Enhancing our understanding of the EU’s role in the Middle East

Professor Cristina Vanberghen delivers her analysis on the EU's role in mediating Middle East conflicts.
Visite d'Ursula von der Leyen, prŽsidente de la Commission europŽenne, en Isra‘l
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament, travelled to Israel to express solidarity with the victims of the Hamas terrorist attacks. Photo: Bea Bar Kallos/European Union, 2023.

In this article, I provide a response to Politico’s piece titled “Who needs the EU’s ‘irrelevant’ Gaza peace plan?” Before addressing this question, it is vital to delve into the historical context and the European Union’s role in the Middle East. It’s essential to understand the EU’s contributions to peace and normalization efforts in the region. While recent criticisms have questioned the EU’s ability to serve as an impartial mediator due to internal disputes and perceived credibility issues, it is essential to examine the EU’s multifaceted historical role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And also the statements from the EU Council and the politicians who have visited Israel have been criticized for their perceived weakness. There is a growing disconnect between the rhetoric used in these statements and the actual situation on the ground. While it is undeniably true that Israel has the right to defend itself, this right becomes more complex when it involves military actions in Gaza, a territory not under Israeli ownership. Merely citing the right to self-defense does not fully address the intricacies of the situation.

Moreover, many politicians call for Israel to act in accordance with international and humanitarian law, effectively advocating for restraint. Whether or not Israel has violated humanitarian laws should ultimately be determined by impartial courts and investigative teams. However, relying solely on legal definitions and procedures can be seen as an attempt to defer action, a tactic that has become a common practice in European politics.

It is essential to recognize that using legal teams and investigations as a substitute for active diplomacy is insufficient. Diplomacy involves more than just taking sides; it’s about creating conditions conducive to a peaceful resolution. Instead of merely offering statements and legal justifications, a more proactive approach is needed to facilitate productive dialogue and negotiation among the concerned parties. This approach would help move closer to a peaceful resolution rather than deferring the issue and perpetuating the cycle of conflict.

Germany's Raison d'État

It is undeniable that each state views the conflict through its unique lens, shaped by its history and interests. This article aims to shed light on the EU’s efforts and to consider the diverse perspectives that make up the complex tapestry of European diplomacy in the Middle East. For example, the speech by Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck against antisemitism, it is about Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security and its fight against antisemitism. “The security of Israel is our raison d’État”: This statement indicates that Germany considers Israel’s security a fundamental priority of its foreign policy. This means that Germany is committed to supporting Israel in its pursuit of security and stability, especially given the history of the Holocaust. “80 years after the Holocaust (…) antisemitism has no place in Germany.”: This statement emphasizes Germany’s commitment to preventing and combating antisemitism, particularly by referencing the Holocaust. Germany recognizes the horror of the Holocaust and is committed to not tolerating antisemitism on its territory.

“Jews are afraid again,” he said, “this is not acceptable”: This statement refers to the fact that, despite the lessons learned from the Holocaust, Jews in Germany (and elsewhere) can still feel concerns or fears due to antisemitism or potential threats. Germany asserts that this fear is not acceptable and is committed to fighting against any form of discrimination or intolerance towards Jews. This is a speech about Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security, its responsibility to the memory of the Holocaust, and its rejection of antisemitim.

EU's multifaceted historical role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

It is high time to delve into the melting pot of foreign policies among EU Member States and gain a deeper insight into their historical relationships within the region. It’s crucial to acknowledge the EU’s historical involvement in the Middle East, especially its contribution to fostering diplomatic relations before October 7. Prior to this time, the European Union had a significant role to play in supporting both Saudi Arabian and Israeli leaders to actively get involved in efforts to normalize relations, with the expectation that this would lead to improvements in the lives of Palestinians. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in his United Nations General Assembly address, stressed that achieving lasting peace in the Middle East depended on Palestinians receiving complete, legitimate, and national rights. In contrast, the right-wing coalition led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained resolute in its position against making concessions to the Palestinians.

To understand the EU’s role better, it’s worth revisiting history. In 1980, the Venice Declaration marked a pivotal moment when the EU established two crucial principles for conflict resolution: the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people and the association of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) with peace negotiations, implicitly endorsing a two-state solution. It’s now more important than ever to seek a resolution to the conflict and find a path towards lasting peace.

HR/VP Josep Borrell at the 27th EU-Gulf Council Cooperation Ministerial Council in Oman, 09 October 2023. Photo: Haitham Alshukairi/European Union, 2023.

On October 27, 2024, President Charles Michel addressed the European Council concerning the ongoing Middle East conflict. He emphasized the EU’s commitment to preventing further escalation and underscored the significance of proactive political and diplomatic engagement. The EU had been in dialogue with leaders from the region, including Israel and other nations. President Michel also mentioned the EU’s decision to support an upcoming international peace conference.

