Much has been written about the European Union’s confused and cacophonic response to the heinous Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack that has plunged the Middle East into one of the most violent crises the region has known since World War II.

While the condemnation of Hamas’ atrocities was unanimous, not much else was. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has been criticized — including by her own staff — for her unconditional support for Israel, even if her position has subsequently evolved as the number of Palestinian casualties has continued to rise. In a rushed attempt to signal a policy change, shortly after the attack Hungarian EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations Olivér Várhelyi announced the halting of all EU “payments” to the Palestinians — a move that was later retracted. The EU development portfolio, amounting to hundreds of millions of euros, was put under review, but in recent weeks Brussels has actually stepped up its humanitarian assistance.

Other European leaders have tried, right from the outset, to articulate a message that looks at Israel’s retaliation as just one side of the equation. French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, has proposed to widen the scope of the anti-ISIL coalition to fight Hamas — an initiative that has not gained traction. Notably, he has simultaneously called for a “decisive relaunch” of the Middle East peace process and subsequently been very vocal about the need for an end to the Israeli bombing campaign and a ceasefire.

As the scale of Israel’s wide-ranging military operations has become clear, many EU leaders have expressed concern about the number of civilian lives lost, although not all European governments have joined the growing international chorus blasting Israel for what is widely criticized as a disproportionate response.

In a laudable effort to delineate the EU position early on, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has insisted on some basic tenets: Israel’s right of self-defense and Europe’s full solidarity in the fight against Hamas; the need for Israel’s response to be commensurate and compliant with international humanitarian law; the absolute necessity of preventing a wider conflict; the imperative of avoiding a further exacerbation of the humanitarian situation; and a reaffirmation of Europe’s long-standing commitment to a diplomatic solution based on two states. As Arab public opinion and wide segments of the European public have rushed to denounce alleged European and Western double standards, Borrell was among the first (and few) international leaders to go on record calling the total siege of Gaza a violation of international law (as a result of this and other positions, some EU member states have taken exception to Borrell’s proactive approach)

Towards the end of October, European views seemed to coalesce around a balanced approach, with strong impetus from the Spanish Presidency. The long-negotiated text of the Oct. 26 European Council statement finally called for “humanitarian corridors and pauses for humanitarian needs” — something Israel has later implemented, albeit in a limited way and with narrow modalities that have been criticized — while reiterating Israel’s right to defend itself “in line with international law.” Yet just days later Europe’s internal divisions were again on full display as EU countries split on a U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for a humanitarian truce. Several EU member states felt compelled to vote against or abstain on a text that did not mention Hamas.

Europe’s divisions have deepened as the Middle East peace process collapsed

The truth of the matter is that after being an early advocate of the two-state solution and crafting successful diplomatic initiatives towards a negotiated settlement, such as the 1991 Madrid Conference, in more recent years Europe has struggled to keep its unity — and more crucially to maintain its influence — on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As the Middle East peace process progressively stalled and Palestinian and Israeli politics drifted away from the middle ground, intra-EU divisions deepened, with some European countries distancing themselves from the Palestinian cause — the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007 and the ossification of the Palestinian Authority being two reasons — while others focused their attention on the dangerous rise of political extremism in Israel.

Well before the current crisis, EU countries conspicuously split in 2011 over the UNESCO initiative to admit Palestine as a member. In 2012, they divided over the U.N. General Assembly vote according Palestine non-member observer state status. In a break from the previous record, since the mid-2010s, the EU has been struggling to speak with one voice on the nature of Israeli settlements. In the run-up to the current war, there was talk of “de-Europeanization” of Middle East policy even as in other areas, notably the war in Ukraine, EU leaders had seemed to live up to the self-declared ambition of turning the Union into a coherent geopolitical actor.

Faced with a crisis for which Hamas bears full responsibility and blame but at the same time is also the tragic epilogue of a process of progressive side-tracking of the Palestinian question, European divisions reflect the receding space for common ground and the triumph of self-interest, a trend that has affected not only Israeli politics but has marked the strategies of key Arab actors in recent years as well. While these divisions have certainly weakened Europe’s ability to influence regional developments, they do not yet fully explain its growing irrelevance. Europe’s “powerlessness” may be rather due to the fact that as power games have become mainstream in relations among Israelis, Palestinians, and regional actors, Europe’s traditional insistence on a comprehensive, inclusive, and balanced approach has lost much of its appeal.

A possible EU niche between power politics and powerlessness

The question then becomes whether the ongoing war, in that it represents the failure of the politics of opportunism that a growing number of actors have subscribed to in recent years, may open a niche for the EU. For their part, countries that have played hard ball in recent years, either by supporting Palestinian extremism or endorsing initiatives — signally the Abraham Accords — that contributed to shifting the focus to the geopolitical confrontation with Iran, are now potentially more exposed to the consequences of the crisis.

