Despite intense lobbying by Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, the European Union on Monday - in a sign of vastly improved European-Israeli relations over the last few years - agreed to a significant upgrade of relations. The upgrade was announced in Luxembourg during the annual EU-Israel Association Council meeting, headed by foreign ministers, which conducts the bilateral relations between Israel and the EU. The announcement was made at a meeting attended by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the ministers of the 27 EU states. A statement put out by the foreign ministry said this agreement "will usher in a new era in Israeli-European relations." Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayad last week sent a letter to the EU countries urging them not to upgrade ties unless Israel halted construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Similar appeals in all the European capitals have been made over the last few weeks by Egyptian diplomatic officials as well. Israeli diplomatic sources said that the Arab world was increasingly concerned by the growing friendship between Israel and many of the governments in Europe, including France under Nicolas Sarkozy, Britain under Gordon Brown, Germany under Angela Merkel and Italy under Silvio Berlusconi. In addition, the inclusion of eastern European countries into the EU such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic has vastly improved Israel's status in the EU. Although there was some concern that the EU would link the upgrade to the situation on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the only hint of any linkage in a statement issued after the meeting by the EU was a clause that said "the process of developing a closer EU-Israeli partnership needs to be, and to be seen, in the context of the broad range of our common interests and objectives which notably include the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the implementation of the two-state solution." Israel has said on numerous occasions that it is in favor, and is working toward, a two-state solution. The process of upgrading ties began a year ago after the last Association meeting, where it was decided to examine areas in which cooperation between Israel and the EU could be enhanced. Israel's efforts on the matter have been led by a team headed up by Senior Deputy Director General Yossi Gal, Deputy Director General for Europe Rafi Barak and Ambassador to the EU Ran Curiel. Israeli-EU relations will be upgraded in three areas: increased diplomatic cooperation; Israel's participation in European plans and agencies; and examination of possible Israeli integration into the European single market. The upgrade includes the following aspects:
In the diplomatic sphere there will be an institutionalization of the diplomatic dialogue between the Israeli and EU leadership, by means of regular annual meetings at a senior level. In addition, there will be increased meetings between government ministers, senior officials and parliamentarians from both sides.
Israel will join European agencies, programs and working groups. This will mean bringing the Israeli economy and society closer to European norms and standards, and increasing the competitiveness of Israeli companies in the European market, primarily in the field of high-tech, with the signing of an aviation agreement that will lower prices for both sides, and others.
A joint working group will examine the areas in which Israel is capable of integrating into the European single market. This will lay the groundwork for an additional upgrading of relations in the future.