As Israel begins a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, European Union politicians find themselves with little leverage over Israelis or Palestinians. Now some wonder if EU aid and trade should get it more influence.
In France, people have been taking to the streets to demonstrate against the bombing of the Gaza Strip by the Israeli army and more demonstrations are likely following Israel's announcement Thursday (18.07.2014) that it had begun a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, in Germany, members of the Central Council of Jews demand more solidarity with the Israeli state, which is being hit by Palestinian rockets. The two examples show how divided the EU's member states are over the conflict in the Middle East.
The European Union as a whole has always tried to keep its official position as neutral as possible. EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy urged both sides to show restraint: "We condemn the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians. We deeply deplore the loss of innocent lives and the high number of wounded civilians in the Gaza Strip as a result of Israeli military operations. We are deeply concerned about the rapid and dramatic deterioration of the humanitarian situation," Van Rompuy said early on Thursday after the EU's summit in Brussels.
The heads of state and government did not, however, agree on a clear role for the EU nor on a mediating mission to the region. Instead, they stuck to general appeals read out by Van Rompuy: "Israelis and Palestinians need to make the strategic choice of peace in order to allow their future generations to live lives freed from past conflicts and to enjoy the stability, security and prosperity which they are currently being denied."
Decades of attempts to mediate
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had said she was hopeful a ceasefire would be negotiated between Israel and the militant group Hamas. The EU sees Israel's actions as acts of self-defense, she said before the ground attack began. "We stressed again that Israel has the right to defend itself and its interests - adhering, of course, to the principle of proportionality," Merkel told journalists in Brussels.
The European Union has tried to mediate in the Middle East conflict for decades. The EU forms part of the so-called "Middle East Quartet," which it set up jointly with the United States, Russia and the United Nations in 2002. Several peace plans and mediation efforts have since failed. Like the other members of the Quartet, the EU is pushing for a "two-state-solution," which provides for the existence of the state of Israel and a Palestinian state that would consist of the West Bank, parts of Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
Pressure on both sides?
The EU has no direct cooperation with Hamas, which the 28-member bloc regards as a terrorist organization. Since Hamas effectively took over governing the Gaza Strip, negotiations with the Palestinian side have become considerably more difficult, according to the EU's foreign service.
Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and building of new settlements in the West Bank have been condemned by the EU several times since 2010. But that has never had any concrete effects, said Pier Antonio Panzen, an Italian socialist member of European Parliament. He called on the EU to exert its economic power in the region.
"We are the biggest and most important creditor to the Palestinian National Authority and we're Israel's biggest trading partner," Panzen said. "It's up to us to use the financial leverage at our disposal. We should not let the US do all the negotiations. It's Europe's duty to act."
According to the EU's External Action Service, member states provide around 1 billion euros ($1.35 billion) annually in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, in support of the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah and various development projects. This makes the EU the single-biggest donor to the Palestinians.
Geoffrey van Orden, a Conservative MEP from the Netherlands, had the following questions in Wednesday's debate on the Middle East in the European Parliament: "I would like to know what kind of pressure the European Union has actually exerted on the Palestinians to bring them to the negotiating table? What's all the money for? Which political dividend have we been getting for our investment?"
Romanian MEP Victor Bostinaru called on the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, to become more active in searching for a solution. "Our role, the role of the EU, has to be that we ease tensions and to mediate - permanently and emphatically."
Foreign ministers discuss border control
European Union's foreign ministers will discuss the situation in Israel and the Palestinian regions at a meeting on Tuesday. France will probably soon suggest reviving the EU's border mission. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made the suggestion a few days ago, but French President Francois Hollande refrained from raising the topic at the EU leaders' summit on Wednesday.
Between November 2005 and June 2007, together with Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the EU jointly controlled the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. The European Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) was suspended after Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip, and the border crossing was closed. Since 2008, the EU has repeatedly hinted at its willingness to control Rafah and other border crossings again.