If the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, wanted to symbolise the Joe Biden administration’s determination not to become embroiled in the Israel-Palestine issue, he could not have timed better his current trip to Copenhagen, Reykjavik and Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Important discussions on the Arctic and the climate crisis may be on the agenda, but the chilly north is a distance from the tunnels, rocket fire and screams of those suffering in the latest war in the Middle East.
It may well be that in his numerous calls to key regional actors on the plane to Denmark Blinken made more progress in inching Israel, and Hamas, towards a ceasefire the US had been reluctant to demand in public.
But an impasse at the UN security council, where the US has opposed any move towards a resolution calling for a ceasefire, has left the European Union pondering the extent to which the new administration, at least when it comes to Israel, is truly different from its predecessor, and asking how the US can be persuaded to be less phobic about expending capital in the search for peace in the Middle East.
As a result, EU foreign ministers, often worried that they lack the influence in the Middle East that their economic clout warrants, met virtually if urgently on Tuesday to discuss how to coordinate their position.
Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the meeting “may be as much about being seen to be involved as practical achievement”.
On foreign policy EU leaders often talk a big game about strategic autonomy from the US and then find themselves hamstrung in practice. EU foreign ministers have for instance issued no collective statement on Israel since 2016. As recently as February 2020, after Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania among others blocked an EU statement criticising the plan.
The EU is institutionally stronger on foreign policy than it was in 1980, when its then nine states made the Venice declaration, leading to recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, but its political leverage is arguably reduced.
The tensions exist inside, as well as between, member states. In Germany, one of Israel’s strongest supporters, the Green chancellor candidate, Annalena Baerbock, has been under pressure from politicians from the ruling CDU to clarify statements she made in 2018 about arms deliveries to Israel. She has in recent days been forthright in condemning Hamas.
In Austria, Sebastian Kurz flew the Israeli flag over the Austrian chancellery, a gesture that led the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, to cancel his visit to the Vienna, where the nuclear talks are reaching a critical phase. By contrast France’s diplomatic service has issued nine communiques calling for restraint since 26 April. In Italy workers have blocked arms in a Livorno port bound for Israel, and the Italian foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, has called for the EU to adopt a clear and united position.
The EU’s ability to be a mediator is limited since it has marginalised itself by refusing to talk to Hamas directly or even through messengers. The mediating role is led by the US, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar. The EU instead specialises in picking up the tab for rebuilding Gaza.
Nevertheless it was striking at Sunday’s UN security council meeting how much the European voice differed from the US. Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister and often seen as one of the Biden administration’s great allies, took the strongest tone with Israel and the US. He said it was critical that the UN spoke with one voice, and had not been able to do so far, a reference to the resistance the US has mounted to any resolution calling for a ceasefire. He promised to make it “very uncomfortable” for those resisting calls for a ceasefire.
The US preferred instead to call for a “sustainable calm”, a wording that gives leeway to Israel to continue the bombing until it is confident it has neutralised the Hamas military infrastructure.
There is a broader worry for the EU, and that is the extent to which the Biden administration is really going to treat the EU as a valued equal partner. On his visit to Brussels in March Blinken vowed to consult his allies “early and often”.
He said: “Too often in recent years, we in the United States seem to have forgotten who our friends are. Well, that’s already changed.”
The value of that transatlantic promise is now being re-examined. The US refusal three times to let the UN security council issue a statement on the Middle East is only an example. The withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan was a decision made in the US and communicated to Nato. The EU Commission proposal for a transatlantic trade and technology council has so far met with no answer. The threat of sanctions over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline still lingers. Last month the Biden team surprisingly supported compulsory vaccine patent transfers hours after the G7 had parked the idea in a carefully worded communique. There are still limits to multilateralism.
Norbert Röttgen, the chair of the German Bundestag foreign affairs committee, recently told a Global Counsel seminar that Europe should not be naive about the US, or its determination to focus on its chief priority – “competing comprehensively with China”.