The future of EU-Israel relations

In times of a highly critical EU foreign policy, Israel must encourage its new partners to stand up for it.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu and EU foreign policy chief Mogherini brief the media in Brussels (photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
PM Benjamin Netanyahu and EU foreign policy chief Mogherini brief the media in Brussels
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
Last December, Israel signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Greece, Italy, and Cyprus over the establishment of the “energy triangle,” a joint 2,100-km.
underwater gas pipeline to deliver Israeli natural gas into the heart of Europe.
For Italy, Greece, and Cyprus – three countries experiencing substantial economic malaise – the discovery of Israeli natural gas and the subsequent partnership with Israel promises to mitigate their economic situations.
These countries are not alone in seeking to foster relations with the Jewish state, increasingly seen as the “new rich man on the block.” European states such as Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Croatia have been seeking Israeli innovation in order to close ranks with their wealthier European contemporaries. Clearly an economic boon for Israel, the MoU and Israel’s newfound closeness with many Eastern European countries have the potential to disrupt the current status quo in EU-Israel foreign policy dynamics.
While Israel’s relations with Eastern Europe are taking-off, this has not translated to improved relations on the EU level. Just last week, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini called for an independent investigation into the IDF’s actions in the Gaza protests.
It was only two years ago that relations between the European Union and Israel soured significantly over the labeling of goods made in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Since its inception, the European Union’s foreign policy position on Israel has been highly critical and the policies of Israel’s right-wing government, in power for the last nine years, have done nothing to remedy the situation.
This is set to change. Beginning in the 90s, the EU has held a “common foreign policy,” which, in theory, represents the cumulative foreign policy positions of its member states. The creation of the “energy triangle” and Israel’s newfound economic status has disrupted the two linchpins – politics and economics – of EU-Israel foreign policy.
Israel sees the EU as a close, large market for its products whereas the EU sees Israel as an arena in which to become a more relevant diplomatic world power. Israel, a small country of just eight million citizens, historically has had limited leverage on the EU economically, a trading bloc of over 500 million citizens and representing 28 countries. As such the EU has almost always been highly critical of Israel. However, recent years have seen Israel become not only an economic giant, fueled by Israeli innovation, but also an energy producer integral to Europe’s energy lifeline.
Israel’s new economic relevancy and economic closeness with Eastern European states will allow it to influence the EU’s foreign policy from within. One needs to look no further than the current ongoing dispute over the Nord Stream II pipeline to understand the influence that economics and natural gas have on European foreign policymaking.
Nord Stream II is a gas pipeline that Russia and Western European powers want to build through Eastern Europe in order to pump more gas into Western Europe. Eastern Europeans, seeing ghosts of the Cold War past, have come out decidedly against it, splitting the European Union along East-West lines. All the while, Russia has been undertaking a “real occupation” in the Crimea, however, the pipeline and the internal discord it has wrought has rendered EU foreign policy on Russia irrelevant.
If the Russian situation is any indication, Israel should capitalize on these shifting trends by using its newly acquired economic relationships with individual Eastern European member states to influence EU foreign policy. In times of a highly critical EU foreign policy, Israel must encourage its new partners to stand up for it.
In 2016, Greece stood alone in defiance of the EU’s labeling of West Bank and Golan Heights products. If Israel uses its newly acquired leverage, there is reason to believe that the next time around more than one member state will stand up in its defense.
The author is an Argov Fellow at the IDC Herzliya and works as a private consultant for EU research projects.