Ursula von der Leyen had a message Wednesday for the U.S. and Iran: Stop it!
“The use of weapons must stop now to give space for dialogue,” the European Commission president said in a brief statement following a special meeting of her College of Commissioners about the crisis in the Middle East. She appeared with Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief.
But even as they criticized the escalation in violence, von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, and Borrell, a former Spanish foreign minister, pointedly did not explicitly condemn the Iranian government or express solidarity and support with the United States, the EU’s longtime ally, following an overnight Iranian missile strikes on two military bases in Iraq used by U.S. forces.
Instead, Borrell warned that the continuing violence had put at risk efforts by Western allies to rebuild Iraq and fight the Islamic State, also known as Daesh. Calling the situation “extremely worrying,” Borrell said: “One thing is clear: the current situation puts at risk the efforts of the last years and also has implications for the important work of the anti-Daesh coalition.”
He added: “The latest rocket attack on air bases in Iraq used by U.S. and coalition forces, among them European forces, are yet another example of escalation and increased confrontation. It is in no one’s interests to turn up the spiral of violence even further.”
The Commission met early Wednesday as officials were still struggling to fully assess the result of the latest news from the Middle East, including the Iranian missile strikes and the pre-dawn crash of a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran.
The U.S. did not report any immediate casualties as a result of the missile strike, even as Iranian state media claimed — without evidence — that as many as 80 American soldiers had been killed.
Von der Leyen and Borrell appeared together at Commission headquarters five days after the drone strike ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and set off the latest cycle of hostilities.
Trump has threatened a forceful attack on Iran, including a strike within the country’s borders, should it seek retribution for Soleimani’s death, but there was no immediate military action by the U.S. in response to Tehran’s strike on the bases in Iraq.
In her brief press statement Wednesday morning, von der Leyen urged the U.S. and Iran to pursue a diplomatic solution.
“We are called upon to do everything possible to rekindle talks,” she said, adding: “There cannot be enough of that.”
But even as von der Leyen and Borrell insisted that the commissioners had engaged in an extensive discussion of the EU’s potential role and implications of the conflict for Europe, they offered no concrete steps that the bloc was prepared to take in coming days other than to hold an emergency meeting of foreign ministers.
Von der Leyen called the special meeting of the College of Commissioners after refraining from comment on the killing of Soleimani for more than three days — a silence that drew criticism and bewilderment among some EU officials and diplomats, especially given her stated intent to lead a “geopolitical” Commission.
She and Borrell said the EU would continue in its role as coordinator of the Iran nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, and would spare no effort in seeking to preserve it, but at the same time offered no clue on how that might be possible.
Still, von der Leyen insisted the EU had a role to play.
“We have established and time-tested relations with many actors in the region and beyond to de-escalate the situation,” she said.
Noting the EU’s role in reconstruction efforts in Iraq and the wider Middle East, von der Leyen added: “The European Union is dedicated there and very much engaged in this area and therefore its voice is heard.”
At the start of their remarks, von der Leyen and Borrell each offered condolences to the families of passengers on the Ukrainian International Airlines jet that crashed near Tehran’s main airport. The Ukrainian foreign minister reported that a majority of the 170 people on board were Iranian and Canadian citizens.
The timing of the crash led to immediate speculation that it might be tied to the military conflict. Von der Leyen, however, said only that an inquiry should proceed. “It is for the aviation security experts to investigate the cause of the crash,” she said.
After her statement, von der Leyen headed for London where she said the Middle East conflict would be part of her discussions with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which were expected to focus largely on Brexit.
Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting.