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Picture: 123RF/paulgrecaud
Picture: 123RF/paulgrecaud

Brussels — EU leaders aim on Tuesday to settle on a united approach to the crisis triggered by the Hamas attack on Israel after days of confusion, infighting and mixed messaging.

In an emergency video conference, the European Council, which brings together the leaders of the EU’s 27 member countries, will tackle potentially grave consequences for the continent arising from the crisis.

While the EU and its member governments all condemned the Hamas assault from Gaza, which killed 1,300 Israelis, they diverged on other political statements and policy implications.

The disarray has exposed old divisions within the EU on the Middle East and underscored the severe limits of its influence in the region. It has also undermined the EU’s calls to be treated as a major geopolitical player in its own right.

Tuesday’s virtual summit is an effort by the EU’s 27 national leaders to grab firm control of the response to the crisis after disquiet among some of them about the approach of European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

“It is of utmost importance that the European Council ... sets our common position and establishes a clear unified course of action that reflects the complexity of the unfolding situation,” European Council president Charles Michel said in a letter inviting leaders to attend the meeting.

Von der Leyen’s European Commission, the EU’s executive body, sowed confusion last week when one of its members declared on social media that all EU development aid to Palestinians had been frozen, only for the announcement to be later rescinded.

Some officials and legislators also criticised Von der Leyen, who visited Israel on Friday, for not declaring that the EU expects Israel to abide by international humanitarian law in its response to the attack, as other EU leaders did. Von der Leyen stated that position publicly for the first time at the weekend.

Commission officials have insisted von der Leyen had already conveyed the message privately to Israeli officials and defended her swift visit to Israel as an important sign of solidarity.

In their video conference, the leaders will focus on trying to mitigate the potential fallout from the crisis, with an Israeli assault on Gaza widely expected to be imminent.

Israel has put Gaza under a total blockade and pounded it with unprecedented air strikes. Gaza authorities say at least 2,750 people have been killed there.

The EU leaders are likely to task ministers with exploring potential risks in more detail, according to officials.

“The conflict could have major security consequences for our societies. If we are not careful, it has the potential to exacerbate tensions between communities and feed extremism,” Michel said in his letter.

He also cited the possibility of many Palestinians fleeing into neighbouring countries that already host many refugees. “If not handled carefully, there is a risk of onward migratory waves to Europe,” he said.

But the big problem for the EU, analysts and diplomats say, is that it has little leverage with key players.

“In the Middle East, we are back to basics: one superpower holds all the trump cards and the aces — the US. Others are just followers,” said one European diplomat. “It is not Europe that is playing a major role in this conflict.”


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