A brief history of EU-Israel relations

For seven decades now, Europe and Israel have been good friends, partners and neighbors. We have joint interests, joint history and a joint future.

a  (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The relationship between the EU and Israel is very close and deep-rooted. Israel was one of the first countries to establish relations with the EU (then the European Economic Community) back in the 1950s. And in 1976 we had our first trade agreement. Just think of how trade between Israel and the EU has gone from €2 billion to €36b. since then.
The European Union is Israel’s largest trading partner. Bilateral cooperation is extensive in many areas, such as in transport, industry and agriculture, but also in justice and home affairs. Cooperation on security issues, antiterrorism and antisemitism is growing, and we have proposed negotiations allowing for Israel’s exchange of information with Europol.
The depth of historic, political, economic, social and cultural connections between Israel and the EU is often overlooked or neglected in the discourse. Our common future is also sometimes disregarded, even as Israel and the EU continue moving toward each other.
• Israeli exports to the EU in 2017 increased by around 20%. Thus the EU’s share in total Israel exports reached the historical high of 34%. Almost 40% of all Israeli imports are from the EU. This is not limited to hi-tech sector but applies also to Israeli agricultural exports, 50% of which are to the EU.
• The EU is by far the biggest target for Israeli investment, accounting for 40% of outgoing investment.
• Thanks to the Open Skies Agreement ratified in June 2013, passenger traffic since then between the EU and Israel has grown from 7.6 million to 11.9 million, making the EU the prime destination for Israeli tourists. There are now over 90 EU destinations to fly to from Ben-Gurion Airport, and Israelis benefit from visa waiver travel.
• Half of Israeli higher education institutions have participated in Erasmus programs, while in 2018, for the first time, more Israeli postgraduate students chose to study in the EU than in the US, and Israel is looking at more closely aligning its qualifications system to the EU, offering greater future opportunities for young Israelis.
• The EU has been fundamental in supporting the expansion of Israel’s research and innovation sector for over 20 years. In the Horizon 2020 program, over 1,245 projects received funding to the tune of €713 million.
• As part of our Union for the Mediterranean, Israel sits with its neighboring countries at ministerial and governmental levels to promote cooperation and improve our shared Euro-Mediterranean region through concrete projects.
IN SHORT, Israel and the EU are getting closer, and we feel there is still more to offer.
A key example is the development of gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, which places the EU-Israel relationship at a crossroads and is about to add a whole new strategic dimension to our cooperation. As recently expressed by Energy Minister Steinitz himself, Europe is the natural market for eastern Mediterranean gas. And the EU and Israel understand that our challenges are increasingly common, whether on climate change, contributing to economic growth and development in Africa, or managing global migration flows.
We, of course, also have disagreements with the Israeli government, and we engage on those both privately and publicly. But the EU is united when it comes to Israel and its security. We all share a desire to keep Israel close to us, we are deeply engaged in efforts to stabilize the region, and at the same time we need to see an end to the conflict and the occupation, which put at risk Israel’s long-term interests.
We are already engaging with both the Arab world and Israel to promote practical cooperation on issues of common interest, ranging from regional security to civil protection to climate change adaptation. We are ready to accompany both parties every step in the direction of a more cooperative regional dynamic.
Yet we are also aware that full normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel requires addressing the conflict, and the two-state solution is the only viable option. Peace with the Palestinians would allow relations with the EU to naturally flourish even further, and the region to develop its unexploited potential.
We don’t want to underplay the importance of our differences, but we cannot allow them to overshadow our entire relations, and we also need to clearly communicate the many positive aspects of our relations, which the overwhelming majority of Israelis would not want to abandon.
For seven decades now, Europe and Israel have been good friends, partners and neighbors. We have joint interests, joint history and a joint future. As we always say, and I think that facts speak for themselves, these are disagreements between friends. Sometimes the older the friendship, the more you allow yourself to voice your differences.
The writer is the European Union’s ambassador to Israel.