EU leaders are meeting in Brussels at a summit overshadowed by Hamas’s war with Israel and the EU’s failure to project a united front.
The issue is whether to back a ceasefire or humanitarian pauses in the fighting.
The European Union’s stance on the war has been clouded with mixed messages, diplomatic gaffes and conflicting national views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
European Council President Charles Michel says the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza is of grave concern and the leaders are keen to facilitate access to food, water, medical care, fuel and shelter.
They expressed the hope that the decision will create safer conditions for the release of more than 200 hostages seized by Hamas gunmen during their October 7 attack.
Those held captive include European dual nationals, including citizens from Germany, France, Portugal and the Netherlands.
Arriving for the summit, Spain’s caretaker prime minister Pedro Sánchez said he would like to see a ceasefire: “But if we don’t have that condition, at least a humanitarian pause in order to channel all the humanitarian aid that the Palestinian population needs urgently.”
Some have reservations about calling for a pause in the fighting and argue it could be seen as limiting Israel’s right to self-defence.
Germany and other countries do not support the idea of one, singular humanitarian pause, because that would be too close to the concept of a ceasefire, when Israel has the right to defend itself from attack.
Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic have taken strong stances of supporting Israel, while Spain and Ireland are more attuned with the Palestinian cause.
Several European leaders have been on a diplomatic tour of the Middle East, even as Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, have all had talks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Czech prime minister Petr Fiala visited Israel on Wednesday.
The EU is the largest donor to the Palestinians, hence when Hungary’s European Commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, responsible for policy towards neighbouring countries, announced after the Hamas attack, that all payments were being suspended and all new budget proposals postponed, it immediately sent alarm bells ring at aid agencies.
The EC in a statement said that €691m (£600m) of aid would not be stopped but put under review, and later added that it would treble aid for Palestinians.
When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen flew to Israel with the president of the European Parliament, she drew criticism for backing Israel’s right to defend itself without stressing that it should stick to international humanitarian law. There seemed to be no effort to connect with the Palestinian Authority.
In a highly unusual move, more than 800 EU staff and diplomats signed an open letter criticising her “uncontrolled” support of Israel. They complained of the Commission’s “double standards”, pointing out that Russia’s blockade of Ukraine was seen as an act of terror, while Israel’s blockade of Gaza was “completely ignored”.
“In the past, the EU approach to conflicts in the Middle East had generally managed to come out with an even-handed position. For example, in 2014 calls for a ceasefire were pretty quickly made.”
The EU doesn’t have an army, ships, or planes – but it has played an important diplomatic role in the Middle East.
When it was made up of just nine members in 1980, it issued the ground-breaking Venice Declaration recognising the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.
That became clear during an EU foreign ministers meeting earlier this week, where German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock reportedly argued against a humanitarian ceasefire because Hamas was still firing rockets at Israel.
As a result the EU has so far failed to agree on what kind of pause there should be.