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 this morning is truly unprecedented.
Britain has voted to leave the European Union. And they may not be the last country to do so. They weren’t the first — that honour/calamitous decision depending on how you see the news this morning – goes to Greenland. They left what was then called the EEC in 1985.
But with all due respect to Greenland, Britain is a much bigger fish, economically and politically. It was a major and important member of the European Union. There are questions this morning whether the UK can even survive when Scotland voted massively to stay in the EU. The Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned, prompting a period of uncertainty as to whom 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 in Brussels, 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, 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 rollercoaster ride with as many highs as lows, from the British Mandate to good relations during the Suez Crisis. In the 60’s Britain was seen as pro-Arab. The 80’s 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 BDS 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 not forgetting 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 that Britain’s unprecedented – there’s that word again – departure shows cracks in the old established power blocks, and that they can be the cement.
As these countries enjoy a by and large excellent relationship with Israel, their cement can only be good news for us, and we anticipate a deeper and more co-operative relationship with them at Permanent Representative and EU institutional level.
But the real question is can the EU, as presently constituted, even survive? This morning it feels like a game of Jenga. The UK have removed their 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 post haste.