For the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine has been trumped up by the Middle East conflict on the European Council’s official agenda. When the EU leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, the volatile situation in the Middle East will be given top priority amid serious concern about a potential region-wide escalation.
In this issue, the EU ended up caught on the wrong foot. It has been accused by many of inflaming the conflict further instead of defusing the situation. The Berlaymont’s initial reaction to the 7th October Hamas attack in Israel was flawed, and little did it respect the intricacies of interests and complexities of the region. The EU’s initial reaction to suspend its aid to the Palestinians drew the ire of the Palestinians and the bloc’s own Member States alike. In a rush to mend the situation, the EU’s High Representative/Vice-President, Josep Borrell, managed to save the day by changing the EU’s position on the matter in a couple of hours, after some EU leaders were fuming.
Given the dysfunctionality of the EU’s initial reaction to the crisis, the leaders’ discussion on the Middle East will undoubtedly not be a smooth ride. Both European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, who attend the Council meetings, might be getting a lot of flak.
The devil is in the details
In preparation for the European Council, EU Member States are divided on whether to insist on a humanitarian ‘pause’ or a humanitarian ‘ceasefire’. UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres first called for a humanitarian ceasefire. However, the terms ‘pause’ and ‘ceasefire’ are quite different; as for EU language, the devil is always in the details.
As explained on Monday by the Borrell following the Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Luxembourg, a ceasefire is a durable agreement that has to be agreed by all parties, while a humanitarian pause is a temporary measure. Some Member States, such as Germany, disagree with introducing any reference to a ceasefire in the European Council conclusions. The German Foreign Minister stated that the terrorist threat that Hamas poses in the region will not be resolved by a ceasefire, preferring instead to call for a humanitarian pause. This issue will feature prominently in the leaders’ meeting since technical discussions at Ambassadorial level have been inconclusive.
In this case, the EU seems unable to put its differences aside and emerge united, as it did on Ukraine. The initial reaction to the crisis has heavily dented the EU’s credibility, rendering it almost irrelevant in the region. The visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to Israel could well be interpreted as an attempt to make the EU relevant once again in this context. However, this could be a long shot due to the inherent nature of the EU foreign policy realm, which is subjugated to Member States’ foreign policies. Given the stark divergences among EU Member States on the subject, the EU’s relevancy in the region could be a distant dream.
Other issues on the agenda
The European Council is also expected to discuss Ukraine, focusing primarily on utilising Russian frozen assets to support Kyiv and the issue of providing it with security commitments, which should reflect Member States’ specificities in reference to the Maltese, Irish, and Austrian positions on neutrality.
Leaders are also expected to touch upon the Multi-Annual Financial Framework Mid-term Review. The EU budget is always a contentious issue. While the overall budget has been agreed in 2020, it is now time for a mid-term review, which is a customary exercise so that the EU budget is adjusted to the prevailing realities. This also featured prominently in the Med 9 Summit meeting held in Malta last month. Malta, along with other Euro-Mediterranean countries, insisted on more funds being allocated for the Southern Neighbourhood.
Photo credit: EPA-EFE/Olivier Hoslet