The crisis in the Middle East represents another fissure in the regional security structure, which affects the European Union (EU) and its geopolitical credibility. It has become clear that the EU has limited influence in managing a geopolitical crisis on its periphery, including due to its exhaustion from Russian aggression against Ukraine.
The pre-existing conflict between Israel and Palestinian paramilitary groups intensified following the Hamas movement's terrorist attacks against civilians in southern Israel on October 7. The latter resulted in the violent physical annihilation of approximately 1,400 civilians and the taking of more than 220 hostages. At the same time, the Palestinian civilian population of Gaza became collateral victims of the military actions undertaken by Israel, considered disproportionate by international humanitarian and human rights organisations Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI). Some sources indicate that more than 7,000 Palestinian civilians have already been killed in Gaza since the start of the Israeli operation against Hamas, of which approximately a quarter were children. The death toll among Palestinian civilians is likely to rise after Israel launched its war vehicle incursion into Gaza starting October 28. In addition to the casualties reported by Israel and the Palestinian side, there are citizens of at least 37 countries who are held captive in Gaza or having died at the hands of Hamas. This aspect outlines the international nature of the crisis, as well as the multiple pro-Palestinian protests held in Western capitals, including Brussels.
The Hamas terrorist operation took by surprise Israel's Western partners, who have shown a rather limited preparedness to manage a multidimensional crisis that has erupted ad hoc in the Middle East. The United States wrongly assessed the capabilities of Israel's defence and security apparatus, and the EU concluded that the situation in the region is rather part of the geopolitical mandate of American diplomacy. One of the reasons for the lack of attention to this conflict, shown by the United States and the EU, is the mobilisation of resources (political attention and available material resources) to counter Russian aggression against Ukraine. Another reason can be considered Western concern to deter China's military measures against Taiwan, following the Russian scenario in relation to Ukraine, carried out in February 2022. Furthermore, Western actors have focused much of their foreign policy on “de-risking” and increasing strategic autonomy in relation to China in critical industries, such as raw materials necessary for the green transition. Other conflicts, such as those involving Armenia and Azerbaijan or the situation in sub-Saharan Africa, have also diluted the attention of the West, which still remains in a "geopolitical firefighter" modus operandi.
The current amalgam of geopolitical crises, taking place in parallel, in the EU's immediate and more distant neighbours, to the East and South, has shown that the geographical area where European interventions can be most effective is limited. Therefore, the EU must choose to be omnipresent or intelligently select the priorities where it imposes its presence, based on a prudent cost-benefit analysis of the available resources and the objectives set. In this sense, the EU can combine the management of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza with the ceasefire, consolidate support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression and accelerate the enlargement process, with the aim of stabilising and securing its immediate neighbourhood in the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership: Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Treating these three processes as priorities, simultaneously, may allow the EU to avoid a sharp deterioration in the regional geopolitical situation, which may be accompanied by a multiplication of crises.
EU faces divisions and geopolitical emergencies
From an interinstitutional competition between the European Commission, on the one hand, and the European Council and the External Action Service, on the other, the EU has moved closer to a division at the level of the member states in the case of the Middle East crisis. The visit of European Commission Ursula von de Leyen and the statements from Israel caused confusion in the offices of EU Council President Charles Michel and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borell, who deal with EU foreign policy. Some 800 European diplomats and officials criticised the lack of a balanced speech by the president of the Commission, who, by positioning herself in favour of Israel, damaged the credibility of European diplomacy. This was preceded by other frictions related to communication and coordination within the Commission. In an episode of mandate overreach, Oliver Varhely, head of Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, stated that humanitarian aid to Gaza would be immediately interrupted following the Hamas attacks on October 7. At the same time, the commissioner responsible for crisis management, Janez Lenarčič, flatly contradicted Varhely and reiterated that humanitarian aid continues: €27.9mn were budgeted for 2023. The EU subsequently announced that it was tripling humanitarian aid to €75mn. In addition to discrepancies in positions within the EU institutions, there are more hidden dividing lines between member states. In the UN General Assembly vote, eight EU states (including France, Spain and the Netherlands) voted in favour of the ceasefire in Gaza, four opposed this resolution and 15 abstained. This vote showed that there is more division than unity on how the EU should handle this crisis. Despite the UN vote, Michel insisted that the European Council meeting on the same day would have demonstrated unity within the EU, when he advocated not for a ceasefire but for humanitarian “pauses".