Regarding calls for a ceasefire, while President Michel didn’t explicitly mention such a call, he stressed the need for humanitarian corridors and humanitarian pauses. On October 30, High Representative of Foreign Policy, Mr. Joseph Borrell, stated that the European Council had called for humanitarian pauses and the continuation of unhindered humanitarian access to Gaza. This humanitarian request was reiterated in the EU’s conclusions. However, it’s important to explore why Europe didn’t explicitly call for a ceasefire.

Hamas takes control on Gaza: What's next?

The European Union (EU) has a nuanced history when it comes to mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1980, the Venice Declaration marked a pivotal moment when the EU established two fundamental principles for conflict resolution: the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people and the association of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) with peace negotiations, implicitly endorsing a two-state solution.

Challenges arose in 2006 when Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by both the United States and the EU, won the Palestinian Authority legislative elections and refused to recognize Israel. This stance led to the EU’s refusal to engage in dialogue with the Hamas government, resulting in economic hardship and a humanitarian crisis in Palestinian territories. The lack of contact with Hamas eroded the EU’s capacity to influence the situation.

Further complicating matters, tensions between Hamas and Fatah in 2007 resulted in Hamas seizing control of Gaza, while Fatah retained authority in the West Bank. Efforts to achieve reconciliation and unity between these factions have been sporadic, with Hamas maintaining de facto control in Gaza.

The EU appointed Special Representative Fernando Gentilini employed various strategies, but a lack of coherence among EU actors hindered the EU’s central role in the crisis. The EU provided financial assistance to Palestinian institutions and integrated them into the Barcelona Process, aiming to increase trade liberalization. However, Israel did not recognize these efforts, and the EU did not systematically persuade Israel to change its stance.

The EU also possessed security resources, including the European Union Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support (EUPOL-COPPS) and the European Union Border Assistance Mission in Rafah (EUBAM-RAFAH). Unfortunately, EUBAM-RAFAH’s operations were suspended in 2007.

The head of EUPOL COPPS Mission met with Palestine Civil Police Chief, 30 October 2023. Photo: Eupol COPPS website.

Despite having economic leverage in its trade relationship with Israel, the EU faced challenges due to Israel’s ineligibility for EU financial assistance. Shared geo-strategic interests and a mutual desire for stability in the Middle East continued to connect the EU and Israel.

Mediation efforts were complicated by Israel’s refusal to negotiate with Hamas, leading Egypt to mediate separately between the parties. Nevertheless, the EU remained active in mediation, particularly through France.

The EU could take several actions to contribute to the peace process, including engaging in talks with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt, potentially using coercive tactics. In 2009, the EU threatened to block the upgrading of relations with Israel, demanding a commitment to peace negotiations with Palestinians, indicating a willingness to use economic instruments for promoting peace.

The EU also considered re-deploying EUBAM to monitor Rafah in collaboration with various parties as a directive strategy, rewarding progress in mediation. However, this strategy could only be applied to Israel, as the EU did not engage with Hamas.

The EU supported mediation by Egypt, representing the communication-facilitation strategy in this complex diplomatic landscape.

In the realm of Middle East diplomacy, the European Union (EU) typically collaborates closely with the United States, often playing a secondary role to the USA in mediating conflicts. However, a notable departure from this dynamic occurred in 2008/2009 during Operation Cast Lead when the US took a conspicuous backseat. In this context, the EU, with France taking a leading role, stepped into the breach. Nevertheless, Washington’s involvement was not limited to diplomatic sideline observation; it actively curtailed the efforts of other actors seeking to force an immediate halt to the Israeli operation, leading to a low point in cooperation and coordination between the US and EU.

While the conflict ultimately ended due to a unilateral ceasefire, the efforts of Egypt and the EU played a central role in establishing dialogue and exerting pressure to bring about an end to the hostilities. These ceasefires did not materialize in isolation; the mediation and dialogues facilitated by the EU and Egypt were instrumental in their occurrence. In summary, the EU possessed considerable resources that it could have deployed to influence the conflict’s outcome. However, the convoluted nature of EU foreign policy before the Treaty of Lisbon often led to the inefficient use of these resources, with various actors pursuing divergent strategies. The EU adopted a range of approaches, and its interactions with other mediators were strained, partly due to France’s overactive involvement.

EU's capacity for crisis management in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Let’s now turn our attention to a comparison between Operation Cast Lead and Operation Protective Edge. In 2014, the Israeli army initiated a substantial military operation in the Gaza Strip, codenamed ‘Protective Edge,’ with the objective of halting Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel and dismantling Hamas’ military infrastructure. In contrast to Operation Cast Lead, where there was significant discourse about ‘Franco-Egyptian’ initiatives, Operation Protective Edge predominantly revolved around mediation efforts by Egypt alone. An intriguing development was the participation of not only Israel and Hamas but also the Palestinian Authority and Islamic Jihad in signing the ceasefire agreement.

