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After last year’s invasion of the Russian troops into Ukraine, the states of the European Union showed unprecedented stubbornness. Even Hungary’s occasional “grudging” did not overshadow the fact that the twenty-seventh advanced against Moscow and in favor of Kyiv in unison. Never in the past has the EU been able to flexibly agree on a series of such a complex agenda as the eleven packages of anti-Russian sanctions.
But can we infer from European cohesion against the Kremlin that the Union can similarly synchronize itself at other times and promote its interests in the international arena as a full-fledged opponent of great powers such as the United States, China or Russia? Barely.
Just look at the discordant responses to another serious foreign conflict – the attack by terrorists from the Palestinian movement Hamas on Israel and the subsequent retaliation focused on the Gaza Strip. It turned out that the EU is not able to take a united voice to the escalated crisis in the Middle East.
Confused signals came out of the EU already during the first wave of reactions to the bloody rampage of terrorists. When one of the European Commissioners - apparently on his own initiative - declared that Brussels would stop aid supplies to Gaza, the announced step was questioned and mitigated. A few days later, the European Commission announced that it would triple humanitarian aid for the bombed-out Palestinian enclave.
Gradually, other dissonances also manifested themselves, and not only between individual member countries, some of which are traditionally more partial to Israel (for example, the Czech Republic) and some more to the Palestinians. Disagreements in attitudes also escalated within the European institutions.
The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has become the target of criticism. Around 800 EU employees signed a protest letter last week complaining about her overly pro-Israeli comments. Von der Leyen had previously earned reprimands for a trip to Israel she took on her own.
The head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, also expressed reservations towards the President of the Commission. Even the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, who is on paper the EU’s highest external representative, distanced himself from the German politician.
The latest disagreement was manifested at Monday’s meeting of the Union’s foreign affairs ministers in Luxembourg, who failed to agree on the demand to declare a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. One of the states that blocked the agreement for the time being was the Czech Republic.
The two experts on European foreign policy that Nauzal approached about the topic spontaneously used the term “cacophony” for the EU’s current foreign policy towards the Middle East crisis. At the same time, they point out that this is not an exceptional situation.
“Today’s situation is a reflection of the state of European integration, which in a number of political areas – taxes, social standards, foreign affairs – has not progressed far enough to correlate with the huge expectations associated with the EU,” said Petr Kaniok, director of the International Institute of Political Science at Masaryk University in Brno.
According to him, it is the result of several factors that cannot be changed quickly.
He emphasized that the EU’s so-called common foreign and security policy is still very much “intergovernmental”. States have a strong say in it and stand by their agreement. The European institutions do not determine its agenda and do not decide on it, but are based on the positions of the states, which are different for a number of long-term reasons – historical, social, economic, geographical and other, and difficult to “harmonize” in the short term.
According to political scientist Kaniok, another factor follows from this – that foreign policy is to a large extent a socio-cultural phenomenon. And in this respect, the EU is far from being integrated enough to function uniformly.
Thirdly, the question is how meaningful and functional a majority vote would be for such a sensitive agenda. Institutional settings can be changed quickly, but states and their societies would hardly accept to hold positions with which they do not share values.
According to Tomáš Weiss from the Institute of International Studies of the Faculty of Social Sciences of the UK, the member states of the Union do not allow the EU to speak externally with a clear and unified voice.
“In foreign and security policy, member states prefer a weak EU, which means that in no situation will they be forced to take a position with which they do not fully agree,” noted Professor Weiss.
According to him, the current discrepancy is perhaps a little stronger than usual, but the core of the EU’s illegibility is nevertheless that the member states are not willing to back down from their positions.
The solution may be to introduce some form of majority voting for selected foreign policy topics. The EU would thus have a clear position on the subject, even if some states would not be completely satisfied with the result.
Although proposals for majority voting in foreign policy have been defeated, they have no chance of being approved in the short term because not all countries agree to it.
“I can’t help but note that the biggest criticism of the EU for its inconsistency and illegibility comes from those who would be the first to criticize the effort to introduce majority voting. In principle, we make certain demands on the EU, but we do not give it the appropriate tools to do so,” Weiss added.
Some commentators point out that the EU’s internal disunity and low capacity for action in foreign policy reduce the importance of EU-wide diplomacy in the eyes of the big players in international politics.
“No one cares what Europe thinks. Across a number of global conflict hotspots, from Nagorno-Karabakh to Kosovo to Israel, Europe has been relegated to the role of a well-intentioned NGO whose humanitarian contributions are welcomed but otherwise ignored,” the Politico.eu website did not spare the Union.
The twenty-seven-year-old has always tried to formulate a coherent foreign policy despite diverse national interests. However, according to the author of the analysis, the global influence of the EU is weakening – also as a result of the decline of its economy and its inability to show military power in a time of increasing instability. Instead of the geopolitical powerhouse Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised when she took office in 2019, the EU is mostly just embarrassing itself with its “cacophony of contradictions,” Politico reported.