The Israeli Case against Brexit

The upcoming referendum in Britain on European Union (EU) membership has raised little interest in Israel.  Yet “Brexit” (British exit from the EU) would have far-reaching international consequences, including on Israel itself.  Some voices in Israel have expressed support for Brexit.  They generally make three points: a. Since the EU funds left-wing NGOs, Palestinian construction in Area C, and since it labels Israeli products from settlements, any setback for the EU is welcome; b. Europe’s populist parties are anti-Europe and since they also claim to be pro-Israel, then obviously breaking-up the EU must be a good idea; c. The EU endangers national sovereignty and so anyone who cares about a sovereign Jewish state should oppose the EU.  All three arguments are baseless, nonsensical, and uninformed.

Before I explain why, allow me a short historical reminder.

The original founders of the EU project were conservatives and free-marketers.  Winston Churchill called for a “United States of Europe” in September 1946 to neutralize the German threat, which he had identified and fought more than anyone else.  For him, this was the only way to prevent the return to historical dynamics that had produced two world wars.  Classical liberal economists such as Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises supported the idea of a federal Europe after World War Two because they considered it a condition for the promotion of free-trade among protectionist-minded nations.

The founding fathers of today’s EU in 1951 (it was called ECSC then) were Christian democrats (meaning, conservatives): Robert Schuman (France), Konrad Adenauer (West Germany), and Alcide De Gasperi (Italy).  They wanted to keep both radical nationalism and communism at bay.  As for France, it wanted to tie the German Gulliver to the rest of Western Europe by creating a common market for coal and for steel (ECSC stands for “European Coal and Steel Community”).

When Charles de Gaulle came back to power in France in 1958, he pursued historical reconciliation with Germany and tried to turn the European Economic Community (or EEC, which replaced the ECSC in 1957) into a platform that would guarantee France’s political predominance in Europe.  Precisely because Britain would have challenged this predominance, de Gaulle vetoed twice (in 1963 and in 1967) Britain’s bid to join the EEC.  Back then, France was indeed politically dominant in Europe.  Not so today.  A united Germany (since 1991) with its formidable economy is now the leading European power.  Hence the importance of Britain’s membership in today’s Europe.  If de Gaulle were France’s president today, he would certainly no longer oppose British membership.  Whoever is familiar with European history understands why Britain constitutes a necessary counterweight to Germany in Europe. No wonder the French are so anxious about the prospect of Brexit.

After all, the French conceived the idea of the Euro as an answer to Germany’s reunification in 1991.  In 1951, France tied Germany to Europe via coal and steel; in 1991 it did so with a single currency.  Margaret Thatcher was indeed opposed to Jacques Delors’ federalist moves and to François Mitterrand’s single currency.  But she was in favor of a European Community that would promote free trade (just like Hayek) and keep Germany in check (just like Churchill).  Indeed, Thatcher campaigned for Britain to remain in the EEC in the 1975 referendum (this week’s referendum in not the first).  Hence was her influence over European policy makers so crucial, and hence is Britain’s membership a must today in order to a make sure that the EU remains a free market that does not unduly infringe upon national sovereignty.

Today, Britain’s EU membership is critical not only to keep Germany in check, but also to ensure that Europe is united against Russian gangsterism.  Vladimir Putin is trying very hard to undo the geopolitical achievements to which Margaret Thatcher so contributed, namely the extension of the EU and of NATO to eastern Europe.  What started with Chechnya, with Crimea, and with eastern Ukraine will continue with the Baltic states, with Poland and with Romania if Europe does not display resolve and unity.  And an EU without Britain will be less principled and less determined.  It is no coincidence that Putin funds Europe’s populist parties that call for the dismantling of the EU.  Brexit would constitute a victory for Putin and a setback for the legacy of Winston Churchill and of Margaret Thatcher.

Israel has an in interest in preserving this legacy, because its geopolitical alternative is the unchecked empowerment of Russia and of Germany.  As Winston Churchill warned, one should never underestimate the danger “of the vain passion of a newly united Germany.”  As for Russia, it provided nuclear technology to Iran, it is the guardian of the Shia Iran-Assad-Hezbollah axis, and it aspires to dominate eastern Europe again.  Europe’s populist parties that are supported by Putin are against free trade and against the pro-American foreign policy of European conservatives.  Israelis who have developed a sympathy syndrome for those parties are entitled to do so, but then they shouldn’t call themselves conservatives or classic liberals.

Pro-Brexit Israelis should also come to their senses and realize that the likes of Peace Now and Adalah will not go bankrupt after the EU loses one member.  No EU member recognizes Israeli sovereignty beyond the green line, and Brexit will not change that.  Brexit will have no impact on the EU’s Middle East policy (although, as explained above, it will have dreadful geopolitical implications that will negatively affect Israel).

Israelis who support Brexit in the name of national sovereignty are mistaken as well.  The EU is not incompatible with national sovereignty, quite the contrary.  It is a fact that members can pull out whenever they want (as Britain might decide to do so this week).  And with all the hot air produced by the European Parliament and the bureaucracy of the European Commission, at the end truly important decisions are made by national governments (such as the decision to take in nearly a million Syrian refugees, a decision that was made by the German Chancellor and not by the President of the European Commission).  And precisely because the EU provides a supra-national structure, it makes nations that want to secede more confident.  The Czechs and Slovaks separated into two distinct nation-states in 1993, and both states joined the EU in 2004.  The Scots would unlikely have sought independence in 2014 without the geopolitical and economic security provided by the EU.

There is a lot to fix and improve about the EU.  Britain has been instrumental in keeping the EU in check and it must continue to do so.  Ultimately, though, the EU constitutes an unparalleled geopolitical achievement that put an end to wars between Germany and France, as well as an economic achievement that has institutionalized free-trade among protectionist-minded nations.  The Jews suffered from the old Europe, and the Jewish state has nothing to gain from a return to Europe’s old ways.

About the Author
Dr. Emmanuel Navon is an international relations expert who lectures at Tel-Aviv University and at Reichman University. He is a Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and at the Kohelet Policy Forum, and a Senior Analyst for i24News. His latest book is "The Star and the Scepter: A Diplomatic History of Israel" (The Jewish Publication Society/University of Nebraska Press).
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