The recent escalation of violence in the Middle East, triggered by Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and its excessive retaliation, has created a critical juncture and a new opportunity for Europe to assert its role and influence in the world.
Europe has shown a relatively cohesive performance in the Ukraine crisis, despite some challenges and setbacks. It has maintained its political solidarity with Ukraine, despite the defections of some leaders – notably Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister. It has imposed 11 rounds of sanctions on Russia, hosted millions of Ukrainian refugees, resisted Moscow’s attempts to exploit its energy dependence, and increased its military and economic assistance. These were the pillars of a coordinated strategy. The Hamas-Israel conflict, however, presented another opportunity for Europe to play an active role. But the problem is that, unlike in Ukraine, Europe needs strategic autonomy and political unity to achieve this goal in the Middle East. Without these elements, expecting or claiming the emergence of a coherent Europe with an active role in the global system is nothing but a fantasy.
Therefore, the European Union not only considered the accession of new members in its agenda but also regarded this expansion as a strategic imperative. Transatlantic relations were at their peak, at least from the perspective of trans-Atlanticists. NATO was revived from its brain death and gained new significance and relevance with the addition of new members. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, declared the establishment and leadership of a geopolitical commission, which for many Europeans meant the capacity to represent and steer the interests of 450 million European citizens in a rising, perilous, and competitive world of great power geopolitics. In short, until a few months ago, there was a hopeful prospect of a geopolitical Europe emerging, according to Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat.
A few months ago, almost everything changed despite the optimism. The withdrawal of French forces from West Africa, which symbolized Europe’s military operation to eliminate radical jihadist groups in this region, was essentially Europe’s retreat from this area. In North Africa, we also witness the failure of European immigration policies to curb or reduce the influx of asylum seekers towards European countries. A series of military coups, along with the collapse of governments, the devastating effects of the environmental crisis, food insecurity, and the increase in migration, all indicate a major failure of European politics. A strategy pursued by Brussels to enhance the security of pro-Western African governments with a mix of development aid and democratic reforms. In the end, the successive failures of these programs were a sign of the absence of an independent and autonomous Europe in the global system.
The situation in the western Balkans is also not very favorable. Despite the fact that the European Union has made Serbia and Kosovo’s membership conditional on the normalization of relations between the two countries, the violence between Serbia and Kosovo persists, and the European Union has been unable to stop it, let alone facilitate a diplomatic agreement between these two countries. The situation in the Caucasus is much worse. The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, after the siege of Karabakh by Azeri forces, resulted in another violent clash that led to Azerbaijan’s military control of this region and the ethnic cleansing of about 120,000 Armenians from this area. And considering the issue of the Zangezur Corridor, this conflict is not over yet.
The recent conflict between Hamas and Israel was also seen as another opportunity for Brussels to demonstrate what EU foreign policy chief Borrell called the emergence of geopolitical Europe. Europe, like the United States and the Gulf Arab countries, implicitly endorsed the Israeli narrative that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be circumvented. Removing the Palestinian issue from the regional equation through the normalization of Israel’s relations with the Arab world was part of this strategy. Thus, stability in the Middle East seemed achievable without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a policy first pursued by Donald Trump with the 2020 Abraham Accords, and then by Biden. But the events of October 7 proved it wrong.
Ignoring the Palestinian issue could at least preserve European unity, which was fractured and divided over the Palestinian conflict and the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. But all these recent events exposed the internal contradictions of the EU members – whether to suspend or continue the EU’s aid to the Palestinians, or the different positions regarding the extent of Israel’s legal obligations in complying with international humanitarian laws, a complete ceasefire or a brief pause – which created friction within and beyond the European institutions. In the vote for Jordan’s resolution in the UN General Assembly, which called for a ceasefire and respect for international humanitarian rights, the 27 countries of the Union, contrary to their previous agreements to maintain unity, split in practice. (8 votes in favor, 15 abstentions, and 4 votes against).
The recent war between Israel and Hamas is a symptom of Europe’s weakness. EU governments used to claim that they are players in the Middle East, and have a distinctive role and influence in shaping the events of this region. The Venice Declaration in 1980 paved the way for the recognition of Palestine’s right to a state. However, the failure of the Oslo Accords and the 2003 road map for the establishment of the Palestinian state was a turning point. Since 2009, Netanyahu has tried to destroy any prospects of a two-state solution by expanding settlements in the West Bank. A destructive tactic that was tolerated by the United States, and followed by European countries due to their political and security dependence on the US. Consequently, the Europeans have deluded themselves that the Palestinians can be squeezed into corners in the West Bank by the settlers, and confined in Gaza as long as the aid continues.
The events that have unfolded in the region reveal a longstanding weakness in the European Union: the absence of an independent and unified foreign policy. This problem hinders the EU from reaching a collective consensus on international diplomacy and responding effectively to every foreign crisis. To enhance its geopolitical influence and contribute to global efforts for long-term peace, the EU needs to adopt a coherent and autonomous strategy that reflects its shared values and interests.
The rising international tensions and rivalries demand that the European Union becomes a geopolitical Europe. To achieve this goal, the EU must not only overcome its internal divisions and differences but also attain a state of strategic independence. The EU’s actions in managing the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, however, suggest that the Union lacks the necessary capacity or willingness to act as a real geopolitical power.