The EU has been insisting for years that “quickly learning to speak the language of power” is not an option but a necessity. The problem is that while in various parts of the globe this language is spoken with aircraft carriers, credible threats and deploying troops, in Brussels, too often, it is limited to semantic fights, weeks of intense fight literally just by an adjective or a comma.
What happened these days, and this Thursday on the first day of the European Council which has brought together the heads of state and government of the 27 is a perfect example. After hesitant beginnings, a controversy over Ursula von der Leyen’s desire for prominence and criticism for an attempt to rewrite the community position on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, a series of clear conclusions were reached in the middle of the month. A unanimous, resounding condemnation, without nuances, of the massacre perpetrated by Hamas. An insistence on Israel’s right to self-defense, but within international law. And the need to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. From there, the problems.
The battle at the meeting of foreign ministers last Monday, and of ambassadors and Sherpas since then, has centered on a few words. At the summit they have spoken or are going to speak about the annual EU Budget and the need to increase contributions to face challenges impossible to anticipate when they were negotiated; of Ukraine and how support must be maintained although the cameras and the planet’s attention have gone back to the Middle East. Of the Sahel and other regional concerns. But the important thing, where the power, politics, feelings, passions are, is the part of Israel and Gaza. That’s where language, of power or powerlessness, transforms into something else.
Although from the outside it may seem incredible, ridiculous, embarrassing or pathetic, the bulk of the discussion has been centered around a few words and just a couple of ideas. Everyone agrees that it does urgent help needed (food, water, fuel, medicine) and for the trucks to arrive every day there can be no bombings. But while some wanted a “ceasefire” request, others maintained that it was too much, an interference in Israel’s plan and its right to defense. That is why they advocate using only the expression “humanitarian pause.” But even there they disagree, because some capitals, including Washington, would prefer to talk about “pauses,” in the plural, which sounds, to their ears, more informal and vague. The paroxysm reached its peak when Austria came to the room talking about “windows for humanitarian corridors to open”, something that no one really understands what it means.
Much of the debate has focused on something like this, that few can understand while there is so much at stake and many people die. “Language matters, this is how agreements are reached, clarifying, polishing words, fighting commas. It matters, it is the way to position oneself in the European Union. We are a peace project that is based on rules, defend values, and the way to do it is like this. Words are important if they serve to achieve the objectives,” a senior European source explained these days in the face of criticism for the feeling of importance.