Calling for "humanitarian pauses" in the Israel-Hamas war to let desperately needed aid in, the EU is trying to speak with one voice after getting off to a muddled start that reveals deep divisions.
Almost three weeks since Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a deadly terrorist assault into southern Israel, killing some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, the outlook remains bleak.
Israel's response — a total blockade on Gaza, the Palestinian territory governed by Hamas, plus massive air strikes to take out its combatants — has unleashed humanitarian devastation and killed more than 7,000 Palestinians as of late Thursday, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.
In the meantime, more than 220 Israelis are still being held hostage, and Hamas has fired more rockets into Israel. Many of those who have perished on both sides are children.
For the 27 EU leaders gathering in Brussels on Thursday, the priority was to use their collective clout to deliver humanitarian aid into Gaza and push for hostages seized from Israel to be set free unconditionally.
But, on the first day of a two-day summit and as in past weeks, leaders and senior EU officials have struck different tones. The whole EU has unequivocally condemned Hamas's attacks. However, some member states have taken a tougher line on Israel's response than others.
Disagreement over cease-fire
Ahead of the summit, acting Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez had already called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, echoing United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, to allow aid into Gaza.
But others, including Germany, which has closely backed Israel in the wake of the October 7 Hamas attack, have expressed concern that a cease-fire would impinge on Israel's right to self-defense. Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he had "no doubt" the Israeli army would follow international law. "Israel is a democratic state with strong humanitarian principles," he told reporters.
Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer told reporters on Thursday that "all the fantasies of ceasefires and the cessation of hostilities [had] led to the strengthening of Hamas."
'Not obsessed about what language we use'
After five hours of talks, leaders issued a joint statement calling for "humanitarian corridors and humanitarian pauses," described by EU officials as a compromise. The EU also condemned Hamas' attacks once again and said they supported holding an international peace conference "soon."
Arriving for the summit, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Ireland, a country that is considered one of the strongest advocates for Palestinians in the EU, said he didn't care so much which exact words were chosen.
"I'm not obsessed about what language we use. What we want is the killing and the violence to stop so that humanitarian aid can get into Gaza, where … innocent, Palestinian people are suffering." The EU's response to the outbreak of armed hostilities in Gaza has been somewhat confused. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a German center-right politician, promptly traveled to Israel in a show of solidarity after October 7. In contrast to EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, von der Leyen took longer to stress that Israel must defend itself in line with international law and omitted mention of the EU's official support for a two-state solution.
International credibility on the line
James Moran, a fellow from the Centre for European Policy Studies think tank in Brussels, said that the initial reactions of certain EU leaders and officials were "overboard pro-Israeli." "I think the Arab world has reacted quite badly to that," said Moran, a former EU senior envoy in the Middle East.
"Traditionally the EU has managed to more or less an even-handed approach," he added, gaining it respect on both sides but particularly on the Arab one as an "honest broker." On Wednesday, Queen Rania of Jordan accused Western leaders of applying a "glaring double standard." "When October 7 happened, the world immediately and unequivocally stood by Israel and its right to defend itself and condemned the attack that happened … but what we’re seeing in the last couple of weeks, we’re seeing silence in the world," she told CNN on Wednesday. While the EU quickly projected a unified message when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, its communication around the Gaza conflict has been more muddled. "It really takes away that credibility," Swasti Gao from the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in India told DW. "You understand that there is only so much you can expect from Europe, because you see that it is really internally divided." On Thursday, European Council President Charles Michel addressed these concerns head-on. "We do not have double standards. We have a fundamental standard, that we believe in international law."
Some in the world were trying to exploit the situation to "attack" the EU and "instill doubts" about its credibility, Michel said, without naming names. "Our unity will be our best argument when we are engaging with the Global South."
And what about Ukraine?
In the meantime, the EU was also keen to dispel worries that it could be taking its eye off the ball over the war in Ukraine. "We support Ukraine for as long as it takes," Charles Michel emphasized. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dialed into the summit, offering his gratitude to a number of EU states for recent assistance. "I thank everyone who is making every effort to preserve unity. Unity with Ukraine. Unity within the European Union," Zelenskyy wrote on X, formerly Twitter, summing up his statement. Dmytro Kryvosheiev of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank said that while the Israel-Hamas conflict was absorbing attention, he did not believe it would seriously change the EU's position towards Ukraine. "Of course, Israel-Gaza relations are one of the crucial issues for the EU foreign policy, but they do not pose such a huge and direct threat to European security as Russia's aggression against Ukraine," he told DW.
However, the recent electoral victory in Slovakia of Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has pledged to stop sending weapons to Ukraine, is a potential challenge.
"Slovakia, with Fico at the head, may become the second EU country [after Hungary] that undermines EU unity toward supporting Kyiv and responding to Russia's aggression against Ukraine," Kryvosheiev said. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose government has held up EU funds earmarked for Ukraine, raised eyebrows this month by shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Orban defended the meeting to the press on Thursday, saying that Hungary "would like to keep open all the communication channels." Leaders were due on Thursday to discuss how to shore up aid for Ukraine in the long term as well as plans to harness frozen Russian assets to benefit Ukraine, but those discussions were bumped to Friday.