The EU's Moment of Truth

Raanan Eliaz
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Raanan Eliaz

The European Union is engaged in a tumultuous argument over its identity and role in the world. What began some 50 years ago as an alliance intended to prevent war in the Old World, has grown into a highly powerful union that strives to enhance its might in the international arena. The process of ratifying the European Constitution is one of many internal European processes, which have far-ranging implications for Israel, despite its inability to influence it. Adoption or rejection of the constitution will affect European policy toward Israel, and Israel should prepare accordingly.

On May 29, France's citizens will be asked to adopt the European Constitution, a particularly thick document that institutionalizes a constitutional modus operandi for unification, and replaces the set of agreements that have guided the EU until now. For it to come into effect, all 25 member states must adopt the agreement no later than November 2006. Due to the central role of France in the European project, next Sunday's vote represents, in the opinion of many observers, the EU's "moment of truth."

Failure to pass the constitution in France would bury it immediately. Many French charge that the constitution is neo-liberal and would lead to a less social and more Anglo-Saxon Europe. Although many agree that France's status in the EU would be bolstered if the constitution is adopted, a large number of citizens intend to oppose it, if only to express their disgust at the country's current leadership. They know that a failure would necessarily lead to expansive changes in the leadership.

Even if France adopts the document, and thereby joins eight other states that have already done so, the road to the end of the process is still long and exhausting. In Holland, where a first-time referendum will be held June 2, constitution opponents have a clear majority. Many Britons, who from the start were not considered among the loyalists of a unified Europe, fear that the constitution will strengthen the French-German axis and lead to an excessively social Europe. They prefer that the French vote it down now, and save them from having to do so next year.

On the other hand, a French "yes" would make it easier for European constitution backers to curb the opposition trend. In such a case, even Euro-skeptical Britain might change its approach.

And how will all this affect Israel?

If ratified, the constitution includes significant changes regarding the way the EU would be governed. Most significant for Israel would be the upgrade of the joint foreign and security policy through streamlining of the decision-making procedures and creation of a European foreign minister post. Increased commitment by member states to the common policy could lead to a dramatic improvement of its world stature.

Some observers feel that a stronger Europe would take a more positive and responsible role in the region, but that Israel should also prepare for the less optimistic scenario. A more forceful European partner could be an effective competitor to the United States. NATO could discover a parallel body at its side that would follow an alternate, even competing, policy. Even Israel's friends in Europe might buckle to less sympathetic positions should Brussels' status be enhanced and its authorities expanded.

Failure to pass the constitution would also alter how the EU operates. Although the union could continue to function on the basis of existing agreements, the political fallout would be very tangible. The political future of the EU also would be hazy, and it is likely to assume that no common strategy would be formulated in the foreseeable future.

The EU might break up, with the states that rejected the constitution choosing a looser form of partnership, or even reconsidering their continued membership in the European club. Other states, under German and French leadership, could form a hardcore that would move ahead in a direction opposite that of the United States, by leaving the European opposition outside the picture. The EU's expansion policy would be stillborn, and the disappointment of Turkey and the Balkan states could lead to an undermining of regional stability.

Israel would find itself facing a highly powerful, but distracted European partner. It would be hard for it to win cooperation with the EU, but a window of opportunity would be opened, enabling Israel to advance its bilateral relations with European citizens. At the same time, a dangerous vacuum would open in relations between Israel and the EU, relations that are vital to the enhancement of Israel's economic and security position.

The drive to bring Israel closer to NATO would become more relevant than ever. The potential harm to trans-Atlantic relations and Britain's status in Europe would not only place mines at Israel's doorstep, but also compel it to reassess more soberly its relations with leaders of the new Europe.

The writer is director of research and strategic planning at the Hudson Institute in Washington