Along with the United States and other G7 states, France, Germany and Italy sent messages that combined support for Israel's right to self-defence and respect for international humanitarian law regarding the protection of civilians. At the bilateral summit on October 20, the EU and the United States agreed to coordinate measures to protect civilians. The EU's declared efforts to de-escalate the conflict will fail, as the dynamics of the crisis depend on the status quo of civilians in Gaza. Therefore, a precondition for decelerating the crisis could be an international mechanism that guarantees the protection of Palestinian civilians, including the option of being evacuated.
To restore the humanitarian situation, the EU, together with the US, will have to condition its political-diplomatic support for Israel on a ceasefire. Otherwise, the EU risks losing its moral authority in the eyes of the Global South. While the EU agreed to extend the legal status of Ukrainian refugees in EU states until March 2025, it cannot produce solutions to prevent the deaths of Palestinian civilians at the hands of the Israeli army. The costs of this failure could be of at least two types. On the one hand, the credibility of the EU will be damaged (at least partially), which will negatively influence the EU's attempts to expand international alignment with European sanctions against Russia for the anti-Ukrainian war. On the other hand, failure to stop casualties among Palestinian civilians will have negative effects on the legitimacy of EU national governments. In some cases, public opinion tends to support the Palestinian cause, in others European societies contain large Muslim minorities (2023: France – 6.7mn, Germany – 5.5mn, etc.), who are sensitive to events in Gaza. The (in)actions of the governments of the EU states and Brussels can have consequences on public order in Europe today and, respectively, political-electoral effects in the near future.
Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia: varying European perspectives
The EU enlargement policy remains a stabilising element in the security architecture in the EU's vicinity. Therefore, the need to operate on other geopolitical fronts should not be a reason for the EU to reduce its attention to the consolidation and realisation of the European perspectives for the Eastern Partnership states: Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. The expansion of the European space including these three states must aim to build resilience against the threats produced by the Russian factor. In addition to the need for securitisation, the deepening of European integration in these countries requires aiming at the construction of functional states, which prevent political crises, socioeconomic declines, mass migrations and depopulation.
In the case of Ukraine, the urgency is to keep the Ukrainian dossier at the top of the EU political agenda. On the one hand, it is necessary to ensure political, military and financial support in all areas related to the defence war against Russian aggression, including sanctions. The fact that the attention of the United States is absorbed by the situation in the Middle East and that aid to Israel seems to have become a priority generates some discomfort in Kyiv. The EU has previously reiterated that the effectiveness of its support will depend on the sustainability of US assistance. As of February 2022, the EU had allocated more than €82bn to support Ukraine, not counting the costs of supporting the more than 5mn Ukrainian refugees in EU states. There is already a lack of financial resources within the EU, which has requested to supplement the budget with some €66bn, but the proposal was met with objections from member states. Due to the decrease in financial resources, the EU is increasingly leaning towards the idea of transferring to Ukraine, for reconstruction needs, the benefits derived from Russian money (more than €200bn) frozen in the states of the EU through the post-2022 sanctions. In Belgium alone, in the first nine months of 2023, around €3bn were accumulated thanks to the benefits obtained from the money frozen by the Russian Central Bank.
On the other hand, Ukrainian leaders demand the opening of accession negotiations with the EU. At the end of September, Ukrainian civil society assessed the country's level of preparedness at 8.1 points out of a total of 10. The technical assessment of the implementation of the seven EU requirements shows that problems persist in two sectors: reform of the Constitution Court and fight against money laundering. There are decisions that President Volodymyr Zelensky must make, and prior to that the Rada dominated by his party, Servant of the People, has had to restore anti-corruption tools. If the level of readiness is examined strictly on technical principles, then the European Commission's report on Ukraine, which will be presented in early November, could contain a positive recommendation on opening accession negotiations. At the European level there is no open position against the start of negotiations with Ukraine. Political consensus in Brussels corresponds to a good level of technical implementation of the EU conditions. However, the opening of the negotiating chapters could be delayed throughout 2024, even if the European Council adopts a favourable decision at the end of December.
