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24 October 2023

Identity politics meets the real world

If you want to know the leanings of politically engaged Europeans, ask them where they stand on Israel and Palestine. In all likelihood, the centrists - both centre-left and centre-right - will tell you they support Israel. The hard lefties support the Palestinians. And the far right hates them both. The decade-long conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians has been one of the defining issues in European politics in many EU countries for many years.

Even if you are not a member of the Jewish or the Muslim communities, or have links to them, chances are that you have strong views on the matter. Vladimir Putin managed to unite Europeans, for a period, in its support for Ukraine. But Israel and Palestine divide us. Divisions showed up in EU politics two days after Hamas' terrorist attack when Olivér Várhelyi, the European Commissioner in charge of neighbourhood relations, announced an immediate suspension of EU aid to Palestine. His statement triggered a pushback from member states and his fellow Commissioners. The suspension is now suspended. 

La France Insoumise, the coalition of the French left headed by Jean Luc Mélenchon, issued a statement that talked about "the armed offensive by Palestinian forces led by Hamas". That prompted a predictable backlash in the National Assembly. War breaks out in the Middle East, and Europeans are at each other's throat over a choice of words. 

Yet, I wonder if the issue is of such existential importance to us, why does the EU have virtually no political influence in the Middle East or North Africa?

EU diplomacy is mostly confined to finding the right words in joint declarations: do we accept Israel’s right to respond to Hamas’ terror attack unconditionally? Or shall we add the phrase "in accordance with international law"? Or to make it conditional on Israel not causing an escalation? These were the debates the EU had in the days after the attack. 

As they struggle to find the right words, real diplomacy takes place elsewhere. The US is the only western power with any influence on the Israeli government. Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey offered to mediate. Vladimir Putin also has close allies in the region. He stands to benefit from a long war that deflects attention away from Ukraine and that redefines the nature of the conflict - as a war between the west and the rest. 

The contrast between the EU's lack of influence and the simultaneous importance of the Middle East to our own domestic politics suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with the EU's foreign policy. The EU is dependent on the US militarily. Despite its size and its wealth, it cannot stem the financial aid to Ukraine unilaterally. Its ambitions are reduced to that of a single market, a customs union, an agricultural policy and a single currency. 

One occasion where it used its powers in pursuit of a geopolitical objective was to impose sanctions against Russia. The had an effect for sure, but ended up hurting the EU more than Russia. Western leaders underestimated how quick global supply chains adjust, and how difficult it is to isolate a country the size of the Russia. The latest IMF forecast has Russia growing more than Germany, France, Italy, the UK this year. Remember the gushing comments a year ago when Europeans congratulated themselves over their solidarity after Putin's attack? And the exuberant statements that nothing but total victory will do?

For some, the EU's soft-power approach to geopolitics is a feature, not a bug. I see soft power as a euphemism for chequebook diplomacy. It was well suited to the mild geopolitical climate of the past 30 years. But the war in Ukraine already exposed its limits. European countries were already struggling to strike a balance between Ukraine's request for weapons and maintaining their own defensive capabilities. Unlike the US, many EU countries do not have the capacity, let alone the nerves, to fight two proxy wars at the same time.

What is happening is the culmination of decades of geopolitical complacency. The EU is woefully unprepared for a return of Donald Trump, or indeed any future US president who is not Joe Biden. The EU has not agreed an exit strategy for the war in Ukraine. When the time comes to cut a deal with Moscow, and to pay for the massive reconstruction costs for Ukraine, I would expect fewer Europeans to drape themselves in the Ukrainian flag as they did last year. The costs will end up higher than current estimates suggest. What few people have factored are th impact of high interest rates on any such programme if they are funded through debt as they surely will be. The EU's large net contributors, like Germany and the Netherlands, would become even larger contributors. Many of the net recipients, like Poland and Hungary, would turn into net contributors. 

You can't blame the EU for being the EU. It is not a state, it does have the instruments of a sovereign state, and it would be wrong to pretend that it does. If the EU insists on a model in which foreign policy is run on an inter-governmental basis, as is the case today, it should come as no surprised that its influence falls short of its pretensions. 

An image springs to mind from my early childhood - from a German children's book more than half a century ago. One of the minor characters in it was an illusionary giant - who looked massive from a distance, but got smaller the closer you got to him. The EU is the imaginary giant of geopolitics. Don't get too close. 

The article previously appeared in the New Statesman

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