Since the horrific attack by Hamas on innocent Israeli civilians last weekend, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has expressed unambiguous support for Israel regardless, apparently, of how it chooses to respond.
The Israeli flag was projected on her headquarters, the Berlaymont, in the wake of the attacks and was hoisted alongside that of the European Union, and she invited the Israeli ambassador to the EU to join the weekly meeting of European commissioners on Wednesday.
In public posts she declared that the European Union stands with Israel “today and in the days to come” and “in the next weeks”, an apparent signal not just of the bloc’s sympathy over the attacks but also its sanction for Israel’s retaliation.
Her approach has caused deepening unease within European institutions and in national capitals as Israel undertakes what the Taoiseach has described as “collective punishment” against the people of Gaza, cutting off water, food and electricity, and now ordering over a million people to evacuate in 24 hours to the alarm of the United Nations.
As Israel ordered the evacuation von der Leyen was arriving in the country to express her solidarity. “In the face of this unspeakable tragedy there’s only one possible response: Europe stands with Israel. And Israel has the right to defend itself, in fact it has the duty to defend its people,” she declared.
In common with all her public statements since the Hamas attack she made no call for Israel to respect international law, as the UN, the EU’s chief diplomat and various European national leaders have done. “I know how Israel responds will show how it is a democracy,” she said.
She then shook hands with prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “This is the frontline of civilisation and barbarism,” he told her.
There is deep concern among officials, diplomats and members of the European Parliament that she took all these actions despite not having a mandate to do so from EU member states, which are divided on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In doing so she ignored the division of powers by which the commission does not set foreign policy but rather enacts what the member states have decided.
Her approach contrasts with that of the European Council, the institution of the member states. Its Brussels headquarters this weekend was not lit up in the Israeli flag but in white instead, reflecting a respect for the divisions among member states and a level of caution among those with diplomatic experience towards what was to come. When EU foreign ministers met earlier this week they invited not just the Israeli foreign minister but also his Palestinian counterpart, though in the end neither attended.
Von der Leyen appears to be repeating the precedent of expressing overt solidarity with Ukraine after its invasion last year. However this time there’s a key difference. This is a conflict that divides rather than unites the member states. The Ukraine invasion happened on the day the EU’s national leaders were meeting together in Brussels, and they expressed a clear common position from the outset.
In recent days multiple politicians, members of the public, and the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in occupied Palestinian territory, Francesca Albanese, re-surfaced an old post of von der Leyen’s that condemned Russia for “acts of pure terror” for cutting off electricity and heat to the Ukrainian population. They asked when a similar statement would be forthcoming for the people of Gaza.
It illustrates the risks of undermining the EU’s moral authority when leaders appear to act inconsistently about international law depending on who breaches it.