EU staffers criticise von der Leyen’s ‘uncontrolled’ support of Israel

More than 800 EU staff and global diplomats sign a letter to the EU chief, saying the bloc’s position is enabling more violence.

ursula von der leyen
President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has offered full support for Israel throughout the latest war, even as it heavily bombards Gaza [File: Fermin Rodriguez/AP]

By Priyanka Shankar

Published On 20 Oct 2023 –

Brussels, Belgium – As Gaza is relentlessly bombed by Israel, more than 800 EU officials have written to the bloc’s chief, Ursula von der Leyen, criticising her “uncontrolled” support of Israel.

The signatories of the letter, which Al Jazeera has seen, say they “hardly recognise the values of the EU”, claiming there is a “seeming indifference demonstrated over the past few days by our institution towards the ongoing massacre of civilians in the Gaza Strip, in disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law”.

They say they are saddened by the Commission’s “double standards”, since it considers the blockade of Ukraine by Russia as an act of terror, while Israel’s blockade of Gaza is “completely ignored”.

“If Israel does not stop immediately, the whole Gaza Strip and its inhabitants will be erased from the planet,” the letter read.

“We urge you [von der Leyen] to call, together with the leaders of the whole Union, for a ceasefire and for the protection of civilian life. This is at the core of the EU existence,” they said, warning “the EU risks losing all credibility”.

The letter represents deep divisions within the bloc on how to approach the Israel-Gaza war, which in less than two weeks has killed thousands of people.

The European Commission’s “recent unfortunate actions or positions seem to give a free hand to the acceleration and the legitimacy of a war crime in the Gaza Strip”, the letter said.

In Gaza, more than 4,000 Palestinians have been killed, many of them children.

“We would have been proud if the European Union … had called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and indiscriminate violence against civilians,” the letter read.

The call on von der Leyen follows other signs of political friction in the West, with reports that US diplomats are preparing a “dissent cable” on the Middle East war, a document criticising Washington’s policy that goes to State Department leaders.

The European Commission said it was aware of the letter and is ready to engage with staff members and European citizens to understand their views.

“The President has said on several occasions that ‘there is no contradiction in standing in solidarity with Israel and acting on the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people,’” a Commission spokesperson told Al Jazeera.

“She has also said, ‘There can be no hesitation on our [EU] side: Europe will always be on the side of humanity and of human rights.’”

An EU source, who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera that the letter was unlikely to change EU policy, “but it shows the growing divide between many staff members who want to see international law applied across the globe”.

Von der Leyen, the European Commission president, is currently in the United States for an EU-US Summit.

“We stand for peace and prosperity. Supporting Ukraine in its fight for freedom. Standing by Israel and addressing humanitarian needs in the region,” she said on Thursday.

‘They thought it would be a Ukraine moment’

A second EU source told Al Jazeera that dissent is rising because von der Leyen’s team “appears to have completely misread the situation”.

“They – her and her closest advisers – thought that this [Israel-Hamas war] would be a Ukraine moment, and so they need to condemn the terrorists and win the moral argument. But I think they’ve just been purely ignorant of the scale of oppression Palestinians have experienced, and the widespread understanding of the conflict as this being a violent reaction to occupation,” the official told Al Jazeera.

Von der Leyen is “still morally struggling with how to take a stance”, the official said, adding that her position from now is likely to depend on diplomatic efforts “on the global scale and what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says”.

“[Her] team are trying to adjust their line and acknowledge that they misread the situation. They are trying to write a narrative where they can still be seen as staunch allies of Israel, but also as a diplomatic force in the region, while trying to maintain some level of credibility vis a vis the war Ukraine,” the official said.

“But in this case, it looks like the Americans will be the adults in the room,” the official added.

A few streets away from the European Commission, a similar sense of anger has been brewing among some staffers at the European Parliament, led by Roberta Metsola.

“To see two of the three presidents [von der Leyen and Metsola] suddenly in Israel, standing shoulder to shoulder with a regime which is killing civilians was pretty shocking,” a Parliament official, who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera.

“How has Macklemore taken a more humane stance than the European Commission?” they said, referring to the American rapper and singer who has called for a “ceasefire in Israel” and also a “Free Palestine”.

Meanwhile, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, has won praise among some staffers who think he has a more nuanced stance towards the current situation in Gaza; throughout the latest war, he has regularly called for both the release of Israeli hostages in Gaza and for aid to be hurried into the besieged strip on brink of collapse.

Kristina Kausch, a Madrid-based senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said “inconsistencies” provide a glimpse into the “deep splits within the EU on this conflict”.

Over the past decade, she added, on the Israel-Palestine crises, the 27 nations of the bloc “have barely managed to put out any common statements”.

As a result, EU policy on the Israel-Palestine dossier, a key benchmark for the EU’s effectiveness as a global actor, “has been helplessly stalled”, she said.

On Thursday, at the European Parliament headquarters in Strasbourg, members adopted a resolution calling for a “humanitarian pause” in the latest Israel-Gaza war.

But officials told Al Jazeera of more divisions – such as debates over whether “ceasefire” or “pause” should be used for the resolution.

One official pointed out that the resolution made no mention of the Israeli occupation or the blockade on Gaza.

A fourth EU official Al Jazeera spoke to described a tense atmosphere across the institution, with many feeling ashamed to work for the bloc.

“For my generation of workers, ‘Never Again’ actually means something,” they said. “We remember 9/11 and many of us protested the war in Iraq. So I think a lot of people were horrified when von der Leyen and Metsola seemed to offer a carte blanche to Israel, apparently in our name. It feels like the space to express solidarity with Palestinians is shrinking.

“The conflation of Jewish people and the state of Israel is also a problem … The lack of diversity of both Jewish and Muslim people working for the EU doesn’t help.”