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The EU’s united front on Israel’s war with Hamas is already showing its first cracks.
On Monday, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi announced the Commission would put €691 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority under review, with all payments immediately suspended. Hours later, with that move causing concern across the bloc, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said the Commission “will not suspend the due payments” as “punishing all the Palestinian people” would have “damaged the EU interests in the region and would have only further emboldened terrorists.”
Before the U-turn, there were already public disagreements within the Commission over whether to freeze aid to the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, Tuesday’s EU foreign affairs ministers meeting risks leading to an internal showdown, EU diplomats and officials warned, given the disagreements between EU countries on the conflict.
“Israel-Palestine is one of the most divisive issues in the EU,” said one EU official, who was granted anonymity to speak publicly. “The intra-European divisions on this conflict are almost as old as the conflict itself.”
The most immediate row is over the EU’s financial aid flows to the region.
As EU foreign ministers prepared to meet Tuesday, a growing row brewed over the Commission’s announcement to cut Palestinian aid.
Várhelyi’s announcement of a funding halt coincided with Israel’s defense minister ordering a “complete siege” of Gaza, cutting off water, food and energy supplies to more than 2 million people in the Hamas-controlled territory.
Following Várhelyi’s announcement, the Commission struggled to clarify which parts of Palestinian aid would be cut. EU Commissioner Janez Lenarčič, who is responsible for crisis management, said while he condemned the Hamas attack, EU humanitarian aid to Palestinians in need will “continue as long as needed.”
The splits within the Commission — Várhelyi, the Hungarian commissioner, previously blocked the disbursement of funding over the content of Palestinian schoolbooks, while Lenarčič hails from Slovenia, which is traditionally one of the more pro-Palestinian EU countries — presaged the debate between member states due to play out Tuesday.
By late Monday, the Commission was publicly backtracking on Várhelyi’s announcement, saying in a press release that it was “launching an urgent review of the EU’s assistance for Palestine.”
“The objective of this review is to ensure that no EU funding indirectly enables any terrorist organization to carry out attacks against Israel. The Commission will equally review if, in light of the changed circumstances on the ground, its support programmes to the Palestinian population and the Palestinian Authority need to be adjusted.
“The Commission will carry out this review as soon as possible with Member States … in the meantime, as there were no payments foreseen, there will be no suspension of payments.”
Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn was the first senior European official to publicly break rank, criticizing Várhelyi’s announcement. “The decision on this is up to the member states and it is only on Tuesday that the foreign ministers from the 27 EU countries will meet to discuss it,” Asselborn told Luxembourgish media.
According to Spain’s ABC, which quoted unnamed officials, Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares “has had a telephone conversation with the commissioner” in which he conveyed, in regard to the suspension of aid, “his disagreement with the decision, which the foreign ministers were not aware of.”
At a technical meeting between EU countries on Monday, several diplomats asked questions about the legal grounds for Várhelyi’s decision, just as Asselborn did publicly, one EU diplomat said. “Várhelyi might have been a bit too eager not to waste a good crisis,” the diplomat said.
Turning on the lights
Even before the announcement of cuts to Palestinian aid, there was internal division within the EU about how the bloc should respond.
Borrell issued a statement Sunday on behalf of the EU, condemning “in the strongest possible terms the multiple and indiscriminate attacks across Israel by Hamas.”
But several countries — including Ireland, Luxembourg and Denmark — sought a reference to de-escalation in the joint text, which was opposed by others, including Austria, three officials who were granted anonymity to discuss sensitive matters told POLITICO. For the more pro-Israeli countries within the bloc, a call for de-escalation could be seen as ascribing equivalence to both sides, diplomats said.
Some diplomats also pointed out the different reactions of the EU institutions over the weekend. The Berlaymont, the headquarters of the European Commission, was illuminated in the colors of the Israeli flag. The building of the European Council, on the other hand, was lit up without visualizing that flag — a sign of a more nuanced approach from member states.
Another EU diplomat said they wouldn’t have made the same choice to display the Israeli flag on the Berlaymont and said the image “surprised” them given the sensitivities.
The conflicts within Israel and the Palestinian territories have long been a divisive issue for the EU, even though it supports a two-state solution, with the bloc struggling to find consensus and, therefore, forced to manage a range of views among its 27 member countries. France, the Nordic states, Belgium and Ireland traditionally support a position that is seen by some other countries as too pro-Palestinian.
Another official from a member state expressed concerns at the wisdom of the Commission’s stance. “Of course, we all condemn the heinous attack on Israel, but Israelis are likely to launch their own offensive in Gaza over the next week, and have already announced a siege, so a broad statement with more nuance would have been better,” said the EU official.
With the world’s spotlight on Israel, EU countries will have to walk a fine line at the foreign affairs ministers’ meeting. Some capitals want to make clear to the European Commission that it can not go too fast too quickly. At the same time, those arguing for some reflection are wary of being cast as pro-Hamas.
Another EU diplomat said it’s one thing to have a foreign policy in the EU’s immediate neighborhood, it’s another to see whether “we can indeed have a common foreign security policy on the global stage.”