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The seat of the European Council, where the leaders of the 27 member states meet. Alamy Stock Photo
mood music

EU sanctions for Israel? A 'non-starter' for now says one expert

There remain practical measures that the EU could take to really impact Israel but they have not been on the table thus far.

THIS WEEK, TAOISEACH Simon Harris urged other European Union countries to use “every lever at their disposal” to bring the conflict in Gaza to a halt. He said Europe could be doing “a hell of a lot more” as Tánaiste Micheál Martin told reporters that sanctions against Israel had been discussed at EU level for the first time. 

Whether this kind of language reflects a realistic possibility for change in the EU’s stance towards Israel, or is simply rhetoric, remains to be seen. So far, all evidence points to the latter. The makeup of the bloc and its need for unanimous consensus among its member states means that if even one state opposes a measure, it will not be adopted. 

It took the European Union five months to reach a unanimous position on the need for a ceasefire in the conflict, finally reaching a consensus in March. In January, the bloc had agreed to calling for a “humanitarian pause leading to a sustainable ceasefire”. 

Previous efforts had been made towards coalescing around a similar call but Hungary used its veto to block it.  

While there has been a noticeable rhetorical shift in position by the EU since Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced Europe’s “unconditional” support for Israel in October, the veto has meant that this change has been symbolic rather than substantive.   

Germany, Austria, Czechia and Hungary are Israel’s closest allies in the EU and it is extremely unlikely that they would vote for sanctions against Israel, as Maynooth University’s John O’Brennan told The Journal

According to O’Brennan, the near certainty of a veto from any or all of those countries means that this week’s talk of sanctions was an exercise in “grandstanding” as he sees the idea as “a non-starter”. 

“To be honest I don’t think it is very significant. I think it’s been blown up by some to suggest we’re looking at a qualitative change in the EU position. I think the reality is, while we in the European Union operate with a system where even one country can block the EU taking a significant measure, then it’s not going to happen.”

For Germany and Austria, supporting Israel has become part of their raison d’etre since the horrors of the Holocaust. 

Speaking last October, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said: “Germany’s history and the responsibility it had for the Holocaust requires us to maintain the security and existence of Israel.”

In November, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said: “We have entered into a strategic, extremely close relationship with Israel that can’t be reversed.” 

Germany is the second largest arms supplier to Israel and has consistently backed its nearly eight-month war on Gaza, which has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians. 

“There is no way that the Germans are going to entertain imposing sanctions of any kind on Israel,” said O’Brennan.

“So I just think the idea is a non-starter. The mood music may have changed a bit the other day after that latest atrocity in Rafah, with so many innocent people killed, but the underlying reality I think is such that we’re not going to see a change.”

He also believes that the position of the United States will continue to inform the EU stance. 

“If the United States maintains the highly ambiguous position that it’s taken, while it continues to support Israel and offer cover to Israel, the Europeans are not going to do anything.”

The comments from the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, like the recognition of Palestine, are “nothing more than symbolic” and “adds up to nothing more than incremental change”. 

There remain practical measures that the EU could take to really impact Israel but they have not been on the table thus far. 

They include a suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement and sanctions against Israeli leaders.

“That’s what would really work and we’re not going to get that, and I don’t think any number of future Rafahs in the weeks and months to come is going to change that fundamentally.” 

In April, Tánaiste Micheál Martin told reporters in Luxembourg that Ireland had faced pushback from other EU countries while proposing the trade agreement be reviewed. 

“Essentially, we’re calling for a review by the Commission of the association agreement, and particularly the degree to which Israel is fulfilling the mandatory human rights clauses of that agreement because what has transpired in Gaza is absolutely unacceptable,” Martin said.

Another option would be to ban the importation of goods from occupied Palestinian territories. 

“That’s been one of the criticisms of our government here, that they could have proceeded with the Occupied Territories Bill, and they haven’t,” O’Brennan said. 

“So they’re open to the charge of hypocrisy, that they’re kind of grandstanding internationally saying, we have the most pro-Palestine position within the European Union. But what have we actually done in substance? I don’t think it’s very much to be quite honest.” 

One of the most outspoken EU critics of the Israeli campaign in Gaza has been the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. 

This week he said that he would no longer refer to the state of Israel, but rather the Netanyahu government, which O’Brennan believes is a sign of his growing exasperation with the situation. 

“I just think Burrell is a political eunuch. And I don’t mean that pejoratively. I think the man is just exhausted. He’s been screaming into the void on this issue for month after month after month. 

“I think he said what he said out of real frustration because nothing can happen effectively in European foreign policy without the consent of all 27 member states, and here’s where you run up against that problem of the veto. 

“Having watched Borrell over the last five years and especially over the last six months, I think he’s absolutely jaded and worn down. When Hungary has either threatened to or has actually used the veto over and over again in foreign policy matters, on Ukraine especially, I think he’s been just immensely frustrated.”

While the title of High Representative for Foreign Policy and Vice President of the EU Commission may sound like a powerful position, according to O’Brennan “the simple fact is he is a prisoner of the European Council”. 

“He cannot really do anything unless he has the support of all 27 Member States.”

Need more information on what is happening in Israel and Palestine? Check out our new FactCheck Knowledge Bank for essential reads and guides to navigating the news online.

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