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Europe’s Gaza Betrayal Has Broken the Trust of Millions of People in the Global South

By seemingly giving carte blanche to Israel, the EU has sacrificed hard-won credibility with civil society in Africa, Asia and the Middle East

The European Union’s failure to hold Israel to account for violations of international law in Gaza has blown a gaping hole through its claims to be a values-based defender of international rules, democracy and human rights. Accusations of double standards have come hard and fast from governments in the global south, with many contrasting Europe’s unequivocal condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine with its reluctance to call out Israel’s devastation of Gaza.

“Rarely will anyone soon in the global south listen when western politicians insist on international law,” the Middle East analyst Amro Ali argued recently. This is the kind of observation that causes justifiable concern in Brussels.

Yet for all the criticism of the carte blanche offered to Israel as it hit back against Hamas following the 7 October attack, I have no difficulty believing that many governments in Asia, Africa and the Middle East will continue to do business with the EU, buying its goods and weapons or, like Egypt and Tunisia, taking EU cash in exchange for tougher controls on migrants.

What should be of more concern to Brussels is that its Gaza policy has so badly damaged its credibility among pro-democracy and human rights activists in these countries; people whom the EU says it sees as engines of change, fighting on the frontline for equality and justice.

For years now, the EU has worked to put in place an array of initiatives and “civil society dialogues” in the Arab world and beyond. The aim is to win the hearts and minds of students, trade unionists, academics, young politicians, entrepreneurs, women’s rights leaders and ethnic minority representatives.

In turn these “change-makers”, often facing repressive governments at home, have sought inspiration, support and funding from the EU. Having taken part in gatherings with such civil society representatives, I can vouch for their value in creating bonds, forging connections and overcoming misperceptions.

The EU’s focus on democracy and human rights in its foreign interactions means it has a reputation for more admirable values than other powers. Yet according to the European Council on Foreign Relations thinktank – and confirmed by my Arab, African and Asian friends – its response to Gaza is tearing through its huge reserves of soft power.

“The EU always presented itself as a normative power mainly concerned with upholding international law and which conditions all of its development aid to the global south on criteria like democratic reforms, human rights and gender equality,” says Yasmine Akrimi, a Tunisian researcher on the Middle East.

But the goodwill generated by such principled interventions has all but disappeared. No wonder, when it took EU leaders nearly six months and the deaths of some 30,000 Palestinians including children to call, not even for an immediate ceasefire, but for “a humanitarian pause” leading to one.

Akrimi tells me that a popular Arabic song Telk Qadeya, released by the Egyptian rock band Cairokee, has lyrics referring to western hypocrisy and has become a “hymn for our generation”.

According to an opinion poll conducted across 16 Arab countries, 75% of Arabs view the French and German positions on Gaza as “bad or very bad”. And as disenchantment with the west grows, Europe’s double standards are highlighted on Arab social media through memes, videos and cartoons.

Having reported on EU foreign, trade and development policy for almost four decades, I know that it has always been a tricky balancing act to navigate between lofty rhetoric and hard reality. Hypocrisy is part of the diplomatic game. I have often been in the room as EU policymakers have taken governments in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to task for violating human rights – and then watched them sign millions of euros’ worth of trade and investment deals with leaders of the very same states. EU outrage is often selective. But there are examples too – for instance in its criticism of Russia, Myanmar, China and Pakistan – where the EU has been on the right side of history.

That makes the collective failure to denounce Israel’s unrestrained ferocity in Gaza even more egregious. The EU is Israel’s biggest trading partner, but there has been no response to demands from human rights groups for a suspension of the EU-Israel trade agreement, even though it contains a clause that would allow for such action. EU countries continue to sell arms to the Netanyahu government even after its military’s bombing raids have destroyed entire families, communities, hospitals and universities and killed humanitarian workers delivering emergency food aid to prevent starvation.

The EU’s inertia makes a mockery of its action plan adopted four years ago, which promises that respect for human dignity and human rights will underpin all aspects of its policies. It also falls short of a commitment given by the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last October. Borrell flatly rejected the idea that the EU should stop poking its nose into cases of human rights violations in other parts of the world. Human rights “everywhere” were Europe’s business because they were universal and everybody’s business he said.

Some EU countries like Spain, Ireland and Belgium have corrected course. Even Israel’s most stalwart European ally, Germany, is said to be uneasy at the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. But such national expressions of disquiet serve to further highlight the collective EU failure. They underscore a contrast between western outrage over the deaths of foreign aid workers and the muted response to the suffering of Palestinians. They do little to erase an overall impression that, for Europe, Israeli human rights and lives matter more than Palestinians’.

Some may shrug off criticism of the EU in the global south as a hazard of the “geopolitical Europe” that the EU commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has vowed to build.

But for many democracy activists worldwide, the breach in trust is compounded by European governments’ domestic crackdowns on criticism of Israel. For many African, Asian and Middle Eastern human rights activists there is a parallel between official western attitudes towards Israel’s conduct and colonialism.

Damage to the EU’s reputation risks being irreparable. Even if the slaughter in Gaza is now viewed by many European citizens as an unfolding genocide, that view is not being represented by their governments. For many in the global south, this is unforgivable. As the Indian author Ranjit Hoskote wrote recently: “Gaza is everywhere. Gaza is in the air we breathe. Gaza is in our hearts.”

Source: The Guardian

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