The EU must stop delegating the Middle East question to the United States

Worldview: If it is to create a more coherent and credible foreign policy towards the Middle East, the EU needs to be clear about what it wants

“We have been far too absent. We have delegated the solution of this problem to the United States. But Europe must become more involved.”

Josep Borrell, the European Union’s high representative on foreign affairs and security policy, made this remark after a foreign ministers’ meeting on Gaza this week, before heading off on a Middle East tour to present a more coherent EU policy on the crisis. It is certainly needed after several disastrous splits between member states convinced many leaders and citizens in the region that the EU is an unserious and hypocritical foreign policy actor.

Borrell spoke of saying “no” to three things and “yes” to three others. He said no to any forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, to a permanent reoccupation by the Israeli military or any change in Gaza’s size, and to a return of Hamas. He said there should be “a Palestinian Authority,” which could be a “reinforced” version of the current Palestinian Authority that runs the West Bank, “with a legitimacy to be defined and decided upon by the UN Security Council”. Arab countries would have to be more strongly involved in supporting this authority, and the EU should also be more involved in the region, particularly in building a Palestinian state.

It is a good example of Borrell’s rough and ready approach to his job. A Spanish socialist, he is in tune with Spain’s knowledge of the Arab world and relative sympathy for the Palestinians compared to German, Austrian and Czech solidarity with Israel.


Borrell’s efforts to forge a more coherent EU position have been criticised by representatives of these states – and the member states, not he, set policy; but he is surely right to say the EU has been far too absent from that task in recent years. It thereby implied the Palestinian question could be marginalised and bypassed. His six stipulations dramatically illustrate how bankrupt was the previous neglect, and how much ground there is to make up. The problem is that several of his resurrected remedies are probably no longer available as a result of this neglect.

Borrell fully subscribed to the European Commission’s self-description as geopolitical when appointed in 2019, but he can over-egg the case. In a 2022 speech to diplomatic students he said: “Europe is a garden. We have built a garden. Everything works. It is the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion that humankind has been able to build – the three things together. The rest of the world is not exactly a garden. Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden.”

Borrell’s blogs are frank and accessible. Responding to criticisms of this speech as “colonial Euro-centrism” he said in one of them: “But now war is back in Europe and around the globe we see a transformation of geopolitics. We face a world of power politics with the weaponisation of interdependence and more examples of countries using force, intimidation and blackmail to get their way. The growth of this lawless world and disorder is what I meant when talking about the ‘jungle’. My reference to ‘jungle’ has no racist, cultural or geographical connotation. Indeed and unfortunately, the ‘jungle’ is everywhere, including today in Ukraine.”

Post-colonial critiques of EU foreign policy take account of the imperial past in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK, and of its subjects in former Ottoman, Habsburg and Soviet empires in Europe itself. It is possible to map these pasts roughly on to attitudes to the Israeli-Palestinian question, but it is by no means a simple exercise.

Ireland’s attitudes to that conflict have lots to do with its anti-colonial past as they relate to the Palestinians; but Israel’s struggle for self-determination in 1947-1948 was also fought against the British and partly inspired by the Irish War of Independence in 1919-1921.

Gaza has brought out the distinctiveness of Irish foreign policy attitudes towards the Middle East and related them to positive diplomatic and multilateral action through the EU and the United Nations. That is an unusual and valuable experience which reflects the 40 year plus exposure of Irish troops to Unifil service in Lebanon and the popular familiarity with the issues at stake this created.

One view suggests that overcoming colonial Euro-centrism requires efforts to de-centre and provincialise European experience compared to other parts of the world, followed by greater engagement and more equal constructions of policy. If it is to create a more coherent and credible foreign policy towards the Middle East, the EU needs to pay a lot more attention to such advice as it differentiates itself from the United States, along the lines Borrell suggests.