Gaza war and the Birth of Geopolitical Europe

The conflict between Israel and Hamas has left Europe divided and without good options to address it. Yet, Europe cannot escape the consequences of the violence.

The conflict between Israel and Hamas has left Europe divided and without good options to address it. Yet, Europe cannot escape the consequences of the violence. Europe’s reaction to the conflict was not only delayed, but also chaotic. The European Union Development Commissioner’s announcement that the EU would stop its aid to the Palestinian Authority in response to Hamas’s attacks and the killing of Israeli civilians sparked a clash with other commissions and a backlash from some European politicians. Moreover, Ursula von der Leyen’s impromptu visit to Tel Aviv to declare Europe’s unconditional support for Israel without stressing the country’s obligation to respect humanitarian rules in the conflict – which contradicted the stance of other EU leaders such as Josep Borrell, the High Representative of Foreign Policy – fueled the discord in Brussels and other European capitals.

However, on October 15, EU leaders reached a consensus that stressed Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense and ensured the protection of all civilians under humanitarian and international law. Yet, the issue of disunity and fragmentation among the member countries persisted. Furthermore, the reality was that even with internal consistency and concord, Europe had no viable and desirable options to confront the escalating conflict in the Middle East.

The European Union lacks the clout to negotiate the freedom of hostages taken by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Europeans are ill-suited to mediate. They have weaker sway over Israel than the Americans, and Turkey, Egypt or Qatar can broker a deal between Israel and Hamas more effectively – be it for the release of hostages or a ceasefire.

The European Union’s opinions and concerns have had little influence on Israel’s choices of how to carry out operations against Hamas in Gaza. Israel’s actions will depend mainly on domestic public sentiment, military factors, and the level of US political-military backing. Only Washington can persuade Israel that some of its measures may be harmful, not very successful in eliminating Hamas, or trigger a full-scale regional war with all its unpredictable outcomes.

The European Union failed to persuade Egypt to open its borders and let the people of Gaza seek shelter in this country. Egypt fears that the massive and unchecked flow of hundreds of thousands of people could endanger its security, make the Sinai Peninsula a sanctuary for extremists, and eventually pave the way for future Israeli assaults on Egyptian territory. Moreover, there is also the worry that Israel would prevent the Palestinians from returning to Gaza if they leave.

The Europeans have little sway over the conflict dynamics in the Middle East region, but they will inevitably face its regional, domestic and global repercussions. At the regional level, the ground assault on Gaza will heighten the likelihood of Hezbollah and other Iran-backed proxies intervening and expanding the conflict to other parts of the Middle East. This war will also derail the recent easing of tensions between the US and Iran. Biden will confront intense domestic pressure to ramp up US sanctions on Iran’s oil and energy exports, and Iran may retaliate by accelerating its nuclear program.

The conflict in Gaza will have significant implications for global politics. The main question for the analysts is, how will this war affect America’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict and its support for Kiev? Despite the US officials’ claim that they can handle both conflicts at the same time, many think that the war in the Middle East will distract the US from Ukraine’s political-diplomatic situation. Washington needs to devote more attention and resources not only to the war in Gaza, but also to the wider challenges that the war could trigger or worsen in the Middle East. The US must also keep up its deterrence against China to stop Beijing from attacking Taipei.

The war has serious consequences for the relations among and within European countries. The ongoing conflicts and the rising civilian deaths in Gaza worsen the rifts among and inside the European nations. The war has also exposed the EU’s lack of unity and influence over the conflict, undermining its role as a major foreign policy player. Domestically, some leaders, such as Spain’s Pedro Sánchez or Britain’s Keir Starmer, face severe challenges and have to struggle to contain the splits in their parties or coalitions. The impression that European countries favor Israel could incite extremism and spark a new wave of terrorism in Europe. Some right-wing governments, such as Italy, will revive their strict policy of controlling internal and national borders. The war could also trigger a surge of refugees from Gaza or other regional countries, which would heighten anti-immigrant and Islamophobic feelings and boost the appeal of right-wing and radical parties across Europe.

Europe’s influence on the calculations and decisions of Israel and even Hamas is minimal, regardless of its internal divisions or cohesion. But Europe’s weakness and failure are not confined to the recent war in the Middle East. The European Union fancied itself as a crucial mediator in the territorial conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the South Caucasus region for many years, but it was reduced to a mere spectator when Azerbaijan, after a long siege and a military offensive, drove tens of thousands of Armenians out of the contested areas.

An agreement with Tunisia to curb migration across the Mediterranean collapsed. Tunisia rejected the 60 million euros ($63 million) that the EU offered for the deal. Meanwhile, turmoil persists in Kosovo and Serbia, who ignore Brussels’s calls to stop the hostilities.

Supporters of the European Union expected that its united and consistent response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine would herald what Burrell optimistically termed the emergence of geopolitical Europe. But an institution that excels at standardizing the production, import and use of electronic devices, or the trade of agricultural products, falters when it comes to politics, especially global politics. The war in Gaza has exposed the European Union as more turbulent and chaotic than ever, a group that fails to create a lasting geopolitical influence.

Sarah Neumann
Sarah Neumann
Dr. Sara Neumann is a political scientist and freelance writer who specializes in international relations, security studies, and Middle East politics. She holds a PhD in Political Science from Humboldt University of Berlin, where she wrote her dissertation on the role of regional powers in the Syrian conflict. She is a regular contributor to various media outlets like Eurasia Review. She also teaches courses on international relations and Middle East politics at Humboldt University of Berlin and other academic institutions.