In a joint declaration, the 27 leaders expressed their "gravest concern for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza" and called "for continued, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and aid to reach those in need through all necessary measures including humanitarian corridors and pauses for humanitarian needs."
"The aid needs to reach Gaza, unhindered and quickly," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters in the early hours of Friday morning. She announced that the bloc would send two more flights of humanitarian cargo to the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing on Friday and sign a €40 million contract with UN agencies as part of its tripling of humanitarian aid.
The statement, released shortly before 22:00 CET, came following five hours of debate, where according to one diplomat a "small number" of countries had expressed preference for echoing UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for a "humanitarian ceasefire."
EU diplomats had been splitting hairs over the semantics of the call in preparation for the meeting. Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, whose government holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, had led calls for a humanitarian ceasefire, but senior diplomats said countries such as Austria, Germany and Sweden feared such strong language risked undermining the bloc’s support for Israel’s right to self-defence.
Both Sánchez and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said they would prefer a humanitarian ceasefire ahead of the meeting, but that they were willing to compromise on the language. "As prime minister of Spain I would like to see a ceasefire (...) but if we don't have those conditions, at least a humanitarian pause," Sánchez said.
An EU official told Euronews that leaders had a “rich debate” in which there was willingness to find an agreement. "Everyone around the table, all 27 understood how important it is to have the unity and have one text. And we have a compromise that is acceptable to everyone because everyone has different circumstances at home," she said.
The breakthrough comes after what has been described as a disjointed response to the conflict by the EU and its member states.
In a sign the bloc is moving in tandem with the US, President Joe Biden also expressed support for a "humanitarian pause" during a press conference on Wednesday, despite having vetoed a UN resolution including the same wording last week.
Over 50 trucks of aid have entered Gaza since Saturday carrying water, medicine and other supplies. But humanitarian agencies warn this is a drop in the ocean, as an estimated 100 trucks of aid entered the strip on a typical day before the conflict erupted. Fuel is also running dry, meaning water desalination plants and hospitals are at breaking point. Israel has opposed the delivery of fuel into the enclave for fear it can be used by Hamas to prepare for an offensive.
EU leaders said in their joint statement the bloc would "work closely with partners in the region (...) ensuring that such assistance is not abused by terrorist organisations."
In a last-minute agreement struck over dinner, a reference to an “international peace conference” was included in a compromise to Pedro Sánchez, the EU official said. Spain's premier has repeatedly called for such a conference to take place within the next six months, with the objective of recognising two states for Israel and Palestine.
Leaders did not, however, discuss how a peace conference may look or how it could be coordinated with the broader international community, but said that the EU is "ready to contribute to reviving a political process on the basis of the two-state solution."
The EU official who spoke on condition of anonymity suggested leaders would continue to work together in response to the crisis engulfing the Middle East amidst the war between Israel and Hamas, saying Thursday's declarations "are probably not going to be the last conclusions on the Middle East."
The bloc is also looking to avoid regional escalation, and vowed to work closely with the Palestinian Authority to avoid the conflict from spreading into other states. Earlier on Thursday, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola led warnings that Russia and other of the bloc's geopolitical rivals stood to gain from an escalation, and said the EU needed to do everything in its power to contain the conflict.
Leaders also debated the European Commission's proposed top-up to its long-term budget, the so-called Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), which foresees €100 billion in grants and loans including a €50 billion envelope in financial assistance to Ukraine. While the vast majority of member states back the pot of money for Ukraine, divisions persist on the broader top-up.
Von der Leyen stressed that the revision of the budget is needed to respond to natural disasters, manage migration and boost Europe's industrial competitiveness in the world.
In efforts to ensure the Ukraine war does not slip from the top of the political priorities, leaders will kick off discussion during the second day of the summit on Friday discussing the next steps in its support to Kyiv.
This article was updated with quotes and information from the press conference.