EU convenes key Israel council as Gaza boycotts spread

30 May 2024 | News

As more universities cut ties, the EU will discuss its association agreement with Israel, which underpins scientific relations

Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, at a meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council on 27 May, 2024. Photo credits: European Union

More European universities have announced they will suspend ties with Israel over its military campaign in Gaza, as EU foreign ministers decided to convene a meeting of the Association Council that governs relations between the bloc and Israel.

The decision, made at a meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council on 27 May, could be a first step towards the EU taking sanctions against Israel, although member states remain sharply divided over relations with the country. However, following the meeting on Monday, Ireland’s foreign minister Micheál Martin said, “For the first time at an EU meeting, in a real way I’ve seen significant discussion on sanctions.”

Pressure on Israel has increased since a ruling by the International Court of Justice condemning Israel’s assault on Rafah.

“Since the court has issued its ruling [we have seen] an increase in the military activities, an increase in the bombing and an increase in the casualties of the civilian people,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, also speaking after the Foreign Affairs Council meeting. Only last month, ministers had rejected convening the EU-Israel Association Council with Israel, he said.

Meetings of the EU-Israel Association Council are convened by member states when they want to discuss whether EU should do anything about its relations with Israel. There is no regular schedule, but meetings are arranged on an ad-hoc basis in cases of concern about breaches of international law.

The Association Council will discuss the situation in Gaza and whether Israel is fulfilling the human rights obligation enshrined in its association agreement with the EU, the long-standing document that underpins relations – including in science and technology.

But there’s no clarity yet on when it will meet, or whether scientific sanctions could be on the table if Israel is found not to be upholding its obligation.

Undermining integration

A wave of campus occupations, and decisions by European universities to sever or review ties with Israel are threatening to undermine Israel’s integration into the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme, from which it has received hundreds of millions of euros.

On 26 May, Israeli science minister Gila Gamliel announced the equivalent of €22 million for a fund to combat boycotts in Europe and elsewhere. 

The country would fund joint seminars, a public diplomacy campaign, and even training for Israeli researchers on how to “operate in hostile environments”, she wrote in the Jerusalem Post yesterday.

The University of Granada has said it will stop cooperating with Israeli partners in five Horizon Europe and Horizon 2020 projects.

The consortia concerned are still unclear how they will be affected, or declined to comment. “The University of Granada has not been in touch with us regarding this sensitive matter,” said coordinators of one project, the Integrated Research Infrastructure Services for Climate Change Risks, which is based at the Natural Resources Institute Finland.

On 27 May, the Free University of Brussels’ (ULB) academic council also announced it would “suspend all agreements and institutional research projects involving an Israeli university” until universities in Israel made a “clear commitment” to abide by a recent International Court of Justice order against Israel’s assault on Rafah.

Spanish universities have also said they want similar commitments from Israeli institutions, but have not spelled out what this would mean in detail.

The ULB is involved in four such Horizon Europe consortia with Israeli partners. The university did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Science|Business over exactly how they will be impacted.

In its announcement, it also stressed that individual academic collaborations with Israel could continue. The university also said it would not strike any agreements with Palestinian universities until Israeli hostages were released.

Asked about what would happen if European teams pull out of consortia with Israelis, a European Commission spokesperson said that, “the remaining partners must carry out the action as set out in the description,” adding, “The consortium agreement may provide for penalties in case of a termination of a beneficiary’s participation before the action is completed.”

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