Judy Asks: Has the War in Gaza Irreversibly Damaged Europe’s Credibility?

The EU’s selective application of international law has tarnished its reputation in the Middle East and the Global South. Repairing the damage will be extremely difficult.

Stefanie Babst – Strategic advisor and former NATO deputy assistant secretary general

Credibility is a commonly used but very fuzzy term. Who in the Middle East accuses the EU of not being credible? The millions of angry young Arabs who, without much economic prospect, have now discovered their sympathies for their Palestinian brothers and sisters? Or the authoritarian rulers in Cairo, Doha, and Riyadh, who are manoeuvring their strategic interests between Russia, China, and the United States? Or is it individual EU members who disguise their own interests behind the credibility argument?

The bottom line is that the EU has long been seen as a “payer” and not as a “player” in the MENA region. It is also a fact that the Europe’s large say-do gap has existed for years. The EU is perceived as a pro-status-quo actor that likes to portray itself as a defender of human rights and international norms but has done little to halt the bloody wars in Syria and Yemen and foster democratization and prosperity in its southern neighborhood.

True, Israel’s war in Gaza has aggravated this image. But as long as the EU lacks political cohesion and fails to offer a concrete diplomatic plan for the day after the war, it will be viewed as a player without much influence.

Thorsten Benner – Co-founder and director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi)

The EU’s cacophony has further imploded what was left of the EU’s credibility as a coherent actor in the Middle East. The staunchest Israel supporters are those who have drawn most ire outside the West. “No country has suffered more damage because of its stance on the Gaza war than Germany,” a former Egyptian diplomat has argued.

Governments will seek to exploit this. Many authoritarian leaders across the Arab world will tell Berlin: “We understand why you acted this way because of your special relationship with Israel, but please spare us your criticism of our record in the future.”

Governments in the rest of the Global South will accuse Europeans of double standards when they seek support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia. This will likely be accompanied by a loss of soft power in large parts of the population, going well beyond entrenched haters of Israel.

What maybe hurts most is that many opposition and civil society voices standing up for rights and freedom seem to have turned away in disgust. None of this is irreversible. But rebuilding will take a long time and a lot more than pointing out that some of world’s biggest supporters of Palestinians are still Europeans.

Caroline de Gruyter – European affairs correspondent for NRC Handelsblad

Europe’s long-standing reputation as an “honest broker” in the Middle East is certainly damaged. But the damage can be repaired over time if the Europeans realize why.

The cause of the damage is not the world’s frustration with Europe’s inability to stop the fighting in the Middle East. Everyone knows this is beyond Europe’s capabilities—even the United States doesn’t manage. Instead, the damage comes from the inability of Europeans lecturing others on human rights to defend them themselves. By condemning Hamas for its October 7 attack and refusing to scold Israel for flattening and starving Gaza, they have lost much credibility.

The repair work consists of bridging this gap and being more even-handed. It means stepping up diplomatic efforts toward a two-state solution. It means preaching less and doing more to liberate Israeli hostages and help prevent the destruction of Gaza and its citizens. Full support for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), set up to relieve Israel from caring for displaced Palestinians, is crucial. So is getting more food and medicine convoys in. Lastly, importantly, it requires giving the right example at home. Europe’s leaders must speak up forcefully against rising anti-Semitism, and against labeling those who wave Palestinian flags as “Hamas supporters” or “anti-Semites.”

Martin Ehl – Chief analyst at Hospodářské Noviny

Europe and the war in Gaza are related through the question of expectations, which is tied to the EU’s credibility: what is realistic to expect from Europe in the Middle East is the essential question.

What was expected from the EU in terms of the Gaza conflict when the core of the energy is—or should be—oriented toward war in Ukraine and the Russian threat? Was the Israeli government ever responsive to any EU pressure or policy changes in the past? From this point of view, the EU’s credibility is not harmed.

