War in Israel Sparks Dissent Within the European Union

Politics - October 15, 2023

The war in Israel, though still in its early days, has already created dissent within the European Union. Although Member States are united in condemning Hamas attacks and supporting Israel in its current tragic situation, a rift is slowly but surely emerging between Member States that have different positions on continued financial support for the Palestinians.

Some of these countries, through the voices of their leaders, either at the presidential level or at the head of their governments, have already expressed their position. And the main argument for continuing this support is that the Palestinian people should not be confused with the terrorist organisation Hamas. Hence the discussions on whether or not to suspend the financial support granted in recent years to Palestine by the EU – an extremely substantial amount, intended to support the population of this country which has been in permanent conflict with its neighbour Israel for more than half a century. On the other hand, the position of the states in which politicians are calling – cautiously or vehemently – for this support to be suspended is understandable, on the back of the attacks which caused thousands of deaths and injured by the Hamas terrorist organisation on the 7th of October. They were celebrated in the streets of Western European cities by citizens of Palestinian origin who are beneficiaries of the protection offered by these states, including by being granted citizenship. However, it is important to consider what consequences a possible suspension of this support would have and whether, in the absence of solutions in the area, Europe may find itself with a new wave of migrants, especially in the current context of a growing anti-migration sentiment.

The EU’s “hot” reaction immediately after the 7th of October attacks was expressed by European Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi: 

“All payments suspended immediately, all projects reviewed, all project budgets, including for 2023, postponed until further notice, re-evaluation of the whole programme,” he wrote on Platform X.

However, just one day later, the European Commission announced that it would not suspend aid to the Palestinian people through its member states, but would reassess how the support plan would be implemented in the future.

Commission spokesman Eric Mamer admitted that prior to Varhelyi’s announcement there had been no consultations on the issue and admitted that it took hours of consultations with member states to publish what appeared to be a rectification from the European Commission. A Council of European foreign ministers appears to have been convened and called to harmonise positions. According to the official announcement, it was convened by the head of the European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, to discuss the situation between Israel and Palestine. According to him, Israel’s response to defend its territory is legitimate, but it must take place within the limits of international law, a view also shared by the United Nations.

Spain and France do not want to stop financial aid to the Palestinian population

Spain and France are two of the Member States that do not want to stop financial aid and have officially announced this. They agree to the revision of the agreement, but not to the suspension of financial aid – and argue that there is a need not to confuse “the terrorist group with the Palestinian population”.

“This cooperation must continue, we cannot confuse Hamas, which is on the EU’s list of terrorist groups, with the Palestinian population or with the Palestinian authority or the United Nations organisations on the ground,” said Jose Manuel Albares, acting foreign minister, in an interview with Spanish radio station Cadena SER.

“We are not in favour of suspending aid that directly benefits the Palestinian people and we made this clear yesterday to the European Commission (…) This aid is focused on supporting the Palestinian populations, in the areas of water, health, food security and education,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Agerpres.

On the other hand, two other countries, Germany and Austria, have announced that they are considering suspending support to the Palestinians, which totals several hundred million euros. German government officials have announced that there will be a reassessment of support for the Palestinians. At the same time, according to the Berlin executive, Germany “will discuss with Israel how development projects in the region can be realised and coordinate with international partners in this regard,” Reuters reported.

German conservatives want an end to Palestinian aid

More radical, some German MPs, particularly from the conservative opposition, have called for an end to aid to Palestine. 

“The whole of Europe, all 27 states, must now declare: we need a new beginning and we will no longer fund terrorists,” said conservative Armin Laschet.

Germany’s clear stance is understandable in a context where the Hamas attack on Israel was celebrated in the streets of Berlin by a pro-Palestinian network. In this context, Christian Democrat and Green Party politicians are calling for a review of the banning of pro-Palestinian associations in Germany and even questioning the withdrawal of some German citizens.

Austria: One of the strongest pro-Israel positions in the European Union

Pro-Hamas protests were also held in Lyon, France, where protesters accused President Emmanuel Macron of “being complicit” with “criminal Israel”.  Although no such protests have so far taken place in major Austrian cities, Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s government has already announced it will suspend €19m in aid to Palestine. Vienna’s position is not surprising. That’s because the Austrian government has adopted one of the strongest pro-Israel stances in the European Union in recent years. Most European countries have not (yet) expressed an official position on the issue. This includes Romania, where the issue of financial support to the Palestinians has remained unexplored even in the public arena. This is despite the fact that it has traditional relations with Palestine, and many Palestinian students have been studying in Romanian universities since before the December 1989 revolution.

According to European Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, the current financial assistance programme for Palestine amounts to almost €700 million. It is part of the EU’s multi-annual development support plan for Palestine, worth a total of €1.2 billion. The EU is providing development support to Palestine after the US “cut” funding to the UN agency dealing with Palestinian refugees – UNRWA – during the Trump administration. The main official argument considered at the time was made very clear by then EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn: 

“Without UNRWA and without the prospect of a two-state solution, there will only be chaos and violence for both Israelis and Palestinians”. And this “chaos” may bring significant waves of migrants from this area to Europe. 

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East was set up after the 1948 Arab-Palestinian war and began operating in 1950. At that time, UNRWA was responsible for 750,000 people. Today – 5.5 million Palestinians are eligible to benefit from the agency’s services. Its main services are education and health care provision, with the Agency operating 700 schools and 140 clinics built over the past seven decades.

A decrease in EU support – which currently provides almost half of UNRWA’s operating budget – could jeopardise its functioning, especially as the agency was “on the verge of financial collapse” in June, according to UN secretary-general Antonio Gutterez. However, since the 7th of October attacks, UNRWA has struggled to shelter nearly 200,000 people in the Gaza Strip in the few schools it runs, although most of them were damaged by the Israeli counter-attack.

We cannot end this article without saying that it is most likely that in the near future, and depending on how the conflict triggered on the 7th of October evolves, Europe will again be the target of a new wave of migrants. From this point of view, the most affected countries will be Spain, Italy and Greece, which are on the main route for migrants by sea into the European Union.