Israel’s critics on the Left will do everything they can inside the European Parliament to prevent the ratification by May 2015 of the Open Skies Agreement that has already brought down airfare to Europe, Israel’s outgoing head of the European Parliament Liaison Department said this week.
David Saranga, who will be returning to Israel next month to head the Foreign Ministry’s hasbara (public diplomacy) department, said the aviation agreement is being implemented on a temporary basis pending final ratification.
Though he said the agreement serves the interests of European airlines and travelers, as much as it does Israel’s, this is the type of issue that Israel’s critics in the parliament generally use to hammer the Jewish state. That being said, however, Saranga said he was confident the agreement would pass.
He was less sanguine about other agreements that will need the parliament’s ratification, and mentioned the ACAA free trade agreement in pharmaceutics that was ratified in 2012 after years of struggle inside the parliament. And that was before the current Gaza crisis.
The 751-member European Parliament is the only EU institution where the representatives are elected, not appointed, making it a difficult theater for Israel.
There are parliament members who because of their constituency at home – which may at times include large Muslim elements – “will take positions that are not positive toward Israel,” Saranga said.
“What we see in the parliament reflects the changes that are evident in Europe, an increase in the political strength of immigrants from Muslim countries,” he added.
“Will it be more difficult to get agreements passed than in the past?” Saranga asked. “Yes, because of the situation in our region. Is it impossible? Time will tell, but we still have the ability to get the message to the majority of the parliamentarians that agreements and trade with Israel is a win-win, both for Israel and the Europeans.”
Saranga said that last year’s saga over whether to allow Israel entry into the lucrative Horizon 2020 research and development project is an example. Even though he said the European Commission put obstacles in the way of Israel’s joining the program until settlement-related issues were resolved, the fact is that it was important for European leaders to find a way to solve the problem because Israel’s participation was important for them.
“There are many areas where Israel is important to Europe,” Saranga said. “The fact is that we found a way to solve the [Horizon 2020] problem.”
Saranga pointed out that the recent spate of anti-Israel demonstrations in Europe were for the most part made up of Muslims demonstrating in solidarity with the Palestinians.
“The percentage of the Europeans at those demonstrations was not high,” he said. “Those demonstrations also need to worry the local governments.
It is OK if the protests are under control and done in a democratic manner,” he said. “But when they get out of control, that is something else and must concern the governments in Europe. I don’t think they will have an impact on the parliamentarians.”
The increase in the political strength of the Muslims is not the only recent change evident in the EU Parliament, he said, mentioning the May elections that saw a surge for extreme right-wing parties, including anti-Semitic representatives.
The problem with these parties from Israel’s perspective is a “collateral” one stemming from the fact that since the main political groupings – the Christian democrats and the socialists – cannot form a coalition with the radical parties from either side of the political spectrum, they need to work together.
When it comes to foreign policy, this means that they often have to find the “lowest common denominator between them,” which Saranga said means adopting policies that are detrimental toward Israel.