How the Persistent Palestinian-Israeli Conflict is Exacerbating Divisions and Challenges Within the European Union

A fresh wave of Palestinian-Israeli conflict erupted in October 2023, showing no signs of abating, with the specter of escalation and broadening looming. Despite its geographical remove from Europe, the historical and strategic ties tether European interests closely to the Middle East, ensuring Europe’s inevitable entanglement in the Palestinian-Israeli imbroglio. As the conflict persists and metastasizes, Europe’s entanglement therein deepens markedly.

Internecine divisions widen

On the Palestine-Israel conundrum, a perennial dearth of consensus among EU member states prevails. While Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic steadfastly align with Israel, Spain, Ireland, and Belgium evince greater sympathy toward the Palestinian cause. France endeavors to tread a middle path, while others, chiefly tailing the United States, inevitably converge around a circumscribed consensus, epitomized by endorsement of the “two-state solution.” The unprecedented gravity of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with its staggering toll and dire humanitarian ramifications, has only served to exacerbate the schisms among EU member states, rendering a unified stance an elusive proposition.

With the eruption of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the EU found itself ensnared in disarray over a coherent response. European Commission President von der Leyen hastily dispatched herself to Israel to avow unwavering support, while Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, implored Israel to exercise restraint. Not until a week post-conflict did the EU proffer a statement, terse in its brevity, laying bare the discord among the 27 member states.

Germany persists in its unwavering support for Israel, even in the face of Gaza’s unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. The death toll, exceeding 25,000, predominantly comprises women and children. Nearly 2 million individuals have been displaced, with acute shortages of sustenance, potable water, and medication. The precipice looms. In riposte to Germany’s obduracy, the Belgian Development Minister queries, “Do you truly wish to repeat history’s missteps? Will you idly spectate as ethnic cleansing unfolds? Is this your decree? Never again.” A French diplomat, resignedly, remarks, “We look first to the United States, then calibrate our stance.”

At the EU summit in December 2023, Spain, Belgium, Ireland, and Malta petitioned for a “serious” deliberation on the Gaza conundrum and consequential action. Yet, met with staunch opposition, notably from Germany, the EU flounders in mustering a resolute position or action on Gaza, manifesting as impotence in confronting the acute humanitarian crisis therein.

Nevertheless, the EU retains a modicum of leverage vis-à-vis Israel. Serving as Israel’s principal trading partner, the EU’s economic sway is considerable. Were the EU to wield economic leverage, adopt a firmer political posture, and curtail military assistance, it could sway Israeli decision-making to a degree. However, internal discord precludes the EU from undertaking decisive actions, past, present, or prospective.

Economic Doldrums

In recent years, the EU economy has weathered successive onslaughts, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the Ukraine crisis. The projected growth for 2023 stands at a mere 0.6%, with over ten member states, including Germany, the EU’s linchpin economy, sliding into recession. Ere the outbreak of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the EU economy already groaned under manifold pressures, encompassing inflation and a burgeoning cost-of-living crisis. Although the impact of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict pales compared to the Ukraine crisis, it compounds extant woes, ushering in heightened economic uncertainty for 2024.

Initially, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict exerted scant substantive influence on the EU economy. However, as the conflict festers and portends escalation, particularly in tandem with the Houthi incursions into the Red Sea, its repercussions on the EU economy are becoming increasingly palpable, especially in exacerbating inflation. Albeit showing signs of abatement in the latter half of 2023, EU inflation may reprise its ascent as the Red Sea crisis deepens.

The Red Sea stands as a vital artery for global maritime commerce, facilitating the transit of 15% of seaborne trade, including crucial commodities like grain, oil, and liquefied natural gas. However, since the Houthis commenced targeting merchant vessels, Red Sea traffic has plummeted, compelling ships to detour via the Cape of Good Hope, incurring both temporal and pecuniary costs. Freight rates have tripled thus far, inexorably inflating the prices of European imports. Supply chain disruptions have prompted several European enterprises to curtail or halt production, exemplified by Tesla’s German factory shuttering operations until February 11 due to the Red Sea imbroglio, exacerbating Europe’s economic tribulations.

Presently, the Middle Eastern milieu teeters on the precipice of complexity and fragility. While major stakeholders, including the United States and Iran, eschew direct involvement in the conflict, intensified American and British airstrikes against the Houthi militants cloud the trajectory of the Palestinian-Israeli imbroglio. Should the conflict persist or escalate, concomitant epidemics, coupled with an inevitable spike in oil and gas prices, augur further exacerbation of inflation and business closures in Europe, dealing a severe blow to the EU economy.