As societies across the Arab world and beyond sympathize with the suffering of the Palestinians, countries that in recent years have normalized relations with Israel without preconditions find themselves in a tough spot. For its part, having supported the Abraham Accords over two consecutive administrations and being Israel’s key military ally, the U.S. can exert great influence on crucial dossiers — from the release of the hostages to avoiding a regional escalation — but is no longer in a position to play the same role of honest broker it performed back in the 1990s. The coming 2024 U.S. presidential elections will further complicate the Biden administration’s balancing act as progressives are increasingly calling to rein in Israel while Republicans that are becoming more tepid towards U.S. assistance for Ukraine want to see even more U.S. support for America’s Middle East ally.

The EU’s narrow, thankless, but crucial task going forward is to navigate this fractured and increasingly polarized environment, seizing the opportunities — small and big — that may open up to revamp diplomatic dialogue, turning the international backlash against Hamas into a possible creative moment. Although the two-state solution may look as remote as ever at present, Europe should seize upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent statements that Israel does not intend to occupy or govern Gaza after the conflict to proactively outline a process in which the objective of successfully isolating and defeating Hamas is linked to a resumption of peace talks.  

For the time being, Europe’s challenge has stemmed not only from internal divisions but also from its limited initiative, even as the U.S., Qatar, and other regional actors have worked to broker recent deals on hostage release and humanitarian support. Yet Europe’s repeated calls for an international conference should not be dismissed a priori as wishful thinking. While EU leaders are all too aware that any successful process will have to rely on regional ownership, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and President Macron are right in advocating, among others, that the EU offer its own formats — like France successfully did with the Nov. 9 high-level international gathering on humanitarian aspects of the crisis on the margins of the Paris Peace Forum. This and similar future initiatives will allow the EU to play the role of extra-regional host, relieving some of the pressure on regional actors and mobilizing much-needed international financial support for the region.

When it comes to its own direct engagement, the EU should not only review the composition and beneficiaries of its aid for Palestine but also revise the mandate of its civilian missions in the region, pairing the focus on state building with human capacity building. Together with tailored track II and track 1.5 diplomatic initiatives, the EU could play an important role in engaging and supporting a new cohort of Palestinian and Israeli youth leaders drawn closer by a common desire to escape the spiral of violence that the politics of intransigence has fueled.

In this context, elements of the Abraham Accords could be reappreciated and possibly even strengthened by an EU that has been from the outset fairly tepid towards this U.S.-supported initiative. Together with the focus on the regional threat posed by a revisionist Iran, the Abraham Accords have had the notable merit of adopting a forward-looking approach, exploring much-needed synergies for economic growth and technological development without which parts of the region are destined to face the challenges of stagnation and underdevelopment.

As Israel’s main trading partner and Palestine’s largest international donor, the EU has clear leverage and can use carrots and sticks more effectively going forward, for instance by pushing for an opening of the political process in the West Bank, or by further reviewing the issue of Israeli settlements in the context of economic and trade relations with Israel. Overall, the EU should try to change as much as possible the underlying incentive structure for both parties in the direction of revamped diplomatic engagement, signaling that a return to a stalemated peace process after the defeat of Hamas would only spell new, larger crises down the road. For Europe, the revival of diplomacy is not only a foreign policy goal but a domestic issue as sizable segments of the European public are calling for a course correction and may become an important factor in various upcoming elections.

As a matter of fact, a clear focus of the EU should be domestic. While doubling down on efforts to combat both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia — both of which are on the rise — a positive agenda should involve intensified people-to-people contact, bringing together stakeholders behind the vision of a common destiny. That is why it is important that migration policies should not be further tightened as some are already proposing. Strengthened border checks and anti-terrorism activities should go hand in hand with expanded opportunities for Palestinians desiring to move to the EU for educational or professional reasons. Ambitious recent initiatives such as Italy’s Mattei Plan for Africa, focused as they are on creating local opportunities for development while at the same time leveraging labor migration where possible, could have a prominent Middle East and North Africa chapter in light of recent developments.

Among other challenges, the EU faces the problem of more limited leverage towards Arab countries due to its increased energy dependence on the region as a result of its weaning off from Russia fossil fuels. The focus should therefore be on positive sum game partnerships, with economic cooperation and technological transfer supporting the twin goals of coexistence and shared prosperity. This could start with mitigating the growing impact of climate change on issues like soil degradation and water scarcity in the MENA region, which would add a whole new meaning to the old “land for peace” formula.


Emiliano Alessandri is a non-resident scholar with MEI and an expert on Euro-Mediterranean relations with a focus on North Africa. Domènec Ruiz Devesa is a Spanish member of the European Parliament and a Vice Chairman of the EP delegation on relations with Iraq. The opinions expressed in this article are strictly their own.

Photo by Michele Spatari/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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