But looking the other way around, did the EU know about how Hamas misuses humanitarian funds? Is the EU able to influence the Palestinian and other Arab players? From this perspective, yes, the credibility is harmed.

In Gaza and elsewhere, the EU is in the process of learning the hard way what it means to be a geopolitical player. The wars in Ukraine and in Gaza taught the EU a critical lesson about the contemporary world: words are not enough. To be a credible international player today, one needs some hard assets and the political will to use them. That is not the case with the EU’s policy in the Middle East.

Shada Islam – Managing director of the New Horizons project

Rebuilding the EU’s credibility as an ethical geopolitical player post-Gaza will be a massive challenge. Governments in the region will still want EU aid and trade—and the EU’s egregious cash for migration control deals—but Europe will no longer be able to win the hearts and minds of people, especially young generations.

Many Arabs and others in the Muslim world truly believed in the EU’s commitment to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. They took part in numerous people-to-people discussions with their European counterparts. These “civil society dialogues” were frank and open. The fiery energy of the young people and their animated exchanges—which I often facilitated—with senior EU policymakers were amazing.

Sadly, the EU’s very public failure to abide by international rules and conventions—and by its own human rights commitments—in the face of Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza’s population following the October 7 Hamas attack has shredded the bloc’s reputation as a normative and “value-based” actor. The EU’s focus on humanitarian aid cannot compensate for the fact that EU countries continue to send arms to Israel, even after the International Court of Justice has warned of a “plausible genocide” in Gaza.

Deep dismay at the EU’s failure to stand up for international law on Gaza has unfortunately wrecked its reputation not just among Arab citizens and other Muslims but also, more generally, among people in the Global South. The sense of betrayal is similarly strong among European Muslims and Europeans of color.

Pol Morillas – Director of the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB)

An optimist would answer that it is precisely Europe’s longstanding position for the resolution of the conflict, the two-state solution, which might emerge as a reinforced consensus among the international community, if the intensity of the war diminishes.

But this probably reads as too optimistic, and paradoxical as well. One of the parties, the current Israeli government, does not even contemplate it. And the situation on the ground, also in the West Bank, makes this solution unfeasible. The Palestinian state would not have territorial continuity of any sorts, the status of Jerusalem as a shared capital is a pipe dream, and the settlements have rendered the “land for peace” formula untenable.

Yet diplomacy is full of surprises, and it might happen that precisely when the two-state solution is less operational, it gets a new push, also from the current White House administration.

A more relevant aspect for Europe is not related to the substance or credibility of its solutions, but rather to the ability to make its voice heard. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over-stretched her prerogatives at the beginning of the crisis. She departed from Europe’s agreed language on the Middle East Peace Process. A few ministers and EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, have conveyed very different messages. Some member states, Hungary in particular, don’t lose opportunities to block joint positions for national blackmailing or spurious reasons.

Truth be told, the European voice is not as respected as it used to be, particularly in the Global South. Evidence of double standards won’t help either. The first task for the EU to regain its credibility and voice starts at home.

Mary C. Murphy – Senior lecturer in politics at University College Cork

In truth, the war in Gaza has impacted and damaged the credibility of many states and international actors—the EU included. Europe has faltered in presenting a united front and a strong policy response. Of course, this is the same challenge the EU has faced for many years in its varying and often timid efforts to respond to conflict on its borders.

Member-states’ competing interests and distinct relationships with both Israel and Palestine means that a coherent and credible foreign policy response is once again proving elusive for the EU. Where Ireland and Spain are among those most supportive of Palestine, other states including Hungary and Germany are either pro-Israel or internally divided on how best to respond.

However, despite its disjointed policy positioning, the EU has (slowly) proved capable of modifying its response. All states—bar Hungary—now support a ceasefire in Gaza.

The war in Gaza has certainly placed the EU’s credibility, authority, and legitimacy in the dock. But recent demonstrations of an ability to respond to developments in Gaza and to isolate Hungary are important—much more of this is needed.

