“EU has to learn to use the language of power” says Borrell

Dec 3, 2023
Israel vs Palestine, clashes continue between Israel and Palestine, white in the background

Proposals for Gaza by the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell reflect long-standing European concerns, and show an aspiration to become more involved in a cooperative solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Can these European concerns and aspirations have some tangible bearing on Palestinian political prospects?

Five weeks after Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, European Union (EU) proposals for a post-war Gaza were aired by Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Borrell then visited Israel and the West Bank on November 16 and 17. Meetings were arranged with Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and President Isaac Herzog, as well as Minister Benny Gantz and opposition leader Yair Lapid, but not with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2019, when Borrell was appointed to the top EU diplomatic post, Israeli officials had expressed reservations due to the veteran Spanish politician’s well-known critical stance on Israel – Borrell having referred in the year before his EU appointment to Netanyahu’s “warlike arrogance”. Objection was again voiced in March 2023 by Foreign Minister Cohen, who criticised Borrell’s op-ed comment that Israeli settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank appeared to proceed “almost always with impunity”. Nevertheless, on 16 November Borrell did meet with Cohen and Herzog, and met the next day with the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, then proceeding on a regional diplomatic tour visiting Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In an exercise of concerted EU diplomacy in the Middle East, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Egypt and Jordan in the same week, to meet with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and King Abdullah II.

In the EU-supported post-war scenario that Borrell described, there were no surprises in the three futures that he said would be unacceptable: displacement of Gaza’s Palestinian population, occupation of the enclave by Israel, and a resumption of rule by Hamas. To endorse the first would be to endorse a repeat of the forced displacement of Palestinians in the 1948 war. To endorse the second would be to endorse expansion of Israel’s territorial occupation. To endorse the third would be to endorse government by an organisation the EU already considered terrorist before October 7.

As for what was proposed instead, all three of the contributors to a viable post-war Gaza that were aired by Borrell lack credibility. Firstly, the notion that a “reinforced” version of the Palestinian Authority should be cultivated is nothing more than a platitude. An effective and politically authoritative Palestinian Authority has been awaited since this provisional entity was created in 1994, as part of the Oslo process. Borrell’s suggestion that the required reinforcement now come via “a legitimacy to be defined and decided upon by the [UN] Security Council” intimates only another period in which Palestinians would have the political legitimacy of their statehood aspirations framed and managed by outside parties. As a proposal that would need to be put to Palestinian factions, to Israel and to the United States, this is surely a dead letter.

Secondly, Borrell’s exhortation that a Palestinian governing body must be reinforced by “strong commitment from the Arab States” is pontifical, in urging concord among a supposed group of disunified polities. The joint meeting of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation on November 11 in Riyadh demonstrated that Arab and Muslim leaders – including the Saudi Crown Prince and the Iranian President – are willing to convene to condemn Israel. But it seems unlikely that exhortation from the EU’s chief diplomat will inspire a selection of members of these groups to formalise a unified commitment to the future of Palestine. Considering Borrell’s candour in describing the difficulty of coordinating a joint statement on Gaza among the 27 member states of the EU, counselling unity among “the Arab states” seems an immodest EU proposal. It is also improbable in terms what kind of “strong commitment” to Palestinian government the EU would find acceptable. For example, the resumption of diplomatic relations between Arab states and Syria was evident in President Basha al-Assad’s attendance at the November Riyadh summit. Four days later France issued an international arrest warrant for Assad, in connection with the use of chemical weapons in 2013. Would Borrell consider a “strong commitment” to Gaza by Arab states acceptable, if it came from a cooperating group that included the government of Bashar al-Assad? And if such a commitment were formalised, would Borrell expect France to find it palatable?

Thirdly, Borrell proposed greater EU involvement in the “construction of a Palestinian state”, saying: “We have delegated the solution of this problem to the United States. But Europe must become more involved.” This third proposal is the one that reveals the most about the gap between EU aspirations for Gaza in the short term, and the realities of Palestinian statehood aspirations in the long term. The intrepid Middle East diplomacy by Borrell and von der Leyen in November 2023 can be seen as a gesture toward bridging this gap. It can also be seen in relation to what von der Leyen proposed as the need to become a “geopolitical Commission” when she was appointed in 2019, and that she then made the centrepiece of her Mission Letter to Borrell. Accordingly, Borrell said in his 2019 confirmation hearing “The EU has to learn to use the language of power,” and that “if we don’t act together, Europe will become irrelevant.” During Borrell’s time in office, war in Ukraine has made it clear that there is no shortage of geopolitics still emanating from within Europe. But as Borrell approaches the end of his five year-term, it is not equally clear that geopolitically decisive diplomacy or foreign policy can be led by the EU’s High Representative – even when earnestly aspired to.

Hamas’ 7 October attack on Israel occurred fifty years after the 1973 October War. In an essay published that year on combined European foreign policy, Wolfgang Hager asked: “What can Europe do to influence the central conflict of the area, the Arab-Israeli confrontation? The answer must be: very little directly.” Josep Borrell’s proposals for Gaza do not immediately indicate that a concerted European approach to Israel and Palestine is more plausible today, than it was at the time of Hager’s assessment in 1973.

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