European Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht apologised on 3 September for comments he made about Jews in a recent interview. The European Commission distanced itself from the offensive statements, but that did not stop commentators and Jewish organisations from talking of a "new wave" of anti-Semitism and racism across Europe.
In an interview with a Flemish public radio station on 2 September, de Gucht, who is a former Belgian foreign minister, expressed scepticism about direct talks between Israel and Palestine, which started the same day (EURACTIV 02/09/10).
"One should not underestimate the Jewish lobby in the US Congress," de Gucht is quoted as saying by the Belgian press, before adding "don't underestimate either the opinion of the average Jew outside Israel," who, he said, was led by "a conviction of being right".
"It is not easy, even with a moderate Jew, to have a rational conversation," de Gucht claimed.
Asked by the Brussels press to comment on the remarks, which Jewish organisations denounced as racist, a Commission spokesperson insisted that they were "personal comments" which in no way represented the well-known positions of the EU executive on the Middle East peace process.
"Once again we hear outrageous anti-Semitism from a senior European official," said Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, who warned of a new wave of anti-Semitism in Europe, adding: "The libel of Jewish power is apparently acceptable at the highest levels of the EU."
Kantor appears to be referring to a recent book by Thilo Sarrazin, a Social Democrat politician and board member of the German Federal Bank, which triggered a storm of disapproval due to the racial and minority integration theories expressed there (EURACTIV 01/09/10).
Meanwhile Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, described de Gucht's comments as "anti-Semitism". He said that to assert "that a majority of the Jews are stubborn and irrational is a clear and negative characterisation of the Jewish people".
'No intention' to offend
In a statement, de Gucht apologised, saying it was not his intention "to cause offence or stigmatise the Jewish community".
"I want to make clear that anti-Semitism has no place in today's world and is fundamentally against our European values," de Gucht added.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was confident that de Gucht "did not intend any offence" with his remarks.
Ashton added in a statement issued by her office on Friday that she was "encouraged by the positive outcome of the launch of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority".
She reaffirmed "the EU's engagement and full support to the success of the negotiations" and stressed "the role of the Quartet in driving this process to a successful conclusion".
Nevertheless, de Gucht's apparent blunder comes at a very bad time, observers said.
Controversy over the expulsions of Roma by France, which have been denounced by rights groups and the French opposition as racist and contrary to EU law, is growing. Protests have taken place in front of various French embassies, and in Paris, a rally on Saturday attracted 50,000 protestors, according to its organisers, and 12,000 according to the police.
Sarkozy's positions against the Roma have encouraged Hungary's far-right party Jobbik to step up its campaign against the national minority. Gabor Staudt, a Jobbik candidate in upcoming local elections in Hungary, called for their seclusion in special camps.
The leader of Hungary's opposition Socialist Party, Attila Mesterhazy, countered: "We find what Jobbik says unacceptable. I hope they don't want to shut Hungarian citizens up in concentration camps. The worst thing is that the Fidesz government has not distanced itself from Jobbik's xenophobic platform. It should," said Mesterhazy, quoted by Euronews.