
France voted in favour, yet a few days earlier the French president, Emmanuel Macron, had added to the confusion, proposing the reactivation of the anti-Islamic State coalition to fight Hamas. A non-starter on nearly every level, it appeared little more than a wink to Netanyahu, who has drawn the “Hamas = ISIS” parallel.
The crumbling of European unity over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may ultimately be a footnote in the long history of diplomatic failures on this tragedy. But it should be more. It was the European Community that, back in 1980, first recognised the legitimate self-determination rights of the Palestinian people, and the union that in the late 1990s articulated what a two-state solution could actually mean. It is still the EU that is Israel’s biggest trading partner and the Palestinians’ biggest aid donor. With more courageous and coherent leadership, Europe could have played a far more constructive role.
And while the repercussions of its divisions are so far internal, this could change if the acrimony persists and the struggle for internal consensus saps energy for constructive action elsewhere, including in Ukraine.
While the Middle East burns and the US, albeit one-sidedly, tries to contain the fire, Russia and China watch in smug delight. With hopes for a geopolitical Europe evaporating before our eyes, some might say “so what?”. The answer is that in a world in which fragmentation, polarisation, conflict and violence are gaining the upper hand, a multilateral union that stands united and lives up to its democratic principles is needed – both for the sake of European citizens and the rest of the world.