While riots and even violent military clashes between Israel and the Palestinians are unfortunately nothing new, and the conflict itself has been of interest to the international community for many decades, the recent, sudden escalation in violence has come as a surprise to many outside observers. This has forced individual states and international organizations to take a stance on what’s happening, including the European Union (EU). For the EU, the Middle East conflict is one of the greatest challenges in the immediate neighborhood and a major factor hindering the implementation of its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) in the eastern Mediterranean.

The EU’s response

As was the case with the U.S. administration, EU institutions reacted to the escalating tensions almost immediately. On May 8, the EU’s representative in the Middle East Quartet noted with serious concern the possible evictions of Palestinian families from homes they have lived in for generations and voiced opposition to any unilateral actions, which could only contribute to a further escalation of tensions in Israeli-Palestinian relations and close the path of dialogue. This came just one week after the new EU special representative (EUSR) for the Middle East peace process, Sven Koopmans, took office. The new EUSR could hardly have imagined a more difficult start to his term.

The predictions of the parties' representatives in the Middle East Quartet were unfortunately confirmed and shortly after their meeting there was a sudden escalation of tensions, followed by the beginning of regular military operations. On May 15, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell Fontelles presented the official position of the EU on the riots in Jerusalem and several other cities as well as the violent clashes between Hamas and the Israeli armed forces. He “underlined the need to immediately end the grave escalation of violence, prevent its further spillover, and ensure that civilians on all sides are protected.” In addition, he also called for “full respect for international humanitarian law and for full humanitarian access to be granted to those most in need in Gaza.” Equally important, in the same press release, he strongly condemned the Hamas missile attacks on targets in Israel and called on the Israeli authorities to respond in a proportionate manner that would not result in casualties among the civilian population. At the same time, Borrell held extensive consultations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as the foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey. He also instructed Koopmans to work closely with representatives of the other parties of the Middle East Quartet to alleviate the situation as quickly as possible.

There is no doubt that maintaining peace and resolving the Middle East conflict are among the EU's top foreign policy priorities in the eastern Mediterranean. Any escalation of tensions or clashes between Israelis and Palestinians are perceived as a direct threat to the security of the EU. The bloc’s position regarding how the Middle East conflict should be settled has remained unchanged for many years: Its objective is “a two-state solution with an independent, democratic, viable, and contiguous Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors.” For now, however, such declarations are more like wishful thinking and have little chance of being implemented.

A greater role?

Taking into account the EU’s potential as a mediator, it could play a greater diplomatic role in the region with the aim of reducing tensions and protecting the civilian population, especially in the Gaza Strip. Reacting only during crises and failing to provide specific new proposals for resolving the conflict will not improve things. The current situation should make EU leaders aware of just how fragile the state of affairs really is, and that the failure to act decisively can only result in more frequent and bloodier clashes. The protection of human rights is one of the cornerstones of the EU's foreign policy, and it is high time that member states developed more effective means of actually achieving that goal to prevent this and other conflicts from spiraling out of control.

In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, the EU must cooperate with and count on the support of other major powers as well. In this context, the Middle East Quartet seems to be the most appropriate and promising forum. It is only through close cooperation between the EU, the United States, Russia, and the United Nations with both sides of the conflict that it will be possible, however unlikely, to reach a peace plan acceptable to Israelis and Palestinians. The odds of working out such a plan are undeniably long, but they have certainly improved since Joe Biden won the U.S. presidency. The EU and U.S. positions are once again converging, and the assessments and interpretations of the situation and developments in the region are similar. Yet on this point, everything should be done to win over Russia and China, without which it will not be possible to carry out any effective actions within the framework of the U.N. Security Council. The question remains, however, whether the major powers will continue to be guided by their own interests, or whether they are ready to cooperate across divisions on issues that pose the greatest threat to international peace and security. The Middle East conflict is certainly such a threat. So far, the plight of the civilian population, especially in the Gaza Strip, has only grown steadily worse. It is time to move from words to deeds.


Przemysław Osiewicz is a non-resident scholar at MEI and an associate professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, specializing in EU policy towards the MENA region, Iran, and Turkey. The views expressed in this article are his own. 

Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images