When the UN agency for Palestinian refugees became embroiled in a scandal last month, Britain and Germany quickly froze their funding, and other countries on the continent soon followed. But instead of joining the pack, Spain and Portugal decided to go in the opposite direction. They responded with promises to up their funding.
For years, but especially in the past few months, they have been part of a grouping of countries across Europe that have consistently sought to strike a different note when it comes to conflict in the Middle East. Others include Ireland, which has called for a review of the EU’s trade ties with Israel, and Slovenia, which said it expected Israel to swiftly implement provisional measures ordered by the international court of justice in a case looking into allegations of genocide.
While these countries have contributed to the internal frictions that have led to the EU being disparaged for its disjointed policy, analysts say they have also played a critical – albeit limited – role when it comes to shifting perspectives on the conflict.
“It’s an important counterweight against the usual suspects – the pro-American countries – who tend to be more pro-Israeli,” said Brigitte Herremans, a postdoctoral researcher with the Human Rights Centre at the University of Gent.
The most vocal have been Ireland, Belgium and Spain, said Martin Konečný, the director of the European Middle East Project. “But there are other member states who are just behind them and share the same positions,” he said, citing Slovenia, Portugal, Malta and Luxembourg.
These countries have been thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks as governments grapple with Israel’s allegations that at least 12 staff from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, were involved in the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October.
More than a dozen states, including the US and the Netherlands, paused funding, prompting warnings of a complete collapse of aid provision to 2 million civilians, more than half of them children, in Gaza.
In contrast, at least seven European countries, including Luxembourg, Norway and Slovenia, said they would continue to fund UNRWA. While these countries have been widely applauded online for their pro-Palestinian stance, Konečný cautioned against characterising them in this way.
“None of them have waved Palestinian flags or said that the Palestinians should somehow be favoured over Israelis,” he said. “I would say they are the countries that actually represent, or continue to represent, the traditional EU position on the conflict – that of support for the two-state solution and for international law.”
Their stance has so far done little to shift the approach of other European countries such as Austria and Germany, but Konečný said there was little doubt of their impact.
“It makes a difference in the sense that if these countries were not present then the overall EU positioning would be much more uncritically supportive of Israel,” he said.
The cohort of countries is probably also making waves outside the EU, he said. “For a lot of people, especially in the global south, they have been horrified by what they perceive as uncritical European backing for the Israeli offensive,” said Konečný. “And having a bloc of European countries who clearly voice a different position I think is very important in maintaining some credibility for Europe.”
As these countries stake out their positions, they have clashed at times with Israeli officials. In November, after Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, denounced what he described as the “indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians” at a joint press conference with Belgium’s Alexander De Croo, the pair were accused by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, of ignoring Hamas’s role in instigating the conflict with the 7 October attacks in which 1,200 people were killed and hundreds more kidnapped.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu strongly condemns the remarks made by the Belgian and Spanish prime ministers for not placing the full responsibility of the crimes against humanity committed by Hamas, who massacred our citizens and who use the Palestinians as human shields,” a statement by Netanyahu’s office said at the time.
Herremans said the joint press conference held by Sanchez and De Croo at the Rafah border crossing – along with joint letters and Ireland’s recent announcement that it is in talks with “like-minded” countries over potentially jointly recognising a Palestinian state once the conflict ends – offered a glimpse of how these countries had found strength in unity. “So these countries also support each other and they are carving out a bigger space to push for measures which are not necessarily supported by other EU countries.”
Armida van Rij, a senior research fellow at London’s Chatham House, said the countries had a mixture of motives. “Belgium, Ireland, Spain, they’ve historically always been more supportive of the Palestinian cause,” she said, citing those who draw parallels between the Troubles in Northern Ireland and Palestine, as well as the legacy of British colonialism, to explain the Irish stance.
Madrid in 1991 hosted a conference aimed at reviving negotiations towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and in 2014 Belgium was among the first countries in the EU to discuss recognition of a Palestinian state.
While societal support plays a role, so does the political leanings of the government in power in each country, said Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
He pointed to Sweden, which was among the countries that paused funds for UNRWA after the Israeli allegations, as an example. The country “used to be in these sorts of groups of like-minded [states],” he said. “And they’ve had a change of government – so a rightwing government – and Sweden’s position towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has shifted a little bit.”
In recent weeks, as the number of Palestinians killed in the conflict has climbed to more than 28,000, according to Gaza authorities, the UK and the US have signalled a potential readiness to rethink their approach to the underlying conflict. The US administration is reportedly actively pursuing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state once the conflict ends, a potential move also echoed by the UK.
These shifts could pave the way for the cohort of European countries to engage more on the issue, Lovatt said. “It’s worth noting that on this specific issue of recognition, and even in terms of recreating a political horizon for self-determination for Palestinians, the Americans, and to a certain extent the UK, have shifted towards the position of these like-minded states. I think it does provide a window of opportunity for these member states.”