The Irish Times view on the EU and Israel/Gaza: who speaks for Europe?

The EU still finds it difficult – or even impossible – to speak with a single voice at moments of international crisis

The horror, rage and confusion in the aftermath of Tuesday’s devastating military strike on the Al-Ahli Baptist hospital in Gaza City represents a further ratcheting up of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. A fog of claim and counter-claim surrounds the question of who was responsible for the crime, which killed hundreds of civilians, many of them seeking shelter in a building they hoped would be safe from Israeli bombardment. Hamas asserts that the hospital was struck by an Israeli missile; the Israeli government insists it was a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket which fell short of its intended target. The definitive truth has yet to emerge but, speaking in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, US president Joe Biden accepted the Israeli version.

The tragedy, and the ensuing escalation of demonstrations and belligerent rhetoric across the Middle East, led to the cancellation of Biden’s planned meetings with Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas and the Jordanian government. This threw off course a trip which was intended to show solidarity with Israel while steadying relationships with moderate Arab leaders. The chances of the conflict spreading further across the region have increased and an Israeli land invasion of Gaza is expected imminently.

At this fraught moment, when policy initiatives can be derailed by violent events, it is incumbent on political leaders to demonstrate coherence and moral clarity. Unfortunately, that has not been the case with the EU. A claim by Hungarian commissioner Oliver Varhelyi that European aid to Palestinians had been suspended was swiftly rebuffed by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell but the incident raised questions about where commission president Ursula von der Leyen stood. The president became the focus of attention over her statements in the wake of Hamas’s murderous initial attack which offered unqualified support for any future Israeli actions. Those statements were criticised by many, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, for lacking balance and failing to reflect the full range of views among member states on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By apparently exceeding the limits of her office on a particularly sensitive and divisive policy area, von der Leyen may have done herself no favours should she intend to seek a second term as president. More importantly, the impression has been given that, despite achieving impressive near-unanimity last year over Russian aggression in Ukraine, the EU still finds it difficult – or even impossible – to speak with a single voice at moments of international crisis.


National leaders held an extraordinary meeting on Tuesday to address the disappointing show of disarray and to reassert their commitment to international law and humanitarian principles. Those principles will surely be tested again in the days ahead.