Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who is in line to replace Federica Mogherini as High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in November, stands to worsen an already tense relationship with Israel. Borrell’s perceived pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli stance exacerbates Israeli perceptions of the EU as a biased mediator while sustaining the U.S.’ role as Israel’s preferred interlocutor in the Middle East peace process. Furthermore, the challenges of foreign policy decision-making within the EU will likely hamper Borrell’s ability to enforce member unity and action on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, leading the EU to remain a ‘payer’ rather than a ‘player’.

Borrell’s nomination was met with stark disapproval in Israel. Israel Hayom, an Israeli daily newspaper, reported that officials are warily observing the changing of the guard at the EU. In the same outlet, one prominent journalist noted that Borrell’s nomination meant that “Europe [had shown] its true colors.” Following the European Parliamentary elections, Israel was hoping for a shift in foreign policy toward the right and a more overtly pro-Israel position, as has been the case with Austria and Hungary in recent years. Conversely, Borrell, a Catalan socialist, is considered a staunch Israel critic. In the wake of his nomination, Israeli outlets highlighted Borrell’s pro-Palestinian support as foreign minister, which involved advocating for Spain’s unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, and public criticism of Israeli military actions in Gaza. 

Borrell stands to inherit an already troubled relationship with Israel. Mogherini has not conducted a working visit to Israel since 2014, shortly after commencing her five-year post. Perceived as a pro-Palestinian advocate and cheerleader for the Iranian nuclear deal, Mogherini was not particularly well-liked in Jerusalem. The EU’s decision to label products from Israeli settlements in the West Bank in 2015 led Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to suspend the EU’s diplomatic involvement in peace efforts with the Palestinians for a “reassessment.” While attempts were made to put bilateral ties, in the words of Netanyahu, “back on track,” the EU-Israel relationship remains a fractured. Efforts to reinstate the EU-Israel Association Council, an annual ministerial-level political dialogue, in 2016 faltered. According to the union, the council demonstrates “the significance the EU attaches to its relations with the State of Israel.” Yet, it has been unable to reconvene since 2012–– in spite of a legal framework that stipulates that the council meet once a year to examine EU-Israeli relations. 

Over the past four decades, Europe has been seeking ways to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In the EU’s 2017 Global Strategy, for instance, the EU argued for a close cooperation “with the Quartet, the Arab League and all key stakeholders to preserve the prospect of a viable two-state solution.” The EU has repeatedly expressed concern over the ongoing situation in the Middle East and contentious moves by involved parties. Thus, in the aftermath of the Israel’s adoption of the controversial Nation-State Bill in July 2018, which seeks to define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, the EU condemned the bill and support for the two-state solution. More recently, the U.S. administration’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights led the EU to reaffirm its commitment to UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 497, which effectively invalidate Israeli claims to territories occupied in war. 

Despite its continued financial support for the Palestinian Authority and deep economic cooperation with Israel, the EU has been confined to playing a subsidiary role in the conflict. While the EU provides a veneer of reactionary political consensus, it fails to proactively contribute to the revival of the peace process. The most recent attempt to resuscitate the two-state solution process—principally led by Paris––broke down in 2016-17, in part due to Israel rejecting the initiative. Internal obstacles, too, have precluded a more active contribution to, and involvement in, the Middle East peace process. These include legislative, intra-institutional impediments, ideological differences among current member states, Brexit-fueled fragmentation within the EU, and a far rightward political wave. 

In addition to the nature of EU foreign policy-making, differing political and ideological agendas limit the effectiveness of institutional decision-making. These divergent objectives are driven by ––and in turn influence–– EU fragmentation. On this issue, member states are generally divided into two categories. Western European states, such as France and Germany, have remained committed to EU positions and seek to preserve the two-state solution. On the other hand, eastern states tend to be more supportive of Israel for ideological and geopolitical reasons. In this latter-mentioned group are members of the Visegrád alliance, which is comprised of four eastern and central European states: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In part, a closer alignment of these eastern and central European governments’ positions with those of the government of Israel is the result of the ascendancy of extreme right-wing parties and politics. For European right-wing leaders like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Netanyahu’s illiberal attitudes, anti-Muslim sentiments, and leadership style have thus proven to be an appealing model.

Israeli lobbying campaigns have also posed a challenge to the implementation of a consolidated foreign policy. These external influence efforts have focused on strengthening and cementing Israel’s relations with eastern and central European countries to modify the EU’s perceived unsupportive stance towards Israel. The existence of these goals is by no means an open secret. Prior to his visit to the Baltic states in the summer of 2018, Netanyahu declared his interest in “balancing the relations between the EU and Israel, to receive a more honest and credible treatment.” Similarly, during Prime Minister Viorica Dancila’s visit to Israel in January 2019, Netanyahu expressed his hope that Romania: “[…] will act to stop the bad resolutions against Israel in the EU, and also of course to move your embassy and other embassies to Jerusalem.”

Israeli endeavors are bearing fruit. In May 2018, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Romania, in coordination with Israel, successfully blocked a joint EU statement condemning the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which took place on May 14, 2018 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the establishment of Israel. The U.S. administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2018 further highlighted the lack of an EU consensus on foreign policy matters pertaining to Israel and Palestine. While no EU member state voted against the December 2017 UN General Assembly resolution calling on Washington to withdraw its recognition, six eastern member states did abstain following threats from former U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley that the U.S. would “remember it [the cast vote] when so many countries come calling on us, as they often do, to pay even more and to use our influence for their benefit.” Additionally, Hungary opened a trade office in Jerusalem with diplomatic status in March 2019. This decision revealed defiance toward the publication of an internal EU memo in the same month, which called on member states to “continue to respect the international consensus on Jerusalem.” 

Despite speculation that the Czech Republic and Romania might move their embassies to Jerusalem, for now, the “delicate EU Member State consensus” has held. Going forward, Borrell’s desire to increase EU influence will likely lead to the adoption of more stringent positions when faced with challenges to internationally-endorsed parameters, including by the U.S. Nevertheless, existing disagreements between the EU and Washington—which among other matters concern Trump’s anti-Iranian maximum pressure campaign, climate change, trade goods deficits, and NATO defense spending—mean that Borrell will be forced to weigh foreign policy priorities. With the EU’s focus on the existing Brexit standoff and an internal cooperation, EU action will likely remain confined to a more reactionary position and a behind-the-scenes diplomacy. 

Grace Wermenbol is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, where she specializes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Wermenbol received her PhD and master’s from the University of Oxford, St. Antony’s College.