Henry Kissinger never actually asked “who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” But the apocryphal quip has stuck because it snugly fits a real-world problem.
The point was made at greater length by the nine-day interval between Israel suffering the worst terrorist atrocity in its history and leaders of the EU publishing a collective position. Hamas was condemned “in the strongest possible terms” for “brutal and indiscriminate terror”. Israel’s right to defend itself was “strongly emphasised” alongside a plea that self-defence proceed “in line with international law”.
It is the stuff of diplomatic platitude drafted by committee. If you have actually said something in the strongest possible terms you don’t have to explain that that’s what you are doing. And you don’t wait more than a week.
Individual leaders made prompt and powerful statements of solidarity. But as a strategic entity that aspires to be a global power, Europe’s voice got lost in the long conference call with itself.
The initial response was a shambles. Olivér Várhelyi, the commissioner responsible for the Mediterranean region, announced a suspension of Palestinian aid. That turned out to be a freelance improvisation. The position was quickly dissolved into a “review of financial assistance”. The Commission has subsequently increased humanitarian funds for Gaza. A few days after the attack, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, expressed his concern that Israel’s Gaza blockade might violate international law. Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, pointedly did not echo that view, stressing instead Hamas’s sole responsibility for the consequences of its actions. She has faced criticism from within the EU for failing to caveat comments about Israel’s right to self-defence with insistence on proportionality.
Some of the confusion is a function of rivalry between institutions with competing mandates. The European Council, where member states convene, and the Commission, the executive policymaking organ, have their own priorities, agendas and presidents. Stir in national politicians and you soon amass a whole directory of people to phone before you can claim to have spoken to “Europe”.
A Middle East crisis aggravates those tensions in unique ways. It probes cracks on the surface of EU unity that reveal deeper cultural, ideological and historical fault lines. On the left, Israel is routinely viewed through the lens of “anti-imperialism” — shaped by the Cold War, when Israeli-Arab confrontations became a proxy for Soviet-US rivalry. The Kremlin served its fellow travellers a propaganda diet rich in the insinuation that “Zionism” is code for omnipotent Jewish finance.
The radical right in eastern European countries that escaped Soviet control years ago tends to be pro-Israel, while also nodding to antisemitic conspiracy theories about the insidious corrosion of national identity by Jewish “globalism”. This is less paradoxical than it might appear. The worldview that defines Europe as an exclusive club for white Christians divided into tidy national units — Hungary for Hungarians, Poland for Poles — is in favour of Jews being in a homeland somewhere else. It also relishes Jewish suffering if it can be co-opted to serve an agenda fixated on the perils of migration from mainly Muslim countries.
Those motives are knotty enough before you reach the dark heart of the matter: the tangle of guilt, shame and denial that defines Europe’s relationship with a country that had to be founded in the Middle East because Jews could not be safe in the continent millions had called home. It is said in Brussels that von der Leyen’s stance is shaped by recognition that a German politician has no right to instruct any country, least of all Israel, on the correct way to protect Jews.
There is a certain genre of European conversation about Israel that contains a subconscious argument between people who defer to boundaries imposed by historical atonement and those who resent them. The latter find relief in the idea of Israelis as oppressors, as if dialling up Jewish villainy cancels a moral debt. Such deep complexes are not easily processed through Brussels diplomacy. That doesn’t mean a common policy on the Middle East can’t be found. But it will be crafted to preserve a delicate balance of undeclared internal interests — another way of telling the world not to bother calling Europe in a crisis. The line is busy.
Rafael Behr is a columnist with the Guardian