The Palestinian Authority played a more substantial role compared to Operation Cast Lead, as it was expected to assume responsibility for administering Gaza’s borders, a development of significance due to the EU’s extensive engagement with the Palestinian Authority. Notably, the EU’s power resources remained relatively consistent between the two operations; however, the manner in which these resources were employed underwent changes following the Treaty of Lisbon. The EU continued to be a significant contributor to the Palestinian Authority’s funding, EUPOL-COPPS, and EUBAM-RAFAH, and maintained its delegations in the region. Moreover, the EU appointed a Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process, Mr. Sven Koopmans, enhancing the EU’s ability to coordinate its responses among relevant stakeholders. The establishment of the European External Action Service (EEAS) centralized the EU’s foreign policy tools within a single institution, fostering improved coordination and coherence. The High Representative, benefiting from reduced reliance on member states’ administrative and diplomatic resources, was empowered to utilize these instruments more effectively and politically.

Olivér Várhelyi, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, receives Sven Koopmans, EU Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process.
Sven Koopmans, EU's Special Representative for the Middle East's Peace Process and Olivér Várhelyi, EU's Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement. Photo: Lukasz Kobus/European Union, 2022

Despite these positive developments, a fundamental issue remained unresolved: the EU’s resources were ill-suited for crisis management in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The EU lacked the ability to employ tools like Association Agreements or Action Plans, threatening suspension as a means to compel Israel to cease its military operations. Such tactics could only be effective when dealing with significantly weaker parties, which was not the case in EU-Israel relations.

Consequently, the EU was disinclined to employ these measures. In essence, while tools like reactivating EUBAM-RAFAH held promise, doubts persisted about their ability to broker a ceasefire effectively. Another substantial challenge was inconsistency among EU member states, an issue that the Lisbon Treaty’s rhetoric and sentiment could not fully rectify. Additionally, the establishment of the EEAS and the High Representative/Vice President (HR/VP) created inter-institutional rivalries, notably with the European Council and Commission. In 2014, Egyptian mediation efforts encountered difficulties in securing a ceasefire, necessitating reinforcement from US and European contributions to achieve a more lasting cessation of hostilities. The EU’s primary strategy was to support and facilitate Egypt’s mediation process. It was widely recognized that Egypt was taking the lead in these efforts, compelling the EU to provide backing for Egypt’s initiatives.

This support extended to various measures, including a commitment to reactivate the Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), offering naval escorts, and monitoring sea traffic between Gaza and Limassol, Cyprus. The HR/VP dispatched deputies to assist Egypt in brokering the ceasefire. In essence, the EU served as a valuable ‘honest broker,’ bridging the gap between Egypt and Hamas and ensuring that no weaponry or illicit goods entered Gaza, thereby preventing rearmament by any of the involved groups. However, a central weakness in the EU’s strategy persisted; mediating in challenging conflict situations remained a formidable task, even for a ‘soft power’ entity like the EU. The creation of the EEAS did not fully address this issue. Moreover, the HR/VP’s capacity to act was notably more constrained than that of a rotating presidency, which could draw on independent national resources. The HR/VP remained accountable to member states and the Commission.

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The 46th US President Joe Biden with Ursula von der Leyen, President of European Commission and Charles Michel, President of European Council, 20 October 2023. Photo: Dati Bendo/European Union, 2023.

Nonetheless, the rotating presidency had its set of challenges, emphasizing that the personalities involved played a significant role, rather than just institutional development. The Lisbon Treaty improved intra-EU cooperation by establishing a single point of contact through the EEAS. This enhanced coordination and cooperation with other mediators, particularly the US and Egypt. During this period, Egypt assumed the primary mediator role, with the EU providing diplomatic and political support. The EU did not exert significant pressure on Egypt to push the parties towards a ceasefire. Consequently, the EU collaborated with Egypt, offering its resources, such as the option to reactivate EUBAM-RAFAH, to support Egypt’s efforts. The US also played a pivotal role in mediating the ceasefire, leveraging its unique relationship with Israel. US-led efforts gained momentum, with Secretary of State John Kerry visiting Egypt to facilitate the process.

The EU’s role was primarily supportive, focusing on financial and political contributions, contingent on US preferences. This supportive, somewhat subordinate role was motivated by the interests of Israel, given its special relationship with the US. A key challenge for the EU in its interactions with other mediators was the limited flow of information during crisis moments. It was only after the Lisbon Treaty came into force that the EU began to take mediation more seriously, establishing internal capacity, conducting training and capacity-building exercises, and engaging with international mediation networks. There is a growing recognition of the importance and value of mediation, particularly in the context of the recurring conflicts in Gaza. The EU, however, will need to take on a more active role in the future, with its mediators adopting a more proactive approach to resolve conflicts. 

Cristina ULB photo

Professor Dr. Cristina Vanberghen

Professor Vanberghen is an academic and political commentator, now based at the European University Institute in Florence, and a senior expert with the European Commission. A French-Romanian national, she is an internationally recognised expert in digitalization, artificial intelligence, consumer policy and cybersecurity. She has been consistently ranked as a “Top EU Influencer” by ZN Consulting.

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