Inside the Secret Rifts and Rows Consuming EU's Top Corridors

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(Bloomberg) -- A series of flubs is laying bare the European Union’s inner tensions and casting a shadow over its geopolitical ambitions.

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Last week the bloc’s two most senior figures traveled all the way to the White House to put on a show of unity with President Joe Biden and returned with little more than a souvenir photo, after squabbling between the pair diverted much of the attention.

A new war in the Middle East is proving an even greater test — one EU officials initially flunked — as they issued a cascade of contradictory statements whose clearest message was of their own foreign-policy dysfunction.

All this is heightened by a rift at the top which diplomats and officials have labeled embarrassing. The froideur between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel is hampering the union’s effectiveness, these people said, leaving the bloc flailing at a time when it needs to present a credible front on a growing list of issues from conflicts in Ukraine and Israel to trade and China.

That was evidenced in the US where the two leaders held separate meetings with Biden, united only in their lack of traction. And the feud has followed them home, where this week the commission president is hosting a big international summit to which, according to a spokesperson for Charles Michel, von der Leyen’s not invited her colleague.

Under EU rules, it is member states who jointly set the course of the bloc’s foreign policy. At a time when China and US are becoming more forceful about defending their economic interests, that was an area where von der Leyen decided to seek more influence.

Before the start of her five-year term in 2019, she said hers would be a geopolitical commission. As that term enters its final year and a potential second comes into view, few would claim she’s fallen short. Yet her assertiveness has often frustrated colleagues who feel caught out by big policy decisions.

Read more: EU’s Prickly Twin Leadership Holds Duplicate Meetings at G-20

Allies of the commission president argue that her style doesn’t only put noses out of joint — it’s helped her do more than any of her predecessors to give the EU geopolitical heft. Along with French President Emmanuel Macron, she acts as the face of the bloc, said one European diplomat, noting that so high a profile for an EU official was without precedent.

She was a voice of moral clarity after Russia invaded Ukraine, and pushed the bloc to embrace strong sanctions at a time where leaders themselves — particularly those of France and Germany — were more timid. But they eventually came round.

And her close relationship with the US has reaped rewards even as it’s provoked resentments: she championed a China policy of derisking without decoupling that’s these days being echoed by the US. Yet her powers may have run aground in Israel, the ambassadors and officials said.

When a deadly incursion hit the country on Oct 7, von der Leyen was characteristically quick to act. She voiced the EU’s full backing for the country and condemned the assault by Hamas, which the EU designates a terrorist outfit. The only problem was that the EU had already hashed out a joint position, coordinated by the bloc’s top diplomat Josep Borrell.

Von der Leyen’s actions put her at odds with her colleagues over protocol and substance: many of the member states privately accused her of failing adequately to mention the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which the council position would attend to more carefully.

Behind the scenes, European diplomats were mostly united in disapproval against von der Leyen, and several officials had to mop up relations with Israel’s regional neighbors after she later made a visit to Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, according to the people familiar with those discussions, who asked not to be named discussing sensitive matters of diplomacy.

After von der Leyen’s trip, member states issued a statement to clarify their position to the Arab world and the global south, and an emergency meeting of the European Council was called. That summit was convened to repair the damage done by the initial reaction of the EU as quickly as possible after the backlash it provoked in Arab countries, according to a senior EU official.

The confusion reflected genuine divisions in member states’ stances: Germany has historic reasons to back Israel and Chancellor Olaf Scholz was quick to visit, while Spain has been one of the strongest voices for the Palestinians.

Von der Leyen fully subscribes to the EU position as expressed in the council statement of 15 October, a spokesperson for her said, while a spokesperson for Michel said he had invested significant efforts in outreach to many partners to help avoid a regional escalation, and to strengthen the EU’s image and credibility abroad.

Von der Leyen’s Global Gateway summit, taking place Wednesday and Thursday, is an initiative that falls squarely within the commission prerogatives and managed by the commission, so it is natural that the commission would chair and organize it, her spokesman added.

Von der Leyen remains the favorite to secure nomination for second term as commission president after next year’s European Parliament elections, but some diplomats told Bloomberg they are beginning to wonder whether recent events will impact her chances.

The Israel episode marks a shift in the tone of the criticism coming at the head of the EU’s executive branch, and of their direction. While the sniping previously came mainly from within the EU machinery, she’s now offended some member states in presuming to speak for them, several of the people said.

--With assistance from Gina Turner, Maria Tadeo and Kevin Whitelaw.

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