Borrell briefs EU colleagues after damage limitation trip to Middle East
21 November 2023
The foreign ministers of the 27 EU member states held an informal video conference on Monday (20 January) to hear from the EU High Representative for foreign and security policy, Josep Borrell, the results of his recent visit to the Middle East. Borrell travelled to Israel, Palestine, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan from 16-20 November. A statement from his office in Brussels at the start of the visit said that “the visit will take place against the background of the war against Hamas and the deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, following the 7 October Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel, and in the context of EU’s regional outreach, following-up to the latest European Council and Foreign Affairs Council.”Since the Gaza crisis erupted in October, the European Union has appeared to be confused and undecided. Deep divisions in the position of many of the member states became evident in somewhat contradictory statements by leaders of the various EU institutions in the early days of the crisis, with some rushing to express solidarity with Israel, whilst others reminding of the long-suffering of the Palestinian people. The problem became more acute as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza escalated sharply following the launch of an Israeli military offensive. The divisions within the EU reached a climax at a vote at the UN General Assembly session on 28 October with some EU members voting for and others against a resolution on Gaza, whilst others simply abstained. Many saw this as a low point in the process of developing a “common foreign and security policy” for the EU, whilst others contemplated the damage that current EU positions were having on future relations with Arab and Muslim countries. The situation improved somehow following a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, where some sort of compromise position emerged. Borrell is constrained in having to reflect not only his position, and that of the European External Action Service, which he leads, but also the view of all the other European institutions and all the 27 member states. No mean task. None of them however appear to fully comprehend the sense of anger and frustration in the Arab and Muslim world at ongoing events in Gaza. As one young Arab commentator put it, the time the EU spoke from the moral high ground has gone, and will not come back. If the EU wants to communicate with the Arab and Muslim world in the future it has to find a new language. Borrell has taken a step in this direction through his visit and his op-eds, but it is just a small step in what promises to be a long and unpleasant journey.