Croatia’s prime minister Andrej Plenkovic is a man of few words, unusual in itself in a politician. Asked by journalists what his message was for EU leaders as he headed into a pre-summit meeting of European EU leaders on Thursday, Plenkovic was a man of only one word: “Unity”.
Charles Michel, the chairman of the European Council, the group of heads of government which is the EU’s most powerful decision-making body, had a similar message. Unity, he told reporters, was the key to the EU playing a role on the global stage.
This was rich coming from Michel, whose rivalry with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has been a feature of life in Brussels for the past four years. It was once again evident last week when both travelled to Washington and had separate meetings with President Joe Biden.
There has been no disguising the fact that the EU has been completely divided since the latest stage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ignited earlier this month. The region has never looked more like a tinderbox. And the EU has never looked more divided.
Meeting on Thursday and Friday in Brussels, EU leaders are keen to project a common front. But diplomats have wrangled for days over the text of a statement that calls for a ceasefire to enable humanitarian aid to reach Gaza. Some countries object to the term ceasefire, believing that it weakens the EU’s support of Israel’s right to defend itself. On Wednesday the term humanitarian pause was suggested; by Thursday afternoon the likely text was said by diplomats to be “pauses for humanitarian reasons”; but there was no agreement yet.
The truth is that Israel-Palestine is one of the issues where the EU has always found it hard – and often impossible – to agree a common position on because EU countries have very different views, and are unwilling to submerge those in a composite EU position.
Going into Thursday’s summit Taoiseach Leo Varadkar bluntly acknowledged this. “We need to bear in mind and respect where other countries are coming from,” he said.
“You know, particularly countries” – Varadkar paused here – “that were involved in the terrible things that happened to Jewish people in the 1930s and 1940s. We need to understand where they’re coming from and why so many Jewish people had to return to Israel, their ancestral homeland, because of the events of the Holocaust.
“In Ireland we have a lot of sympathy for the Palestinian people, often driven by our own historical experience. But to get a consensus among 27 people we’re going to have to compromise, we’re going to have to understand each other.”
Ireland has traditionally been regarded as among the most – if not the most – pro-Palestinian EU members. There is a flip-side to that: Israel regards Ireland as the EU state most hostile to it.
“Ireland,” the Department of Foreign Affairs announces proudly on its website, “was the first EU member state to declare that a solution to the conflict in the Middle East had to be based on a fully sovereign state of Palestine, independent of and co-existing with Israel. Ireland has, therefore, for many years focused in particular on the injustices and infringements of human rights suffered by Palestinians in their homeland.”
Diplomats say that Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg have been among Ireland’s allies in the current push for a ceasefire statement. France and Netherlands have been strong in support of a ceasefire – or pause – but also strongly behind Israel’s right to self-defence.
“I don’t give a damn how we call it,” said the Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel entering the summit venue. “What matters is that every day there’s people that are dying, children who are dying, women who are dying that have nothing to do with the war.”
One Irish diplomat, however, disputes the what-side-are-we-on analysis. “The stance Ireland takes depends on what the issue is. The issue at the moment is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza,” he says.
Ireland, he adds, has been firmly in support of Israel’s right to defend itself – in accordance with international humanitarian law – at every juncture since the attacks by Hamas.
All this is no doubt true. But it is also true to say that a general observation of countries’ positions suggests a greater tendency to one side or the other. So, says one experienced former diplomat, Sweden, Belgium, Luxembourg, Greece, Cyprus and Spain have tended to be more supportive of the Palestinian cause. France, previously in this camp, moved more towards Israel under Nicolas Sarkozy. Emmanuel Macron takes a more middling path.
Germany and Austria – largely for the reasons set out by Varadkar – have been full-on supporters of Israel, accepting a historical responsibility to do so. On Thursday evening, Austria was still resisting the text of a statement calling for a ceasefire/humanitarian pause. The UK, when it was a member, was one of Israel’s staunchest supporters.
But the pro-Israel lobby has been substantially augmented in the last two decades by the eastern and central European enlargement of the EU. Czech prime minister Petr Fiala was one of the last holdouts on the ceasefire statements, and his colleagues are generally more pro-Israel. The reasons are complex. Most had substantial Jewish populations which were decimated during the Holocaust; others identify with a small democratic state bordered by large neighbours unhappy with its existence; others, in the words of one former official, are “not that keen on Muslims and Arabs”.
Henry Kissinger famously asked, “who do I call if I want to call Europe?” – though modern scholarship suggests he never actually said it. There are many things on which the EU speaks with one voice. But foreign policy – and certainly the Israel-Palestine question – is not among them. Recent weeks have made that much clear.