Brussels – Fresh winds are blowing in the EU corridors of power, winds of hope and optimism rarely felt in the past two decades. Rumors about the death of the European Union were premature and exaggerated. Though difficulties will likely be encountered, Europe will emerge stronger, the wounds of Brexit healed standing strong against waves of terrorism, and absorbing massive waves of immigration. European identity is changing across the board, yet will remain to a large extent, democratic and liberal, especially in comparison to the surrounding environment. The EU is therefore, expected once more to play a critical role in arenas within its immediate proximity and interests, the Middle East included. We will soon find Europe alive and kicking, the direction of Israel notwithstanding.
Two important meetings are scheduled for later this week in Paris. One day before the media magnet visit by President Trump on July 14th, amidst Bastille Day celebrations, the Franco-German bi-annual joint cabinet meeting will take place. The love story between novice President Macron and veteran Chancellor Merkel is already reflected in the multitude trips civil servants are making between Paris, Berlin and Brussels Fresh pan-European initiatives are around the corner.
Contrary to gloomy predictions, the Euro-block stands strong, and talks of French or Italian splits from the Union sound far further from reality than before. Britain’s departure is perceived not only as a challenge, but an opportunity for the remaining 27 members to regroup.
The extreme right has been defeated almost everywhere throughout Europe. One should not underestimate its attraction to many Europeans, but it has become marginalized, at least for the near future. While immigration remains a major challenge for Europe, the EU did not withhold visa-free movement across its borders from 45 million Ukrainians just last month. Although entirely unnoticed in Israel, this step has been called, with good reason, “Ukraine’s Berlin Wall moment.”
With Brexit imminent, France and Germany are once again the motor behind the entire EU machine. One should not underestimate the fact that no fewer than seven government members in France and Germany combined are fluent in each other’s language, including the French Premier and the German Minister of Defense. So when the two cabinets meet this Thursday, responsible Israeli leaders should follow carefully. A recent poll by ARD, Germany’s major media outlet, has shown 94% of Germans trust the French, in comparison with only 21% faith in Russia, and, yes, in the US!
European confidence in the Trump administration is at a record low. A PEW study has revealed that only 11% of Germans and 14% of French have confidence in the current US administration. At its high points, Obama’s administration reached 86% and 84%, respectively. Merkel and Macron have independently expressed discontent with Trump’s decisions and positions at recent meetings (NATO, G20). Merkel went further to say that it is time for Europe to take its fate into its own hands.
On Merkel’s party platform, the US has been downgraded. From being referred to as Germany’s most important friend four years ago, today the US has been relegated simply to the status of Germany’s most important partner outside Europe. “The times in which we could fully rely on others are…past,” the party platform elaborates, “Europeans must take our fate into our own hands more decisively than we have in the past.” The platform also adds a new chapter, Germany and France as the Motor for Europe, and it lays out Merkel’s plan for invigorated partnership and actions with France’s new government, including the creation of a long-awaited European Monetary Fund.
And what about Israel? Senior German Foreign Ministry officials explicitly state that their country intends to play a more active and independent role in the Middle East. Such a position goes hand in hand with German interests in the region: strengthening a pan-Arab and western coalition to fight terrorism, safeguarding the implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran, and keeping alive the quest for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. This is all tandem to France’s own interests vis a vis Saudi Arabia and the wider Sunni world.
The European Union, and Germany in particular, may play a surprisingly central role in the region during Trump’s presidency. If this role is not shaped jointly with Israel, it may cause friction and frustration for Israeli leadership, and weaken the Israeli negotiating position in any future setting for regional or bilateral negotiations.
It is not unlikely that Germany and other countries in the EU and the region, will develop a workable carrot-and-stick mechanism. The possibilities are numerous: upgrading ties and offering partnerships in the fields of R&D, commerce and trade, science and technology, etc. Europe might once again support state-building institutions in Palestine, or enable Israeli procurement of needed weapons, as in the case of the humongous submarine deal. NATO may be brought to the fore as a party in future security arrangements. Building a regional development bank may also be brought to the table.
Israel’s normally warm ties with Germany have cooled over the past decade. This year, the annual joint cabinet meeting between Germany and Israel has been postponed, allegedly due to time constraints of the chancellor. Interestingly, Merkel has found time for her other meetings, and notably, Christophe Heusgen, under-Secretary for Foreign and Security Policy in the German Chancellery, who has her ear, has grown increasingly critical of Israel during Netanyahu’s terms of office.
Only a handful of Israeli leaders frequent key European corridors of power. As astonishing as it may sound, for over two decades, no Israeli Prime Minister has embarked upon an official visit to Brussels, EU headquarters.
Israel should not put all its eggs in the American basket because whether we like it or not, Europe is around the corner and its vital interest which will keep it involved in our region.
In light of the invigorated winds blowing in Europe and observing other global trends in the era of Trumputin, Israel must deepen the reach of its ties with the European Union and the major powers leading it. They will continue to be a beacon in international affairs and a central power for our region. There are leaders to engage and work with in Europe, and now is the time to develop those ties. The Merkel-Macron era has just begun.
Raanan Eliaz is the founder of ELNET, the European Leadership Network, promoting closer relations between Europe and Israel, and the political empowerment of European friends of Israel. His book of Hebrew poetry, “No Poem is But a Love Poem,” was recently published in Israel.
The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of ELNET.