By Konstantina E. Botsiou*
The Israel-Hamas war has cracked the image of determination the European Union (EU) had built since the war in Ukraine began. As the conflict intensifies, the EU is struggling to formulate a unified statement to demonstrate its geopolitical presence. National interests are once again proving dominant, with individual member states opting to take separate political initiatives. For instance, France, while endorsing the recent UN General Assembly decision for a “humanitarian ceasefire” in the Gaza Strip, also convened an international conference on the matter in Paris on November 9. It is a step in the right direction in the middle of a quagmire, but a temporary one.
This action, however, is driven in part by the upcoming 2024 European elections, with managing migration flows a primary concern for Mediterranean countries, especially France where far-right Le Pen is scoring high in the polls. No state is willing to integrate Palestinians, who remain trapped by Israeli bombings in a narrow strip of land. Plans are underway to address this, including the provision of European humanitarian aid by sea, as the Gaza Strip is blocked on land.
Beyond these actions, little is expected of the EU. There has been little in the way of a European response to the Netanyahu government’s determination to occupy a large part of the Gaza Strip indefinitely, citing Israel’s security and encouraged by the lenient stance of other Arab countries and Iran. The international community is closely watching the actions of the U.S., and President Joe Biden in particular, who consistently cites Israel’s right to self-defense within the framework of international law.
The EU’s problem is not the lack of a European defense community. Rather, the issue lies in the absence of the political trust required for such a community to function, even at a crisis-management level, given that European defense relies on NATO. Global wars cast too heavy a shadow to allow it. Additionally, many EU member states cannot operate outside the historical legacy of colonialism. While these dimensions may be present in the Israel issue, they were absent in the wars in Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia.
The EU’s hesitation reveals a deeper lack of understanding of vital issues that threaten to dissolve the union. The erosion of borders and boundaries occurs de facto through illegal military occupations (e.g., Cyprus, Ukraine). The only way for the EU to prevent the spread of irredentism, as even anti-revisionist countries may adopt it in self-defense, is to invest in the established international legal order, which does not yield to illegal violations.
Caught between two wars, the EU is being called upon to attend not only to migration or its economic power (i.e., its temporary self), but also and primarily to the protection of democracy and international law through judicial tools that can be employed against the atrocities and injustices occurring in its neighborhood. The Israel-Hamas war serves as a warning to the EU: it must remain united into the long term. Biden’s statements have reinvigorated its responsibilities vis-a-vis international law. The big question is whether the EU can collaborate more persistently on the principles that unite it and less on national interests that inevitably nullify its geopolitical power.
*Konstantina E. Botsiou is a Professor of History and International Relations in the Department of International and European Studies at the University of Piraeus.