Helpless on Gaza

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As positions in the Middle East harden, EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell admits that is “very difficult to play an important role” for Europe in the region.

At informal EU foreign ministers talks in Brussels on Saturday (3 February), Borrell described the situation in the Middle East in harsh words after US airstrikes hit dozens of sites in Iraq and Syria used by Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

The Israel-Hamas war has now created “a domino effect,” Borrell said. He warned that conflict is likely to spread throughout the region to Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and in the Red Sea area unless a ceasefire is agreed.

“We are living in a critical situation in the Middle East, in the whole region,” Borrell said. “As long as the war in Gaza continues, it is very difficult to believe that the situation in the Red Sea will improve, because one thing is related with the other.”

The situation in the Middle East was one of the main topics at informal talks this weekend, next to EU-Africa ties, Russia’s war in Ukraine and relations with Turkey. By the end of the meeting, the number of foreign ministers present has shrunk to half.

In a bid to calm the spiral of violence in the region, the EU is expected to launch a naval mission in the Red Sea this month to help protect international vessels from attacks by Yemen’s Houthis.

Borrell warned that it will be hard for the EU to do more.

Asked after the informal talks this Saturday what the EU can practically do to contribute to ending the Israel-Hamas war, Borrell responded by calling a spade a spade. He admitted that despite months of diplomatic activity, the bloc struggles to speak with one voice on the conflict in Gaza.

“We have a minimum [agreement among member states], everybody agrees on the need for humanitarian pauses, and increased humanitarian support to the people affected by the war,” Borrell said.

“But when comes the moment to vote in the United Nations, some people ask for a ceasefire, an immediate and permanent ceasefire; some states ask for it. Others vote against [it], and others abstain,” he said.

“So, it is very difficult to play an important role if you have – inside the club – such different positions,” he added.

An EU Middle East peace plan proposal, circulated two weeks ago and first reported by Euractiv, had resulted in broad backing in the bloc for a two-state solution.

But question marks remain on how to achieve it in the current circumstances, and over Israel’s blunt rejection of it.

EU diplomats also say they do not see how there could be progress made on the plan unless the war comes to a halt and point to close to no European leverage over both conflict parties.

“It’s good it was proposed, but as so often is the case with EU initiatives, this risks becoming a paper tiger if there is no buy-in beyond the bloc, in the region and by the conflict parties itself,” an EU diplomat said.

“Besides, there are a few plans now flying around – ours, that of the Arab states, US efforts – but nothing of that is likely to be successful if the atrocities continue,” they added.

Recent allegations against the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) that some of its staffers took part in the 7 October terrorist attacks in Israel have left matters even more complicated for the EU’s Middle East diplomacy.

Borrell said the majority of EU foreign ministers present believe that UNRWA’s work is vital. While some countries have frozen their support, he said that some have informed him that their governments would step up funding.

“UNRWA has been playing a critical role to support the Palestinian refugees, and not only in Gaza” but also in Lebanon and Jordan, Borrell said. “Who can substitute that overnight?”

He welcomed the investigation launched by the agency and the EU’s own audit.

European disagreements over their Middle East policy were paired with EU officials this week struggling to get the A list to a series of EU-Indo-Pacific fora in Brussels that were meant to discuss security issues.

Notable absentees were China and the United States, with lower-level representation from Japan, Australia, India and South Korea, as well as EU foreign ministers from Germany, France and Italy.

Some countries from the region called out EU duplicity in confronting Russia and Israel.

“There cannot be two double standards for what’s happening in Ukraine and what is happening in the Middle East,” Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Ali Sabry told reporters.

“That sentiment was expressed by most of those who came from the Global South,” he said, adding that this message doesn’t go down well with some European counterparts.

Differences over the Israel-Hamas war bubbled to the surface at talks between European ministers and their counterparts from the Southeast Asian regional bloc ASEAN this week. Both sides agreed to disagree.

“We agreed to condemn all attacks against civilians and we noted the call of some of us for a durable ceasefire,” the joint statement between EU and ASEAN nations read.

“We called for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, especially women, children, the sick and the elderly. In this context, some of us raised the importance of release from arbitrary detention,” it added.

They used a similar, non-committal formulation for Russia’s war on Ukraine, falling short of strong condemnation. Since the start of Russia’s war, some Asian powers, including India, Pakistan and Vietnam have not been keen to publicly condemn Moscow.

“Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine (…) There were other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions,” they said in the jointly drafted declaration.


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[Edited by René Moerland]

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