Ireland and Spain seek ‘urgent review’ of Israel trade over EU deal’s human rights obligations

Varadkar and Spanish PM Sanchez ask for ‘appropriate measures’ to be taken if conditions of agreement have been broken

Ireland and Spain have written to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen expressing deep concern at the deteriorating situation in Gaza and seeking an “urgent review” of whether Israel is complying with human rights obligations under its trade agreement with the European Union.

The letter from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez also asks that the Commission propose “appropriate measures” that could be taken if Israel is found to be in breach of the obligations in the EU/Israel Association Agreement.

The intervention comes amid fears that Israel will launch a ground invasion of Rafah where more than a million Palestinian refugees are taking shelter from the ongoing war.

The Irish Times reported earlier this month that Ireland was seeking the support of fellow EU member states for a review of the trade agreement with Israel.


In their letter Mr Varadkar and Mr Sánchez write: “Against the background of the risk of an even greater humanitarian catastrophe posed by the imminent threat of Israeli military operations in Rafah, and given what has occurred, and continues to occur in Gaza since October 2023, including widespread concern about possible breaches of IHL [International Humanitarian Law] and international human rights laws by Israel, we ask that the Commission undertake an urgent review of whether Israel is complying with its obligations, including under the EU/Israel Association Agreement, which makes respect for human rights and democratic principles an essential element of the relationship.”

The letter adds that if the Commission “considers that it is in breach, that it proposes appropriate measures to the [European] Council to consider”.

The two leaders write that they are “deeply concerned at the deteriorating situation in Israel and in Gaza, especially the impact the ongoing conflict is having on innocent Palestinians, especially children and women.”

They add: “The expanded Israeli military operation in the Rafah area poses a grave and imminent threat that the international community must urgently confront.”

The leaders note that the war has seen almost 28,000 Palestinians killed, and more than 67,000 injured and there has also been the displacement of 1.9 million people “and the wholesale destruction of homes and extensive damage to vital civilian infrastructure, including hospitals.”

They write: “We have repeatedly expressed our total condemnation of Hamas’ indiscriminate terrorist attacks of October 7th and call for the immediate and unconditional release of remaining hostages.

“We have been equally clear that Israel has a right to defend itself from such attacks, but this may only be exercised in line with international law, including International Humanitarian Law and international human rights law.

“The response must comply with the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution.”

Mr Varadkar and Mr Sánchez write: “Importantly, IHL imposes a clear obligation on all parties, to all conflicts, to ensure the protection of civilians.

“The horrendous terrorist attacks committed by Hamas and other armed groups do not, and cannot, justify any breaches in IHL, in the military response, with the resulting consequences for the civilian population of Gaza.”

They also raise concern at “Wholly inadequate humanitarian access to meet the needs of the population means that the UN estimates that 90 per cent of the population face acute food insecurity, with a serious risk of famine developing.”

The two leaders: “note the binding provisional measures imposed by the International Court of Justice on 26 January in the South Africa v Israel case, and its assessment that at least some of the acts or omissions alleged by South Africa to have been committed by Israel in Gaza may fall within the provisions of the Genocide Convention, and that there was a risk of irreparable prejudice to the rights at stake in the case.

“We have made clear the view that, to prevent further irreversible harm to the people of Gaza, an immediate humanitarian ceasefire is urgently required, a position which was endorsed by a very large majority in the United Nations General Assembly in December, including by 17 EU Member States.”

A spokeswoman confirmed that the letter had been received on Wednesday morning and said the European Commission would “look into it”.

“We do urge all sides when it comes to Israel to respect intenrational law and we note that there must be accountability for violation of international law,” she said.

The EU “deplores all loss of civilian lives” and “continues to pass these messages in its statements but also bilaterally in its contacts with Israeli authorities,” she said.

The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner, and any threat to that relationship is the most potent leverage held by Brussels.

There are signs of fraying patience with Israel even among its closest allies in the EU, with Germany joining the United States in voicing alarm over plans for an invasion of Rafah, where much of Gaza’s civilian population has been driven.

However a small group of hardline supporters of Israel has consistently blocked or watered down tougher action by the EU, and the proposal to review the trade agreement would be likely to face their opposition.

Speaking in the Dáil on Wednesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said any suspension of the agreement “may well require unanimity” of EU member states. Mr Varadkar also rejected that the Government was “standing idly by”, following criticism from Independent TD Catherine Connolly.

“When I meet representatives of Palestinians or the Palestinian Authority or leaders of other Arab countries, they thank us for the stance we are taking,” he said.

“We are seen as a country that is showing leadership on this issue, but we have to do it in a way that makes sense, that is smart and allows us to continue to try to bring countries with us.

“At the first meeting of the European Council after this conflict started, we were in a minority in calling for a ceasefire. We are now in the clear majority and we have to make sure we are able to bring people with us - not people who already agree with us, but people who do not yet but might into the future.”

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Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times