How von der Leyen exposed EU divisions on Israel-Hamas conflict
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
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Good morning. An earthquake in Poland: the pro-EU opposition is forecast to have won enough votes to form a parliamentary majority at yesterday’s election. That would end eight years of rightwing rule and overhaul its relations with Brussels.
Today, I unpack the EU’s divides over the Israel-Hamas conflict, while Greece’s migration minister tells Laura the EU must plan for the likely humanitarian crisis.
After nine days of hostilities in Israel and Gaza, EU countries finally agreed a joint statement on the conflict. But don’t expect it to end the unease caused by European Commission Ursula von der Leyen offering her forthright support to Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet in Brussels’ name.
Context: Israel has vowed to “eliminate” Hamas in retaliation for the terror group’s attack that killed more than 1,400 Israelis, mainly civilians. While publicly expressing support for Israel, many western leaders have privately urged Netanyahu to avoid a full-scale invasion of Gaza, from where Hamas launched the attack, threatening its entire 2.3mn population.
Von der Leyen travelled to Israel on Friday and met Netanyahu without first receiving a mandate from EU leaders. Her statement after the meeting did not include a call for Israel’s reprisals to conform with international law, as the joint statement later did. (She said: “How Israel responds will show that it is a democracy.”)
In response, EU council president Charles Michel — who is formally in charge of the EU’s “external representation” — called an extraordinary videoconference summit of the 27 leaders tomorrow afternoon, and arranged the joint statement.
There’s more to this than just intra-EU rivalries and institutional rules of process. Von der Leyen responded to Russia’s war against Ukraine by assuming an oversized foreign policy role, particularly regarding sanctions and co-ordination with the US, at Michel’s expense. But while there is broad EU unity on how to respond to the war in Ukraine, the Israel-Palestine issue has always been more complex.
Diplomats are worried that tomorrow’s summit — and a European parliament debate on Wednesday — will expose more division than unity.
Ireland’s Leo Varadkar, who warned Netanyahu against “collective punishment” of Palestinians, and Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, who said Israel’s call for a Gaza evacuation was against international law, have taken a far more cautious stance towards Israel’s response than von der Leyen and countries such as Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.
“I have never seen this kind of crossfire on EU foreign policy,” said one EU diplomat. “It’s a cacophony. It’s ridiculous.”
People close to von der Leyen acknowledge she has pushed the institutional limits of her role and say she is braced for member states’ criticism of her trip. But they say her instinctive, personal response was the product of a strong German impulse to defend Israel at all costs, not her disregard of the EU’s internal processes.
“She has to keep a balance,” said one official involved in discussions between EU leaders on the issue. “But regardless of mandates, she has an institutional role and responsibility. She said the right thing: Europe stands with Israel.”
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Fight or flight
The ramifications of the Israel-Hamas conflict will test EU leaders on one of the bloc’s most delicate issues: migration, writes Laura Dubois.
Context: Following almost a week of retaliatory air strikes, the Israeli government on Friday told some 1.1mn inhabitants of northern Gaza to evacuate, prompting an exodus south and UN warnings of a humanitarian disaster.
“If there is a humanitarian crisis or catastrophe . . . there is a risk for increased [migration] flows,” Greek migration minister Dimitris Kairidis told the FT, echoing warnings by EU council president Charles Michel over the weekend.
Kairidis called for a “contingency plan” for the crisis unfolding in the Middle East, involving local aid and engagement with regional powers like Egypt.
Kairidis said the EU should “provide the necessary humanitarian relief as close as possible to the disaster area” through organisations such as the Red Crescent and UNHCR. “It should correspond with the increased needs that we will be facing soon, I’m afraid.”
Last week, the European Commission tied itself in knots over a review of its aid to Palestine, but over the weekend announced it would treble donations to Gaza to €75mn.
But Kairidis said that despite the possible humanitarian crisis, the EU should not grant the status of temporary protection to refugees from Palestine, as it has done for those fleeing the war in Ukraine.
“Europe cannot be the sole provider of international protections for those in need in this war,” the Greek minister said. “That means that in the Middle East there are neighbouring countries that need to do their fair share, with the help of Europe.”
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