January 23, 2024 - 1:00pm

On Monday, the US and UK once again used airstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, citing the “intolerable” attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The strikes were supported by Bahrain, Australia, Canada and just one European country — the Netherlands.

Achieving consensus among the EU 27 has always been difficult. Complicating factors is the opposition from Turkey, not an EU member but a Nato one, to strikes in the Red Sea, while the swift rejection of a two-state solution by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is only adding to the difficulties in trying to form a consensus.  

High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell announced on Monday that EU ministers had agreed “in principle” to establish a maritime security option in the Red Sea. Yet he warned that there was much still to be thrashed out — including the rules of engagement, which country would take operational command, the nature of the operation itself and how the mission would work. European navies have been reluctant to put their ships under US command, and just three countries signed the statement supporting the first round of strikes when they were conducted earlier this month.

On top of this is a fear of escalating the conflict in the region into an all-out war. “The EU is preparing its own military operation to protect ships in the Red Sea,” Nathalie Loiseau, the French Renew MEP and chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Defence and Security told UnHerd. “But striking Yemen risks restarting a war in a country which has already suffered, and triggering escalation.”

Professor John O’Brennan from Maynooth University’s Centre for European and Eurasian Studies said there were also fears about how any escalation could affect Ukraine. “Some member states fear that more forceful EU action against the Houthis could increase the chance of a wider regional conflagration,” he claimed. “This, in turn, could further reduce EU engagement with Ukraine.”

And there are toxic politics inside the European Commission, too. President Ursula von der Leyen was strongly criticised by Commission staff, MEPs and figures inside member state Ireland for her strong show of support for Israel in the days after the 7 October attack. 

Borrell, a Spanish socialist, has fluctuated between saying nothing about the Red Sea situation and proposing to solve the Middle East crisis with his own ten-point peace plan. The bizarre decision by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz to present to his EU counterparts a video about building an artificial island for Gaza also didn’t help Netanyahu’s case, but Borrell’s decision to ridicule it publicly was equally unnecessary. “The minister presented us with a couple of videos that had little or nothing to do with the issue we were discussing,” Borrell told reporters afterwards.

Both Borrell and von der Leyen’s jobs are up for grabs in Europe’s election year, heightening tensions in Brussels. “The fact that this is an election year in Europe, with intense jockeying already going on for the big four posts (including that which Borell holds currently) is probably part of the story, as is broader dissatisfaction with his period in office,” O’Brennan said. “To describe it as merely underwhelming would be to give him too much credit”.

Latika M. Bourke is a journalist and author based in London with more than twenty years of experience covering Australian politics, British politics and international affairs. She writes at www.latikambourke.com.