The dynamics of the reforms in Moldova are seen quite positively in the eyes of the EU. During her visit to Chisinau on October 12, von de Leyen made positive assessments of the government's commitment to the EU accession path. Although the president of the European Commission positively valued the reforms achieved, she also admitted that there will be some “challenges", without specifying them. In any case, the shortcomings of the reforms that the Moldovan authorities must implement as part of the EU requirements are justified by the Moldovan side with hybrid threats of Russian origin or with anti-reform resistance within state institutions. In reality, discrepancies between the government's pro-European political ambitions and the quality of reforms are increasing. Thus, in the case of the evaluation of candidates for the self-administration body of judges, one candidate (Iulian Muntean) was selected by the Pre-Vetting Commission and promoted to the position by the ruling Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), although he had open corruption cases. Furthermore, contrary to the recommendations of the Venice Commission and even the Constitutional Court of Moldova, the government restricted the right to be elected of several candidates in local elections. The bans were motivated by PAS representatives as a remedy to counter the attempts of the criminal group led by Ilan Şor (sanctioned by the EU, US, etc.) to influence the results of the local elections on November 5. According to civil society estimates, the level of preparedness at the end of June was evaluated at 4.2 points out of a total of 5. The nine conditions articulated by the EU in relation to Moldova are less specific than in the case of Ukraine. Therefore, the interpretation of the progress made by the Moldovan authorities is less precise and more subjective than for Ukraine. Moldova could lose the opportunity to start accession negotiations, only if the EU takes into account deficiencies in the field of justice or electoral legislation. However, taking into account the close political contacts that PAS maintains with political factors in Brussels, the scenario of opening negotiations has a high level of probability.
The most complicated situation is in Georgia, where the government claims to have implemented the main aspects related to the 12 conditions required by the EU. In reality, the low legitimacy of the ruling Georgian Dream party nullifies confidence in the act of government in Georgia. The failed attempt to remove President Salomé Zurabishvili for promoting the European perspective, with some procedural deviations from constitutional prerogatives, denotes a crisis in the political process of European integration. Political forces close to oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili use the European vector to stay in power, and the opposition sees European integration as a way to trigger political change. There are valid doubts about meeting the EU requirements to obtain candidate country status. However, as in the case of Ukraine and Moldova, the decision on Georgia's candidate country status does not depend on its degree of readiness, but on the EU's geopolitical calculations on the performance of the Russian factor in the region. According to civil society, seven out of 12 conditions are partially implemented, another three are more advanced and two are not implemented at all: deoligarchisation and political polarisation. If the EU intends to somehow revive Georgia's European integration, opposing Russian interests to restore its influence, then candidate country status must be offered on the basis of geopolitical rationale. At the same time, in the last phase, the opening of accession negotiations will have to be strictly conditional on the completion of the currently flawed reforms, but also on the quality of the holding of the 2024 parliamentary elections. Furthermore, the EU must develop an agile and attentive communication strategy in relation to the eventual decision to grant the European candidacy to Georgia. Brussels is obliged to explain to the Georgian public that the candidacy is offered through strategic calculations. The future EU conditionality should focus on the quality of democratic processes, the rights of the opposition, media and civil society. Georgia's decoupling from Ukraine and Moldova will work more in favour of Russia and Georgian oligarchic groups’ interests than against them.
The crisis in the Middle East, as well as the Russian military aggression against Ukraine, but also other geopolitical conflicts that followed, are conclusive evidence that the system of international relations is in transition towards a multipolar world. In this system, multilateralism and the rules-based order do not disappear, but have limited effects in terms of time of legal effects and geographical coverage. The United States, the EU and other Western actors must adapt to remain functional geopolitical actors, capable of both anticipating crises and managing them when prevention fails.
In addition to identifying viable solutions to the Middle East crisis, the EU faces two additional geopolitical priorities. One aims to guarantee support for Ukraine and the other refers to the enlargement of the EU, which, in the context of geopolitical threats, in addition to its transformative nature, has acquired a profound security dimension. For now, the crisis between Israel and Gaza does not endanger the EU's enlargement policy. However, if the conflict spirals out of control and turns into a regional war, the EU will find it difficult to ensure the same level of attention and resources for Ukraine and the eastern enlargement process. Therefore, although the EU made a mistake in the first stage, it must become proactive and impartial in handling the Middle East crisis to avoid a possible deterioration of the situation around it.