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Israeli-European economic ties are growing as the parties seek to speedily integrate the strong and expanding Israeli economy into the huge European market, according to EU officials.
A progress report of the European Commission delegation in Israel, presented to the media on Thursday, describes Israel as the "front-runner" among non-EU members participating in EU programs that range from scientific cooperation to trade integration.
Citing "intense institutional cooperation" through the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), a framework for economic and political ties between the EU and nearby states, and a growing economy helped by "sound macroeconomic policies" on Israel's part, the report offered both a positive assessment of expanded economic ties in 2007 and optimism for further growth.
The remarkable growth of ties comes from "several factors, but mainly political will in Israel," said Jonathan Claridge, head of the political and trade section of the European Commission's delegation in Israel.
Israeli government ministries are avidly cooperating on integration, and hosting European experts on issues ranging from aviation liberalization to data protection in order to bring Israel's governance and economic systems to European levels.
"As Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has said on record, 'the sky is the limit' for Israeli-European ties," noted a delegation spokesman.
Among the dramatic moves toward integrating Israel into the European market, Israel has become the first non-EU state to join the union's â‚¬3.6 billion Competitiveness and Innovation Program, which supports small and medium businesses, making it "the leading ENP partner" among 14 other countries and the Palestinians, according to Claridge.
In November 2007, negotiations began over an "open skies" agreement that would free up restrictions on the aviation market, a move expected to add some NIS 400m. to the Israeli tourism sector, increase the number of destinations available and dramatically lower prices on flights to European destinations.
A "business dialogue" has also been established that seeks recommendations on improving the European environment for Israeli businesses. In being part to such a dialogue, Israel enters an exclusive club to which only four other nations - the United States, Russia, India and Japan - belong.
New discussions are beginning over other steps to integrate the Israeli economy into Europe, as well. These steps include developing an agreement on testing standards for some products, allowing them to be sold in European markets without extraneous regulation.
The current economic steps are only the beginning, according to Claridge. An EU-Israel Reflection Group is now looking for more ways to integrate the two economies.
The growing closeness between Israel and the EU is not without political overtones and obstacles, however. While European officials seek commercial ties for economic reasons, the bilateral discussion also includes issues of Palestinian mobility and humanitarian aid. While Claridge cites these issues as a top priority for European officials, it is unclear in what ways they affect the growing economic ties.