Dr.Gerstenfeld’s article was originally published in Israel National News and republished here with the author’s consent.
ISRAEL AND THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
In view of the EU’s importance for Israel, major developments there must also be looked at from this country’s perspective. We thus have to assess whether the outcome of the recent European parliamentary elections bring with it dangers or opportunities.
These elections have once again shown that most EU citizens choose whom to vote for based on national considerations. Election trends differ from country to country. One can see this most clearly from the results of the nationalistic right wing parties. The Lega in Italy, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in France and the Flemish Vlaams Belang performed well.1 The Danish People’s Party lost three of its four seats2 while the PVV of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands lost all four of its seats.3
Diversity in the European parliament has increased. The two largest factions there, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats have each lost substantially. Together, they no longer have a majority in the parliament. Broadly speaking, the essence of the battle in the EU is between two mainstream currents: those who want more European influence and those who want “less Europe.” Germany is in the first category. It would like to see the EU gradually integrate a bit further. So too is the Brussels bureaucracy. For them more integration means more power.
Those who want less EU are well represented by outgoing Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz.4 He said that the “EU needs less regulation and more common sense.” Kurz also said that the EU had regulation idiocy and should cancel at least a thousand guidelines.5
There are more extreme positions on both sides. There are those in favor of a United States of Europe. The former Belgian Prime Minister,6 Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the third largest grouping in the EU parliament, the ALDE liberals, is among them. French president, Emanuel Macron, is also a proponent of more Europe.7 Germany is still the dominant force in the EU, even if Chancellor Angela Merkel has lost much of her glamor. Germany does not want radical changes which would result in it having to guarantee the debts of other EU countries, including major ones such as Italy and France.
One of the arguments in favor of full EU integration is that for the Euro to survive in the long run, common economic and financial policies of the member states are required. Many understand by now that the Euro was a mistaken concept, yet abandoning it would mean admitting a major mistake and thus represent a victory for the “less EU” supporters.
On the other extreme side are those who want their country to leave the EU and even some who want the EU to be disbanded. Abandoning the customs union and the common market would however cause major economic damage to many states. This extreme faction has received a severe beating due to the poor performance of the British government to execute Brexit. It is not that Brexit was a bad idea, but rather that the conservative government radically failed in carrying it through.
What do these developments mean for Israel? Its economic relations with the EU are good. This is not surprising as the EU exports far more to Israel than Israel exports to EU countries. The participation of Israel in EU research programs is not only positive for Israel, but also for the EU. This is also not surprising. Israel is a far more innovative country than most EU member states.
Israel’s main problems with Europe are in the political arena. The EU has not succeeded in developing itself into a major political force commensurate with its economic strength. The former Belgian foreign minister, Mark Eyskens, said in 1991: “Europe is an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm.” 8 That may be but as far as Israel is concerned, the EU is a hindrance in Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. The EU expresses an arrogance which is not detached from the long history of antisemitism interwoven with European culture and its policies.
Many EU countries frequently vote against Israel at the United Nations and UN associated bodies. These are antisemitic acts according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. Israel is discriminated by these organizations as no other country is.
The greater diversity of the European parliament may enable Israel to draw advantages from it. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has rightly invested in improving relationships with the four Visegrad countries, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These countries have tense relationships with Brussels. With the rise of sizable populist parties in several major Western European countries, Israel should ask itself how it can establish indirect contacts with them as it cannot have official relations with some.
The absence of an anti-propaganda agency is a major problem for Israel in combatting European political interference. The fact that Israel is more self-conscious today than it was a few years ago does not derive from its own merits. It results from the favorable attitude to it from U.S. President Donald Trump. This greatly contrasts with the position of his predecessor Barack Obama.
There is also a moral dimension which Israel can no longer ignore: the increase of antisemitism in Europe. Israel must make its voice heard and where possible use its influence as the number of incidents in many EU countries increase and governments seem unable to do much to stop this trend.