Escalating Refugee Crisis

The EU bore witness to a monumental refugee crisis in 2015, inflicting profound psychological scars. Since then, grappling with the refugee quandary has remained a paramount concern. While the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily assuaged the refugee influx, since 2021, entries via irregular routes have surged precipitously. From January to November 2023, over 350,000 refugees entered Europe through irregular channels, marking the highest tally since 2016, with significant spikes observed along the West African and Central Mediterranean routes.

In the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, the EU extended refuge to nearly 4 million Ukrainians. The outbreak of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict portends a fresh deluge of refugees inundating the EU. While the immediate prospect of mass migration from Gaza appears improbable, neighboring countries like Egypt and Jordan brace for intensified pressures. As the reverberations of the Gaza conflict proliferate, compounded by the enduring Red Sea crisis, certain Middle Eastern economies reel under the strain, evidenced by the precipitous decline in tourism revenue across Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, coupled with Egypt’s diminished earnings from the Suez Canal. Sudan, afflicted by the Red Sea crisis, grapples with an exacerbated humanitarian plight, compelling more individuals to embark on perilous journeys toward European shores.

Compounding the predicament, the EU’s capacity to contend with another refugee surge has markedly atrophied since 2015. Beset by economic malaise precipitated by the Ukraine crisis, substantial EU funds have been channeled toward Ukrainian aid, eclipsing attention to the Middle East and Africa. Particularly in Africa, military coups and protracted conflicts, alongside climatic vagaries exacerbating humanitarian crises, have engendered mass displacement. Though cognizant of the Mediterranean’s perilous embrace, myriad souls persist in their perilous quest for refuge in Europe, navigating treacherous smuggling routes.

If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues to expand, especially if countries such as Lebanon and Iran are involved in the conflict, a new wave of refugee crises in Europe will be inevitable.

further intensify social antagonism

The reason why the refugee issue has become a prominent issue in Europe lies in its controversial and complex nature. Anti-immigration far-right organizations or parties exist in almost all countries in Europe. Whenever refugees and illegal immigrants increase rapidly, far-right forces will grow stronger. The rise in the power of the far right will inevitably increase the antagonism between immigrant groups, especially Muslim groups, and white groups, and the entire society will tend to become radical and extremist.

In recent years, with the influx of refugees and illegal immigrants, far-right forces in Europe have further developed. The Netherlands will hold elections in November 2023, and the far-right Freedom Party will become the largest party. The national support rate for the far-right Alternative for Germany is stable at around 22%, and exceeds 30% in East Germany, making it the second largest party in the country after the Christian Democratic Union. Recently, large-scale anti-ultra-right demonstrations broke out in Germany, Austria and other countries, highlighting the divisions and oppositional sentiments in European society. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict will further intensify the antagonism in European society, stimulate the development of extremism, and significantly increase the threat of social terrorism.

European countries, especially Western and Nordic countries, have a large Muslim group. This group is emotionally inclined to Palestine and opposes the host government’s strong support for Israel. For example, in France, there are about 5 million Muslims and about 500,000 Jews at the same time. Both sides have organized large-scale demonstrations, and verbal threats and violence against minority groups have increased significantly. This shows that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has spilled over to European countries. Data from the French Ministry of the Interior shows that one month after the outbreak of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, more than 1,500 anti-Semitic incidents have occurred in France, three times the number in the whole of 2022, including a stabbing incident in Lyon; anti-Muslim incidents have also increased significantly. Including attacks on Muslims and attacks on mosques. As a result, many European countries have raised their domestic terror threat levels, including Austria, Spain, Portugal, Slovenia, etc. France and Belgium have previously raised their anti-terrorism levels due to terrorist attacks. On December 2, 2023, a man in France stabbed one person to death and injured another person with a knife near the Eiffel Tower. The man’s motivation for the attack was partly related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Counter-terrorism intelligence agencies in Germany, the UK and other countries have expressed concerns about the future terrorist situation.

Currently, Europe is facing the dual impact of the Ukraine crisis and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and is the party most affected among the major global forces. The dual crises overlap and resonate, and their impacts reinforce and amplify each other, bringing all-round blows to the EU’s economy, society, politics, integration, international image and influence. This not only highlights the lack of strategic autonomy of the EU, but also highlights the urgency of the EU to strengthen its strategic autonomy. The EU is deeply affected by the dual crisis, but is unable to solve the crisis. It can only rely on the “mercy” of the United States and hope that the United States can take Europe’s interests into consideration. But there is no doubt that the United States, whether it is the Biden administration or the Trump administration in the past and that may come to power again in the future, is implementing an “America First” policy. If Europe cannot work hard and unite to promote strategic independence, its future situation will be even more worrying.

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