After months of inter-institutional disagreements, the European Commission has given the green light to approve the overdue bilateral aid package for the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah this week. The amount of 214 million euros will be used to pay salaries and pensions of West Bank civil servants, as well as assist hospitals and help households in need. Coincidingly, this breakthrough came at the same time as European Commission President von der Leyen began her Middle East trip to Israel and the West Bank.
The long-running dispute has divided the European Commission and resulted in the blockage of the 2021 programme of financial support for the Palestinian Territories. The funding was put on hold after EU Neighbourhood Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi – backed by some Member States – called for improvements in the teaching materials used in Palestinian schools, leading to a conditionality regime. According to a studypublished in June 2021 by Germany’s Georg Eckert Institute, some textbooks incite hatred against Israel. Anna Michelle Asimakopoulou, a Greek MEP voiced her disappointment over the decision, saying that “zero tolerance cannot just be a slogan. It needs to be reflected in our actions. This is a missed opportunity to effect much-needed change when it comes to the content of Palestinian textbooks.”
Nevertheless, a majority of Commissioners were in favour of handing over the money, including Foreign Affairs chief Joseph Borrell. In a letter from earlier this year, 15 EU signatories disapproving of the conditionality regime and instead urged the Commission not to delay the payment for Palestine, arguing that it would deprive the Palestinians of much-needed funding since “the Palestinian Authority is in a challenging situation and is experiencing a severe fiscal crisis, further compounded by the inflation of oil and wheat prices caused by the war in Ukraine.”
According to von der Leyen, it is important that the EU provides the funds to support the people in the Palestinian territories – “especially the most vulnerable”. This helps to create the conditions for economic opportunities. On Monday, EU ambassadors decided to release the funds. According to reports, only Hungary, Commissioner Várhelyi’s home state, voted against it.
However, Mr. Várhelyi was not able to get his point across internally. On Tuesday, after a meeting with PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh in Ramallah, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced at a press conference: “I am very glad to announce that the EU funds for 2021 can be disbursed rapidly. All the difficulties are gone. We have made clear the disbursement will take place.”
After von der Leyen had touched down in Ramallah on Tuesday, Várhelyi went to Twitter to announce that the Commission would fund another study to look into the issue, to which the European Parliament Bureauresponded dismayingly, reminding “the Commissioner that there already is a study” and encouraged him to “instead channel this funding for humanitarian needs in Palestine,” thereby supporting the his President’s decision this week to go ahead with the funding.