It has come as a surprise to many, especially to me, that the UK has voted to leave the EU. Apparently, I was not the only way to be surprised. The UK government has been paralysed by the surprise of this vote. Even though I knew that the outcome of the referendum was always going to be close, I thought that the undecided voters were more likely to take a conservative view and sway the overall result to opt for the status quo. In spit of this, the decision to Brexit has been made in an unequivocal manner by a majority of more than a million votes. The people of the UK have spoken.
Commentators in Israel have been analysing the consequences for Israel of the UK leaving the EU. The assessments that I have seen have been fairly superficial, and there seems to be no consensus as to whether the UK leaving the EU will be a good or bad thing for Israel. While the relationship between Israel and the UK is likely to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future, and the same can be said of the relationship between Israel and the EU, I hold the view that the UK’s exit from the EU is a very good thing for Israel for a number of reasons.
It is well known and widely acknowledged that the UK and the EU have very different positions on Israel. While the UK is a friend of Israel’s and has done much in the international community to support Israel and encourage understanding towards Israel and the challenges that she faces, the same cannot be said of the EU. It is somewhat ironic that, while some of Europe’s strongest nations hold a supportive view towards Israel. the formal position adopted by the EU as an organisation is so negative. This position silences the individual countries like the UK who are members of the EU, and whose view is contrary to that adopted by the EU. As a respected country in the international community, we can expect to hear the UK’s voice more loudly in the future. This is not only on the matter of Israel, but potentially on many other matters as well. From an Israeli point of view, we very much look forward to hearing an independent UK voice in the international community, rather than the muted and diluted voice that has been drowned out by the EU.
It seems clear to me that the UK vote was substantially influenced by the refugee crisis in Europe last summer, when Europe was overrun with refugees from Syria and north Africa. While many of the migrants were escaping from war zones and could be classed as true refugees, there was a significant number who were really economic migrants trying to gain access to Europe for a better economic future for them and their families. And, while this objective is one to be respected and supported wherever possible, it is clear that Europe does not have the ability or economic strength to absorb all of those economic migrants who would like to move there. The UK has long ago discovered that it is almost impossible to preserve her borders as part of the EU, and to keep unwanted migrants out. The EU has established EU-wide rules for admission of refugees, and has open borders within the union that allows the free flow of people from one EU member country to another. What also became blatantly clear last summer, was that the EU rules for admitting refugees have a much greater impact on some member countries than others. Most of the migrants swarming from Syria and elsewhere into Europe, were determined to make their way to the UK and Germany in particular. This was not a new phenomenon, as is evidenced by the encampments near Calais in France containing thousands who are waiting for their opportunity to secret their way across the English Channel. Many EU countries, who carry an equal vote when deciding on matters such as allowing refugees into the union, were not having to bear the consequences of their decision at all. Instead, the refugees were heading straight to the UK and one or two other countries. The citizens of the UK found that they had no way of securing their borders against unwanted migrants, while a member of the EU. The EU was determining this on their behalf. I see the vote to leave the EU as an exercise of the right to secure borders. This position will certainly be one that Israel can identify with in the strongest terms.
The decision by the UK to leave the EU seems to be a slippery slope. Reports suggest that another half a dozen EU members, emboldened by the British vote, are lining up to hold a similar referendum on continued membership of the union. There can be no doubt that the Brexit decision has weakened the EU as an organisation, and that further referendums and decisions to leave will serve to weaken it even more. This could perhaps be the beginning of the end of the EU. If one of the other founding members decides to leave the EU, I predict that this could potentially be a trigger for the EU to disentigrate completely. Israel will not be heartbroken over such a break-up, if it occurs. While the EU is a significant trading partner for Israel, the EU has been a political thorn in Israel’s side. Israel would much prefer to allow each EU member to present its views in the international community on an individual basis, rather than have the EU present the view of the majority of members as one single European view. The larger and more influential European countries are largely supporters of Israel. Their view is diluted by other smaller and less influential European countries, but whose vote carries equal weight within the EU voting system in determining foreign policy.
Anything that weakens the EU and its standing in the international community, will help Israel’s cause. The EU has been critical of Israel’s attempts to protect herself against terorism and attacks against her citizens. The EU has a strong position within the UN, the Quartet and other international organisations that are active on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but has constantly supported almost anything that the Palestinians say against Israel. The union has placed significant pressure on Israel to take “confidence-building” steps by giving in to demands being made by the Palestinians. When these demands are not matched by confidence-building steps by the Palestinians, it feels like Israel is being forced to take unilateral actions that ultimately weaken her position. The EU has been at the forefront of forcing Israel to take such actions.
The more I think about the result of the Brexit vote, the more surprised I am about it. And the more convinced I am that this will be good for Israel’s situation in the international community. I admire those UK citizens who made the difficult decision to follow this route, and feel confident that it will ultimately be good for their country, and good for ours.