The European Union’s new foreign policy chief has been urged to lead a debate on recognising Palestinian statehood.
Josep Borrell took office last week as Brussels’ chief diplomat and on Monday chaired his first EU foreign ministers’ meeting, where Luxembourg’s veteran foreign minister made a written appeal for such a discussion.
Jean Asselborn wrote that the debate could support efforts to find a two-state solution to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
The letter, seen by AFP news agency, suggests member states could debate recognition at a future meeting.
Any decision on establishing diplomatic relations with a new state would be taken by individual member states, but Asselborn wants to at least discuss it at EU level.
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“The European Union must continue to promote and support the consensus in favour of the two-state solution,” Asselborn wrote to Borrell, who was Spain’s foreign minister before assuming his new duties in Brussels.
“One way to help save this solution would be to create a more equitable situation for both parties.
“In this regard, I believe that it is time to start a debate within the European Union on the opportunity of a recognition of the State of Palestine by all its Member States.”
Israel and its ally the United States oppose the recognition of Palestine as a state, arguing this would prejudice efforts to find a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
But, to some European capitals, Washington has already put its finger on the scales by recognising the divided city of Jerusalem – in which Israel occupies the Palestinian eastern quarters – as Israel’s capital. In a controversial move, the US moved its embassy to the city in 2018.
In his letter, Asselborn complains that Israel’s building of settlements on occupied land endangers the peace process and is a “flagrant violation” of international law.
“The recognition of Palestine as a State would neither be a favour, nor a blank cheque, but a simple recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to their own State,” he argued.
“In no way would it be directed against Israel.”
There is sympathy for this position in Europe, but the EU has not taken a united position on Palestinian statehood, regarding it as an issue for member states.
Who is Borrell?
Spain’s 72-year-old former foreign minister cuts a remarkably different figure to his EU predecessor, Federica Mogherini. An engineer and an economist, Borrell is no fan of decentralised regional authorities amassing greater autonomy. And it’s not just about the case of Catalonia – Spain, for example, does not recognise Kosovo, which could yet pose a dilemma in his new role, officially titled High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
As a former MEP and president of the European Parliament, Borrell has no shortage of experience on the European stage.
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“He is a social democrat, and very close to [Spanish Prime Minister] Pedro Sanchez. But he is a bit of a hawk when it comes to dealing with regional governments in his country,” David Criekemans, associate professor in international relations at the University of Antwerp, told Al Jazeera.
“On this front, Borrell is known as quite a conservative, who believes in national sovereignty and does not think regional governments should hold referendums on increasing autonomy. When the Flemish region supported the Catalan movement and Carles Puigdemont [the former Catalan president, now an elected MEP who has been blocked from taking his seat by Spanish authorities], and supported the idea that regional identities should be encouraged and allowed to hold these votes, Borrell expelled the Flemish representative in Spain after some alleged criticism of the speaker of the Flemish Parliament, Jan Peumans.
“He has had a mixed career between politics, diplomacy and academia, but he is a sovereignist, believing only national governments can conduct foreign policy.
But if only national governments, not regional governments, can conduct foreign policy – what about supranational governments, like the EU?
“The question is whether Borrell will contribute to a further ‘Europeanisation’ of foreign policy,” said Criekemans. “The chances are rather higher that he will foremost ‘manage’ the different foreign policy interests of the member states, taking into account their differences in terms of geopolitical interests.
“Of course, the new president of the European Council might [provide some] balance with Borrell in this domain, since the position of Belgian governments has long been that further steps in the Europeanisation of foreign policy are needed – since the member states can only tackle issues such as migration, climate change, and terrorism if they act together more.”