Can Israel Become a Member of the European Union?

It is a welcome sign of changing times in the Middle East that a mission of 65 industry associations and representatives from 17 member states of the European Union is visiting Israel for two days in late October on a "mission for growth." The mission is led by Antonio Tajani, the Italian politician who was a cofounder of the Forza Italia party in 1994 and was the former spokesman for the government of Silvio Berlusconi, and who is now European Commission vice-president responsible for Industry and Entrepreneurship. The aim of the mission is to strengthen business relations between the EU and Israel and to explore opportunities for cooperation between European and Israeli SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises).

The mission is to discuss various sectors of the economy: among them are space technologies, information and communication technology, water and environmental technologies, raw material, and homeland security. Commissioner Tajani in May 2012 called for Europe to become more innovative in order to compete with other countries and engage in "robust and sustainable growth." In September 2013 he was even more downright: "We (Europeans) face a systematic industrial massacre." The conclusion was that European industry must be made more robust, sustainable, and more growth-oriented.

The premise of the mission to Israel is that the dynamic economy of Israel can help the growth and competitiveness of industry in the EU countries. The expectation is that this can be done by promoting innovation and sustainable growth, by helping EU companies operate in Israel, and by promoting partnership between Israeli and European companies in those sectors identified as leading industries in Israel. The EU appears to have acknowledged the significant strides made by Israel in research and development.

All this is flattering to Israel and is a welcome change from the less than cordial political posture of the EU towards Israel in recent years. Conflicts have arisen over the EU Venice Declaration of 1980 which was the EU's first official statement on the Arab-Israeli conflict, over the participation of the EU in the 1991 Madrid peace conference, over the Israeli Operation Grapes of Wrath when Israel in April 1996 was defending itself against terrorism by Hezbollah in South Lebanon, and especially over the Israeli settlements in the disputed territories.

The most recent contentious decisions of the EU came in 2013 when the EU issued a directive that the Israeli government declare in any future arrangements with the EU that settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are outside the State of Israel. EU grants, funding, prizes, or scholarships will not be given to Israelis unless this is made clear. Since 1998 the EU has held that the territories are not part of Israel and therefore products produced in them must not benefit from preferential treatment.

The October 2013 mission must be put in the context of trade and cultural relations between the two sides already in existence. The EEC, the forerunner to the EU, established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1959, and reached a free trade agreement in 1975. On November 20, 1995 an Association Agreement was signed, and entered into force on June 1, 2000. Included in it are free trade arrangements for industrial goods and concessions for agricultural products, and liberalization of trade in services. Regular meetings are supposed to take place to discuss political and economic issues. Trade between the two sides has grown: in 2012 EU exports to Israel reached 17 billion euros, while EU imports from Israel were 12.6 billion euros.

Israel has relations with the EU directly and indirectly in various ways. The most important indirect forms are the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that Israel joined in 2010. Equally significant is the participation of Israel in the European Research and Development (ERD) program. Since 1993, specifically after the Oslo Accords, Israel has been accepted as a full partner in the program. The relationship was reinforced in 1995 when the EU accepted Israel's request for researchers to be included in management committees with the same standing as EU member countries.

In the 6th program of the ERD Framework, 2002-2006, a considerable number of Israeli projects were involved: 429 academic projects, 209 industrial, and 145 others. In the present 7th program, 2007-2013, Israelis are again participating in considerable numbers, benefiting from working with large European organizations. Israel is also part of the MEDA program, launched in 1996 and amended in 2000, which is an instrument of economic and financial cooperation under the Euro-Mediterranean partnership which seeks to reinforce political stability, create a Euro-Mediterranean free trade area and develop economic and social cooperation.

Interestingly, Article 2 of the 1975 Association Agreement states "Relations between the Parties, as well as all the provisions of the Agreement itself, shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles, which guides their internal and international policy and constitutes an essential part of this Agreement." This allows one to raise the question of whether there can be closer ties between Israel and the EU. Israel already takes part in a number of European events and activities. The argument was made by Silvio Berlusconi in his visit to Israel in February 2010 that his "greatest desire" was that Israel should join the EU.

Even though it is in the Middle East and not on the European mainland, Israel can be regarded as sharing the values of Western civilization, democracy, freedom, rule of law, and an open economic system based on market principles. A convincing argument can be made that Israel could become a member of or associated with NATO and OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). Since NATO extends to Turkey, it may embrace Israel on the way. An equally compelling argument can be made that it could be accepted into the EU. Among other things, Israel can provide a model for European countries for successful integration of immigrants into their societies. With political vision, the way is open from Israeli partnership and association with the EU in a variety of activities to full membership.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.