Is the European Parliament a friend or a foe of Israel?
For many years, Israelis have had their own thoughts and views on how the Jewish state is being perceived in Europe but only now, thanks to a new survey commissioned by the European Coalition for Israel and conducted by EU-matrix (a Brussels-based research platform), we have the answer.
The results confirm what European Union experts and Israeli diplomats have known for many years but also provides some interesting surprises.
EU support for Israel seems to correlate with political orientation. Parties on the political right tend to be the most supportive of Israel. The two right-wing groups that make up the European Parliament – the European Conservatives and Reformers Group (ECR) and Identity and Democracy group (I&D) – are almost neck-to-neck in their support of Israel, scoring close to 90% in the matrix research platform.
The largest political group, the European People’s Party (EPP) comes in third, with just over 60% in Israel support. As we approach the liberal Renew Europe group, we are already under 50% and once we reach the Social Democrats and the Greens, we no longer hit the 20% mark.
However, it does not stop there. The political left group (former communists) scores in single digits, with Spanish government coalition partner Podemos showing a staggering 0% support for Israel!
Also interesting to note are the variations within one and the same political group. Although the seven party groups in the European Parliament are expected to coordinate their votes ahead of each plenary meeting, some national parties stick out.
In the influential EPP group, the two Swedish member parties – Christian Democrats and the Moderates – are the most supportive of Israel. German Christian Democrats, on the other hand, who are generally believed to provide the bedrock of Israel backing in Europe, are more modest in their support.
But what about the individual EU-member states? Although it is the European Council – the location where foreign ministers meet and make decisions in relation to Israel – their meetings are closed to the public and voting records are not publicly disclosed.
The results from the European Parliament, however, confirm leaked reports about what really goes on inside the secretive European Council. Support for Israel is most widespread in the new EU-member states from Central and Eastern Europe.
Among those scoring 50% or higher, only two are from the old European Union: Italy and the Netherlands. The rest are new member states. It is also politically significant that Israel currently gets high marks from two of Europe´s largest member states – Italy and Poland – who are both governed by right wing parties, though support for Israel is shared by a large majority of the political spectrum in these countries.
The survey results also confirm what is considered by Israel's Foreign Ministry a well-known fact: The least supportive EU-member states are to be found in Ireland, Cyprus, Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg. Missing from this group of countries are traditional Israel critics, such as Sweden, which has made a radical overhaul from its once exceedingly one-sided pro-Palestinian policies.
What has happened in Sweden since the change of government last year is a case in point of the whole study, showing that a center-right government typically means stronger support for Israel. From having championed Palestinian statehood under the Social Democrats, Sweden is today the strongest supporter of Israel compared to all of the other Nordic countries.
What can the Israeli government learn from the survey? While the Foreign Ministry will have to remain pragmatic and work with any democratically-elected government in Europe, it should reconsider its stance on some of the populist parties on the political right, some of which are sidelined by the Foreign Ministry. In practical terms, this means that no Israeli diplomat can have contact with parties on their unofficial blacklist. To exclude openly anti-Semitic, racist parties, such as the Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary, is a given. However, today, the list includes right-wing parties in the governments of critical EU allies.
This brings us to the complexity that many Israeli diplomats and community leaders are facing. Yes, many parties can be overtly pro-Israel but at the same time remain indifferent to challenges facing the Jewish communities in their own countries. This is revealed in efforts to ban kosher slaughter or circumcision. But this problem is not limited to populist right-wing parties. The first country to propose a ban on circumcision was a socialist prime minister of Iceland and the recent push to outlaw kosher slaughter in Finland was championed by the progressive left-Green government.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry has been careful to engage with new populist parties, as it is the preference of the local Jewish communities to not rock the boat and instead maintain close links to the political establishment. Many European governments today, however, are led by anti-establishment parties.
Perhaps the best solution is to have a pragmatic open-door policy, that is, any party that wants to engage with the Jewish community and the State of Israel should be welcome. If there are areas of disagreement, let these be sorted out in open dialogue and not by black-listing. The sad fact is that even with an open-door policy, many parties will chose not to have anything to do with Israel and that is the real problem! But those parties that seek contact should not be automatically dismissed.
The first EU-ranking does not have a political agenda and is not in any way intended to give parties on the political right a free pass. However, it is a wake-up call to all Israelis that Europe is changing. Yes, certain countries in Europe are still struggling to come to terms with their complicities during the time of the Holocaust, but today they are by-and-large on the right side of history in scoring some of the highest points in the EU-matrix.
To the extent that there are some countries who disagree with the EU in Brussels regarding the ongoing culture war, it should not be a matter of Israeli concern in the same way that Israel should not be lectured by EU-member states about its own internal affairs.
Tomas Sandell is the Founding Director of the European Coalition for Israel. Before founding the Coalition in 2003 he was an accredited journalist to the European Union in Brussels. His articles have appeared in Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Jerusalem Post as well as numerous Scandinavian media outlets. Today he resides in Helsinki, Finland while travelling on a regular basis to Brussels where he hosts a monthly talk show called the European Report. You can watch the talk show on www.ec4i.org where you can also find more information about the work of the European Coalition for Israel.