(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel can do more to more to exploit opportunities with the European Union in areas such as economics and research, its commissioner for external relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
"There is still a lot to be done" to better relations between Israel and the EU, Ferrero-Waldner said during her three-day visit to the region, which focused in part on improving cooperation between both parties under the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which has been in place for the last two years.
According to a study released last week by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, some 75 percent of Israelis favor becoming full-fledged members of the EU, which to date is comprised of 27 states on the European continent.
Israel has not formally requested EU membership. When asked about such membership, Ferrero-Waldner pointed immediately to the already existing vehicle of the ENP whose full potential, she said, has yet to be actualized.
"The Neighborhood Policy is clearly not for membership," said Ferrero-Waldner. "I've also said that of course the future is not prejudged by that. But at this stage we have a Neighborhood Policy for widening, broadening and deepening the scope [with Israel] on many issues. There is a lot of room for broadening still."
Ferrero-Waldner recalled how when she was already the commissioner, Israel had been the first of 17 countries to adopt an Action Plan in 2005 under the ENP. It offers economic, cultural and governmental cooperation across a broad range of issues including terrorism, the environment, education, trade, health, human rights and culture.
"We negotiated until the very last minute, into the night," Ferrero-Waldner said.
Once in place, the ENP has augmented the Association Agreement Israel has had with the EU since 2000 that allows for free trade between both parties.
Trade between Israel and the EU increased by 4% annually, Ferrero-Waldner said. Speaking later in the day at the Hebrew University, she said that Israel had done a lot to take advantage of the ENP. She added, however, that there were still many more measures that could be taken to integrate Israel into the European economy and into the EU in general.
Part of the problem, she said, was that Israel "has not yet made up its mind how to work with us."
"The EU-Israel relations can not yet fulfill their potential because the path ahead is not clear," she said.
She blamed the problem in part on the complex and multifaceted identity of the still emerging European Union.
"It's possible that Israel is having a hard time understanding us. Even when we think we have made clear our desire for deeper relations, maybe it's not so easy to decide how to work more closely with us," said Ferrero-Waldner.
In looking ahead, Ferrero-Waldner said she wanted to improve ties between Israelis and Europeans, deepen economic and trade relations as well as look for better cooperation in areas of energy and transportation.
In particular, she said, more partnerships could be created around the development of renewable energy sources.
The European Investment Bank, she said, had offered â‚¬275 million in loans for environmental projects and small and medium businesses. For the first time, she added, Israel was eligible for financial assistance to the tune of â‚¬14 million in European Community financial cooperation over the next seven years.
"The EU is currently Israel's main trading partner; more than 30% of Israel's exports are to the EU and 40% of its imports come from us," Ferrero-Waldner said. "So as you can see, there is enormous potential."