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Israel-Hamas war exposes Europe’s vulnerabilities

While the war in Ukraine served to unite the European Union (EU) as a cohesive bloc, the Israel-Hamas war has underscored its existing weaknesses.

The varying interests among European nations naturally lead to divisions on numerous foreign policy matters. In this case, however, even the European Council President Charles Michel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and their foreign policy chief Josep Borrell initially did not share aunified stance.

The EU alsoreversedits decision to halt financial assistance to Palestine. From the initial disorganised response, it appears that there is now a greater level of co-ordination occurring both within the EU and among its member states.

During an extraordinary European Councilmeeting, the EU nations condemned the terrorist attack by Hamas, recognised Israel’s right to self-defence, and highlighted their commitment to lasting and sustainable peace based on the two-state solution. In an unfolding situation, the European Parliament later shared similar points and alsocalled for bothan independent investigation of the Al-Ahli hospital blast in Gaza, and a humanitarian pause.

So far, Israel’s air strikes haveresulted in the lossof more than 5,000 lives in Gaza.The UNRWA reportedthat more than 400,000 internally displaced people are now being sheltered by the agency in Gaza.As Israel prepares for a ground offensive, the EU foreign ministershave not yet reacheda consensus to request a ‘humanitarian pause’, as advised by the European Parliament. It is a different issue whether Israel or Hamas are heeding the EU’s appeal.

French President Emmanuel Macron is the latest European leader to make a ‘solidarity’ visit to Tel Aviv since Hamas’ October 7 attack. So far, von der Leyen, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have visited Israel to show their support.

To ease tensions, many European leaders also took part in the recent Cairo peace summit, organised by the Egyptian President. This included the President of the European Council, along with prime ministers from Italy, Spain, and Greece, as well as foreign ministers from France, and Germany, the British foreign secretary, and the EU foreign policy chief.

A few days ago, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, alongside the majority of major political parties, participated in apro-Israel rally in Berlin. Similar events have taken place in Paris, London, and other European cities.

Meanwhile, the two EU countries with the largest Jewish and Muslim communities, Germany and France,have prohibitedpro-Palestine protests due to concerns about public order and the increase in antisemitic incidents. Still, thousands of pro-Palestine protestorscontinue to marchacross Europe including in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, and Marseille.

Traditionally, many of the far-Right parties in Europe have been synonymous with antisemitism. Interestingly, some of them now see an opportunity to push for their anti-Islamist agenda through the Israel-Hamas war. This is especially evident when many liberal and Leftist parties have somewhat nuanced positions on the activities associated with Hamas and other groups. The liberal-Leftist positions reflect the complex nature of the Israel-Palestine issue, and their strong support base among immigrant communities.

The war in Ukraine has alreadyimpactedgrowth and pushed up inflation in Europe. The current economic situation in the Eurozone is showingworrying signs. Furthermore, the emerging political tensions resulting from Israel’s military campaign and the possibility of a new wave of refugees from Gaza heading towards Europe could further bolster far-Right populists.

The situation will also become increasingly untenable as civilian casualties in Gaza continue to rise daily. The support to Israel is fine but justifying many of the actions by Tel Aviv including the seize of Gaza is not going to be easy for the EU. Europeans have accused Russia of war crimes for similar activities in Ukraine.

While many European leaders are advocating for the relaunch of the Palestinian peace process,the extent of Europe’s influence on the process remains uncertain, even if it were to be initiated. In the past Europe along with the US had some influence over the events in West Asia. However, in the altered geopolitical landscape, Europe must also deal with other key players, including China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, within Europe, there is a perspective asarticulatedby the Latvian Foreign Minister, emphasising that alongside other endeavours, Europe should not divert its attention from Ukraine.

The Israel-Hamas war and the potential for it to escalate into a broader regional crisis have exposed Europe for its spillover effects. It has also revealed Europe’s constraints, particularly when it is already dealing with the war in Ukraine.

(Gulshan Sachdeva is a Professor at the Centre for European Studies and Coordinator, Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 26 October 2023, 04:44 IST)

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