Donald Tusk, the President of the Council of Europe meets Israeli President Reuven Rivlin .
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Words are cheap these days. Everyone is a “star,” “breaking news” can last all day and “legend” status is bandied about freely.
But what we woke up to on Friday morning was truly unprecedented.
Britain has voted to leave the European Union, and may not be the last country to do so. It wasn’t the first – that honor/calamitous decision, depending on who you ask – goes to Greenland. It left what was then called the EEC in 1985. But with all respect to Greenland, Britain is a much bigger fish, economically and politically. It was a major and important member of the EU. There are questions now regarding whether the UK can even survive when Scotland voted massively to stay in the EU. Prime minister David Cameron has resigned, prompting a period of uncertainty as to who will take up the reins and negotiate the terms of departure.
These are the deep questions that the UK has to answer.
But I am the director of a pro-Israel advocacy group operating at the heart of the EU institutions, and I’m busy looking at the current lay of the political land and what it will all mean for the EU-Israel relationship.
Our offices sit opposite the European Council and the European Commission.
Before I stepped into the office on Friday morning, I sat outside taking it all in. Eurocrats walked past in groups, the most common words I picked up were “I don’t know” and “slap in the face,” most looked ashen faced, with smartphones in hand, reading the news. And to be honest I wasn’t far behind. This truly is uncharted territory.
But let us all be honest: the UK-Israel relationship was a roller-coaster ride with as many highs as lows, from the British Mandate to good relations during the Suez Crisis. In the ‘60s Britain was seen as pro-Arab. The ‘80s were not much better, with Britain imposing an arms embargo on Israel during the 1982 Lebanon war. But since then, things were on the up again. Relations were strong, a majority of British parliamentarians are pro-Israel and only last year the British government began efforts to outlaw anti-Israel Boycott activities in the UK.
So we have lost a good, solid and largely dependable pro-Israel voice in the European institutions. We have lost not only a great number of MEPs who were our friends and allies, but also many more British staffers and policy wonks – those who actually prepare the briefing notes, do the research and advise their political and bureaucratic masters on lines and positions to take on Israel. So from that perspective it’s sad and you could allow yourself to worry.
But there are opportunities too. The emerging markets as we call them: Balkan states, the Visegrad group of countries and the Baltic states will undoubtedly feel emboldened after Brexit. They will feel their voices have become louder in the European Council, Parliament and Commission. They will also feel that Britain’s unprecedented – there’s that word again – departure shows cracks in the old established power blocs, and that they can be the cement.
As these countries enjoy a by and large excellent relationship with Israel, their rise can only be good news for us, and we anticipate a deeper and more cooperative relationship with them at Permanent Representative and EU institutional level.
But the real question is can the EU, as presently constituted, even survive? It currently feels like a game of Jenga.
The UK has removed its brick from the tower, and the edifice looks shaky and could potentially collapse.
So we say goodbye to Britain in the EU playground with a heavy heart. But just like all playgrounds, there are always plenty of others to make friends and continue to play with.
This is the task of all Israel advocates in the months and years ahead. So let’s get to it, posthaste.The author is director of EIPA: Europe Israel Public Affairs.