Nora Müller – Executive director of International Affairs at the Körber-Stiftung

Israel’s right to defend itself after the Hamas massacre of October 7 is undisputed. But how long is self-defense proportionate? The EU’s long hesitation to call for a ceasefire despite the dramatic rise in civilian casualties and the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza was met with vehement rejection in large parts of the so-called Global South, above all in the Arab world. The accusation of moral and political inconsistency has once again hit the Europeans with full force.

The reputational damage goes hand in hand with Europe’s staggering loss of influence in the MENA region. It is also likely to set narrow limits on the Europeans’ ability to play a constructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The European Commission’s recent announcement of plans to expand aid measures for the people in Gaza is an important signal. However, it will not be able to make up for the Europeans’ loss of reputation and influence.

Luigi Scazzieri – Senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform

Europe’s response to the war in Gaza has greatly undermined its credibility in the Middle East and beyond. Europe and the West more broadly framed their defense of Ukraine as a defense of the international order and the principles of international law. Many countries outside the West have always felt that Europeans were selective in how they approached international law. Europe’s failure to take concrete steps to restrain Israel’s military actions in Gaza and to reduce civilian casualties will be seen as further proof of that.

Europeans should not be surprised when they are yet again seen as guilty of double standards. It will be harder for Europe to rally support for Ukraine in international fora, and European calls for solidarity on other issues are also likely to fall on deaf ears. In many cases, Europe’s partners in the Muslim world will have no choice but to continue to work with it. But, if they have a choice, they may increasingly prefer to work with other partners, especially China.

Erwin van Veen – Senior research fellow at the Clingendael Conflict Research Unit

After fifty-six years of occupation and the horrors of October 7, Israel’s military campaign in Gaza creates three dilemmas for European politicians: overlooking or enforcing Israel’s countless transgressions of international humanitarian law; ignoring or recognizing the shift to the ultranationalist right of much of the Israeli political elite; and mimicking or revitalizing the prospect of a two-state solution.

What does a brief stock-taking exercise tell us? First, official statements of most European countries clarify that international humanitarian law barely applies to Israel. Even critics like Ireland, Spain, and Belgium have not taken action despite the wholesale destruction of Gaza.

Second, many European politicians remain on friendly terms with Israel’s government despite the latter being the architect of occupation, giving free rein to settlers it subsidizes and protects, and allowing extremist groups like Tsav 9 to block humanitarian aid into Gaza in direct contravention of the International Court of Justice.

Third, lip service to the two-state solution continues, yet even de jure recognition of Palestine remains rare in Western Europe.

On balance, most European countries fail to recognize Gaza for the watershed it is becoming: the death of the two-state solution and the coming of age of a more extremist and religious Israel.

Pierre Vimont – Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe

It would be hazardous to pretend that on the war in Gaza, Europe maintains much credibility in the Arab world or even amid its Global South partners.

The ongoing European hesitations over calling for a pause or a ceasefire in Gaza while the humanitarian situation is reaching unbearable limits has broken the trust between Europe and its partners. The double-standard policy is too visible with Europe’s wobbling over the Gaza tragedy while protesting at the same time against the Russian shelling of Ukrainian cities. Today a viral anti-European narrative has overtaken social networks all over the world. It will not go away easily.

Is the damage irreversible? Maybe not, but to reverse that negative trend Europe needs to act now and dispel the impression of powerlessness it is conveying today. The humanitarian field should be the ground for such action. Europe could promote a UN resolution specifically dedicated to humanitarian action that would for instance set up a UN-controlled international zone at the border with Egypt, coupled with corridors inside Gaza monitored by UN agencies and local police forces. With such an initiative Europe would at least show its determination to stop Gaza sliding into a humanitarian tragedy.

Check Also

America Is Losing the Arab World

And China Is Reaping the Benefits October 7, 2023, was a watershed moment not just …