The Heavy Price of Not Taking the EU Seriously

Israel has underestimated the European Union and neglected the interests of the nation, as the new settlement guidelines have shown.

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The Israeli Mission to the European Union should not be held responsible for the EU’s decision in July banning all economic cooperation with Israeli entities that are directly or indirectly connected with the settlements. Nor is the mission guilty of professional negligence; the Israeli diplomats serving in the mission are skilled professionals. The Head of the Israeli Mission to the European Union, Ambassador David Walzer, is a highly respected member of the diplomatic community in Brussels and is also regarded as very competent. Nor should Christian Berger, the EU’s Director for North Africa, the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran and Iraq in the European External Action Service, be blamed for the EU decision; he certainly should not be held responsible either personally or exclusively. 

If the member states of the EU had not agreed to it, the decision would never have been brought forward and would never have been approved. In practice, none of the 28 member states of the EU expressed any surprise or even any reservations regarding this development, and this is no coincidence.

When it comes to the EU’s decision, the finger of blame should be pointed principally - perhaps solely - at the Israeli government, and not just because of its construction policy in the territories. In recent years, it has treated the EU with contempt, and the member states and EU officials are simply sick and tired of Israel’s policies, and of the arrogance that Israel has shown. No diplomat, no matter how skilled or how senior, can alter positions in such circumstances. Furthermore, it is clear that every decision, whether major or minor, is made in the Prime Minister’s Office or in political circles close to the PMO. This is a disgraceful state of affairs made drastically worse by the ignorance political leaders show when it comes to the way the EU functions, and to its importance.

Israel forgets that the EU is not the United Nations: it is not a powerless organization controlled by states and their powers of veto. On the contrary, the EU has a huge budget, a lot of indirect power, independent but limited political capabilities, and extensive political capabilities when member states want such power to be used. In addition, the EU is managed by member states through a continuous process of negotiation, rarely through the application of a veto. EU member states are a tightly-knit geographic, political and economic unit. This renders the instrument of the veto relatively useless because, the morning after, problems will still be there. Britain found this out the hard way a year and a half ago, when it tried to veto banking laws drawn up to prevent yet another financial crisis. In response, the other member states simply ignored Britain and found another clause that enabled them to approve the laws.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN, still insists on seeing the EU as a politically irrelevant body, and focusing on individual policies toward member states, especially Germany and Britain, as if they were world powers, in the hope that they will veto any anti-Israel motion, just as the United States does in the UN Security Council. As such, Netanyahu is ignoring the need for constant communication with the EU as a representative body.

The second issue that Israel tends to overlook is the fact that the EU is above all a trade organization; in the past, it was called the Common Market. Even the skeptics among the EU member states, including Britain and the Czech Republic, want a strong umbrella of internal and international trade. Membership in the EU means, first of all, an internal market of 450 million people, an entity that, with all its crises, is still considered the world’s richest, and, second, an international trade policy that is jointly managed. The member states are represented in the World Trade Organization (WTO) by the EU in the case of legal claims or even in cases of commercial disagreements at the lower level. For instance, in recent months, China and the EU have been fighting an economic duel, with the EU – not Germany, Slovenia or France individually – claiming that China is breaking the European market by flooding it with cheap solar panels, and sanction procedures were even initiated. A compromise was recently reached between the two sides.

Israel’s biggest trading partner is the EU as a whole, not its individual member states. This means that the EU can always hit Israel where it hurts most, as it has done with its new settlement guidelines.

It is also important to remember that the EU is essentially ahistorical. In the shadow of the two world wars, it was built as a cold bureaucracy, and founded on many layers of administration, authority and power, in order to prevent any one country from dominating the rest. Historical injustices are of interest to the individual member states, not the EU and its officials, as Poland and a number of Central European states learned after the Cold War ended. When they complained that Western Europe had abandoned them and had allowed them to be controlled by the Soviets, the officials of the EU made it very clear that the organization had no interest in settling historical accounts or in historical debates. Thus, one can understand that the Holocaust and hundreds of years of Jewish suffering and pogroms, don’t interest the EU as a body, and any attempt to demand preferential treatment on this basis would therefore be useless.

The EU wants to be seen as an international player – and not just in trade issues. It has many ambitions, but is still far from attaining them. It has yet to find a role for itself in the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world, if only because trade and money were not relevant in that context. In contrast, suitable conditions developed in Israel for the EU to realize its aspirations of raising its profile in the Mideast. As fate would have it, this happened at the same time that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was looking for ways to restart the stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Unlike his predecessors, he was prepared to gamble on the prospect that the EU would get into the picture and would, for the first time, use its commercial clout. Jerusalem did not understand the depth of Kerry’s move, and has paid a heavy price for this.

The Israeli government is still stuck somewhere at the end of the previous century, relying on history and on the strengths of world powers. But these powers are exhausted by crises, and no longer hold all the power. In fact, through its conduct vis-a-vis the EU, the Israeli government has neglected the country’s interests.

Dr. Bet-El is a strategic adviser and a writer who resides in Brussels.

A European Union flag waves in the wind in front of the chancellery in Berlin Friday, October 12, 2012.Credit: AP

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