EU leaders tackle Middle East war but aim to keep up Ukraine support

By Andrew Gray

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders meet on Thursday to grapple with the conflict between Israel and Hamas while also aiming to show continuing support for Ukraine in its war against Russia’s invasion.

The summit in Brussels will be the first in-person meeting of the EU’s 27 national leaders since the deadly Oct. 7 assault on Israel by Palestinian militant group Hamas, which prompted Israel to bombard and blockade Hamas-run Gaza.

While EU countries have all strongly condemned the Hamas attack, leaders have struggled to stick to the same message beyond that, with some stressing Israel’s right to self-defence and others emphasising concern about Palestinian civilians.

In the lead-up to the summit, EU countries were wrangling over whether to call for a “humanitarian pause”, with some arguing such a measure was vital to get aid into Gaza while others said it could limit Israel’s ability to defend itself.

Diplomats said the EU appeared to be coalescing around a compromise call for “pauses” in the plural, as this suggested short breaks in fighting for specific missions such as hostage releases or aid convoys, rather than a formal ceasefire.

EU leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have visited the Middle East to express solidarity with Israel and bolster diplomatic efforts to prevent the conflict spiralling into a regional war.

While the EU’s influence on the conflict is modest, officials fear that an escalation could have grave consequences for Europe, including a rise in tensions between communities, possible Islamist militant attacks and a large flow of refugees.

“Our meeting comes at a time of great global instability and insecurity, exacerbated most recently by developments in the Middle East,” said Charles Michel, president of the European Council of EU leaders, in an invitation letter to the summit.

“These developments require our immediate attention, without distracting us from our continued support to Ukraine.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will address the summit by video link and support for Kyiv will have first place in the summit declaration.

The EU and its member countries have provided billions of euros in assistance to Ukraine since Russian forces invaded in February last year.

But some officials and diplomats have voiced fears that Ukraine may now struggle to get the same political attention and resources from the West, particularly the United States, due to the new crisis in the Middle East.

The summit will not be able to sign off on multi-year plans for 50 billion euros in financial aid and up 20 billion euros for military aid for Ukraine, as they are part of a broader budget battle that officials hope to conclude by year’s end.

At the summit, the leaders will have their first debate on that budget package, which diplomats expect to be contentious.

“It’s hard to ask for more money for the EU budget when national budgets are getting squeezed,” said one EU diplomat.

Diplomats say there is broad support for more money for Ukraine but other elements of the proposal by the European Commission – the bloc’s executive – are more contentious, as countries clash over priorities and sources of funding.

The Commission has asked for 15 additional billion euros to deal with migration and further money to cover increased borrowing costs for joint EU debt as interest rates rise.

(Additional reporting by Julia Payne, Philip Blenkinsop and Jan Strupczewski, Editing by Angus MacSwan)