MEPs back Palestinian statehood bid

MEPs applauding Palestine vote, 17 Dec 14 Image copyright pic: European parliament
Image caption The parliament tweeted this photo of MEPs applauding the vote

If you are in Strasbourg for a European Parliament plenary session you are bound to run into a drinks reception at some point. This time, it was an event to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

There was singing, a live band and an opulent buffet (kosher of course). The vice-president of the parliament even lit the special festival candelabra.

But attention shifted to the thorny political question of Palestine on Wednesday.

The European Parliament voted to recognise Palestine as a state "in principle", by an overwhelming majority - 498 in favour and 88 against.

There was a standing ovation in the chamber, as many feel this is a historic moment: it's the first time that the parliament has adopted a formal position on the issue.

Several EU officials said they were surprised that the five main political groups - especially the conservatives and the socialists - had found an agreement. The Germans were particularly hard to convince.

"I've been an MEP for twenty years, and this is the toughest negotiation I've ever had to endure," said Richard Howitt, the Socialist group's foreign affairs spokesperson, who proposed the vote.

He likened the process to peace talks: "We were only able to reach an agreement in the past 24 hours, and this included a series of back channels with private emails, phone calls over the weekend, and even a glass of whisky."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A demonstration for Palestinian rights near Ramallah in the West Bank this month

Drive for recognition

The MEPs voted to support "in principle recognition of Palestinian statehood and the two-state solution", with Jerusalem as the capital of both states. The text also says that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, and calls on the EU to become a facilitator in the Middle East peace process.

There is growing momentum to recognise Palestinian statehood. In the past couple of months the parliaments of the UK, Republic of Ireland, Spain and France have all passed non-binding motions in favour. Sweden has gone further, officially recognising Palestine as a state.

The moves have been criticised by Israel, which says recognition of statehood in this way discourages Palestinians from resuming talks on a final status agreement.

The European Parliament clearly doesn't want to lag behind. Even the Greens and the far left, who often oppose the main political groups, are happy.

"The text should go even further," said Tamas Meszerics, the Hungarian MEP who negotiated on behalf of the Greens. "I wish it would set out a European strategy on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. But this is a good compromise, and I think it puts it on the cards for the EU to be more of a political player in the future."

This vote is not legally binding, but it sends a strong message to the international community. Palestinian officials say they will press on with a bid for statehood at the UN - and this European support no doubt helps their cause.