Can the EU Manage Two Conflicts, in Ukraine and the Middle East?

Politics - January 31, 2024

The European Union wants to show that it can manage two serious conflicts – the one in Ukraine and the one in the Middle East – at the same time, but it is almost impossible, at least at the moment, to demonstrate that the 27 leaders of the member states can speak with one voice when it comes to the current complicated geopolitical context and the burning issues of the moment. That seems to be the conclusion of the autumn summit in Brussels, which had on its agenda developments in the Middle East conflict, but also a “strategic” discussion on migration in the European Union. 

Israel’s right to defend itself against vicious attacks by Hamas and the provision of humanitarian aid to the civilian population of the Gaza Strip on the one hand, and the continuation, at the promised pace, of military support to Ukraine on the other, are two issues that divide Europe. But there is also the issue of migration and the irritation of some member states who complain about the lack of concrete measures to prevent a new wave of illegal immigrants, similar to the one in 2015, amid tensions in the Middle East.

Beyond the political aspect, the price the EU bloc is paying for the war in Ukraine is burning a hole in its pocket, especially as it would like to maintain its status as a leading donor in providing humanitarian support to the Palestinian population. In this context, EU leaders must also discuss money. At present, there is an extra €66bn for a range of priorities, including covering the rising interest costs of EU debt. €20bn of this would be military aid for Ukraine, which EU diplomacy chief Josep Borrell asked EU leaders for at the October European Council, on top of the €50bn of additional aid discussed earlier.  This €20bn fund is a new bone of contention, not only because some European leaders have floated the idea of suspending military and economic support for Ukraine, but also because some countries – notably France – would prefer the money to go to European defence contractors, and smaller, Eastern European countries geographically close to the Russian Federation, notably Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, are looking to buy arms at a lower price and which can be delivered from stock (in the sense that no lead time is needed for their production) from South Korea, the United States and Turkey.

That the European Union wants to demonstrate that it can manage both conflicts at the same time is confirmed by the statement of EU Council President Charles Michel himself, who stressed at the end of the Brussels Summit that the situation in the Middle East does not distract from the threat Russia poses to the EU.

On the same note, through German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in recent weeks Germany had repeatedly assured Ukraine that it “will not weaken its support”, while at the same time it was the most vocal European country to declare – initially unconditionally – its support for Israel. Thus, behind the conclusions of the Brussels Summit, in which the EU reaffirmed Israel’s “right to defend itself” and the need for “humanitarian pauses”, there appear to be heated disputes between countries that prioritise support for Israel in its “defence against terrorism” and those that put the need for a “ceasefire” first.

According to an article in “Le Temps”, quoted by euractiv.ro, the idea of a humanitarian “truce” is popular in France, Belgium and even Spain, but is rejected by Germany, which considers it in opposition to Israel’s right to defend itself. Moreover, Germany has been criticised for its support for Israel that was initially unconditional on respect for international law. And a visit to Israel by European commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has only aggravated tensions between the two sides.

What is certain is that if the EU wants to maintain its credibility in the Middle East and be able to act to prevent an escalation of the situation in the region, with consequences that could even be devastating for it, it must maintain its position as the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid to the Palestinian population, a position from which it can put pressure on the parties involved in the conflict, the article states.

Viktor Orban: anyone who supports migration supports terrorism

There are states that are vehemently opposed to a policy of allocating extra money for the war in Ukraine which, according to their leaders, will mean collecting extra money from EU bloc members. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, says Budapest will not give extra money to Ukraine on the basis of proposals that “lack sound technical and political arguments”.  He stressed in Brussels that the principle of “giving more money will not work, we will reject it”, while claiming that Hungary has a peace plan, which is why it wants to keep all channels of communication open with Russia, in the hope that it will be accepted. In a sign that he is keeping all channels of communication open with both sides, Orban shook hands in a friendly manner with the Moscow leader at a meeting with Vladimir Putin at an economic summit in Beijing, a fact reported with concern by the international press. Orban’s stance on allocating more money from the EU budget is the same on migration. At the Brussels summit, Viktor Orbán said Hungary does not support migration and hoped the EU would recognise that there is a clear link between terrorism and migration. He backed up his position by saying that anyone who supports migration supports terrorism.

Not only Viktor Orban has questioned the allocation of new budget support for Ukraine for the coming years, but also the new Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. Suspending military support for Ukraine, an independent foreign policy and aggressive anti-migration measures were the main campaign themes of populist Robert Fico, who was recently elected to a fourth term as Bratislava’s leader. Like his Hungarian counterpart, who denounced the “war” on the Serbian border against migration, in which Hungarian police have thrown all their weapons at it, Fico has also promised massive deployments of border police forces on his border with Hungary to stop terrorists from entering the country.

The risks of new waves of migrants threatening to “besiege” Europe, mainly in the Mediterranean, call for urgent action, including coherent common decisions on asylum regulation and enforcement.

While the disparate murmur of EU leaders’ voices on the issue of migration and in particular the allocation of funds to implement further measures on migration is growing louder, a call for solidarity within the EU on the issue was recently made by Greek Migration Minister Dimitris Kairidis. This comes at a time when during the 2015 migration crisis, the EU faced an influx of more than one million people, mostly Syrian refugees, in addition to those from North Africa who arrived in Greece via Turkey. It called for more vigilance and better border protection but also deportations of those whose applications were rejected today. Kairidis said that in this context of heightened security concerns in the Middle East, Greece was at the forefront of the European Union debate on the high number of expulsions and returns of migrants.

“We have an unacceptable situation where, regardless of whether your application is approved or rejected, you can stay in Europe,” Kairidis said, referring to the attack by an armed Tunisian in Brussels. The Tunisian, who was living illegally in Belgium, allegedly arrived in the European Union via the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011 seeking political asylum but was rejected.

 “We spend tons of money and resources to assess these applications… but at the end of the day it all becomes a mockery,” he added, calling for a common European mechanism for returning migrants.