As Europeans come together to celebrate the 64th anniversary of Europe Day today, it is an opportune time to pause and reflect on the state of Israel-EU relations, on our extraordinary achievements and on the challenges that lie ahead.
Europe and Israel are united not only by geographic proximity, but also through our shared values of democracy, freedom, respect for human rights and the pursuit of greater prosperity and security. This has resulted in more than five decades of trade, political and geo-strategic partnership, tourism and cooperation across countless other fields.
Despite many parts of Europe still being in the midst of major financial crises, the EU is still Israel’s largest trading partner, with total trade amounting to more than $41 billion, an increase of almost 50% from 2009. The EU remains Israel’s second largest market for exports (behind the United States), with 31%, while 34% of our imports come from the EU.
Israel’s global leadership and expertise in high-tech, scientific research, green technology and health care is in constant high demand in Europe.
2013, was Israel’s best tourism year on record, with more than 3.5 million visitors, many of them from Europe. This will only improve in the coming future with the recent ratification of the Open Skies Agreement with the EU, which is opening up new markets and making air travel more competitive and less expensive.
Israel is also becoming accepted into, and increasingly more active, in a number of European multilateral organizations and treaties, including the historic Horizon 20/20 Research Programme, ACAA (Agreement on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products), the OSCE (Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe) and having recently also become the first non-European member of CERN, the prestigious European Organization for Nuclear Research.
In the last few years, Israel has also held an increasing number of government-to-government meetings at the highest levels with various European allies, including the Greece, Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, Bulgaria and Germany. As a result, a number of major bilateral agreements have been signed in areas of high-tech, green energy, culture and the sciences.
And in March last year, President Shimon Peres gave an historic address in Strasbourg before the 754-member European Parliament, which represents each of the 27 member states of the EU.
Yet, at the same time as we recognize and applaud Israel’s impressive achievements on the European stage, we mustn’t sweep under the carpet the many challenges that still remain and must be addressed.
Anti-Semitism in Europe has reached levels unprecedented since before the Holocaust. From physical assaults to Holocaust denial and desecration of Jewish cemeteries, virtually no part of Europe today is free of the evil of anti-Semitism and hatred that led to Europe’s darkest period.
Almost one-quarter of Jews in Europe are afraid to publicly identify as Jewish out of fear of anti-Semitism.
Today’s anti-Semitism, however, is being directed not only against local Jewish communities and individuals, but also in the public vilification and delegitimization of the State of Israel, including comparing Israelis to Nazis, burning Israeli flags in public and branding Zionism as racism.
More needs to be done by the political leaders of Europe to condemn urgently and unequivocally all manifestations of anti-Semitism, including such attacks on Israel, and take immediate action against perpetrators.
European governments, and the EU as an institution, must also cease funding NGOs whose primary purpose is to delegitimize and vilify the State of Israel and undermine our democracy. No sovereign state would tolerate this.
As the single largest donor to the Palestinian Authority, the EU must demand greater accountability to ensure that its money is not being used for such purposes as paying salaries of Palestinian terrorists and their families or to incite hatred and violence against Israel. This was a concern expressed most recently in a WSJ Op-Ed by Michael Theurer, Chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control.
As a member of the Middle East Quartet and a signatory to the Oslo Accords, the EU also has an important role to play in advancing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. However, that will require the EU to become a more honest broker. This means the EU cannot continue to condemn and single out Israeli settlements out of all proportion while turning a blind eye to Palestinian terror, incitement and intransigence, which continue to be the real impediment to peace.
And having listed Hamas as a terrorist organization, the EU should unequivocally tell Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that under no circumstances will it deal with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.
Today, some 1.5 million Jews still live in Europe, while many more Jews of European heritage have chosen to return home to Israel. With them, they have brought a rich and beautiful tapestry of European culture. We see this in the arts, culture, food, architecture and much more.
As we prepare to face ever-increasing challenges, ranging from national security and regional geopolitical issues, Iran and the global economy, it is more important than ever to strengthen and deepen the special bond between the Europe and the State of Israel.
The author is an international human rights lawyer and freelance journalist who frequently writes on Israel-Europe relations. The views expressed in this article are solely his own.