On January 1, France assumed the six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union.
The country, one of the two most powerful in the EU, is taking its role seriously. “France has been preparing for this presidency since 2017,” said French President Emmanuel Macron in a message on the website created for Paris’s presidency. COVID permitting, France will host more than 400 events around its presidency, including 19 meetings of EU ministers.
The Council of the European Union represents member states in the EU, and serves a key legislative function, turning decisions made by the European Commission into law.
“The political weight of the Member States and the historical legitimacy of their representatives also give the Council Presidency a strong symbolic dimension which the leaders of the countries holding it can use to broaden its scope,” according to a Robert Schuman Foundation report.
France has laid out three goals for its presidency: “a more sovereign Europe,” with a more robust defense policy and secure borders; “a new European model for growth,” with a focus on innovation and climate; and “a humane Europe,” protecting European values and fighting hatred.
While France focuses on leading the EU, as well as on upcoming presidential elections in April, the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government has been working hard to improve Israel’s relationship with both the EU and with France. But after months of encouraging statements and warm meetings, Israel has not been able to snag the major prize — the resumption of annual Association Council meetings with the EU. At the same time, EU ministers continue to be openly critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank.
Does the French EU Council presidency point at a further improvement in Israel-EU relations, or will existing disagreements continue to limit how far ties can expand?
A new start
As foreign minister, Lapid has made a point of improving Israel’s relationship with France. He and Macron have a warm personal relationship stretching back before either of them was in their current position. Lapid took the unusual step of endorsing Macron in the 2017 presidential election, and Macron seemed to return the favor by hosting him at the Elysee Palace in Paris only four days before the April 2019 elections in Israel.
In late November, Lapid visited Paris and met with Macron at the end of a three-day trip to Europe, seen largely as focused on the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna.
Eric Danon, France’s ambassador to Israel, told visiting French parliamentarians last July that Macron intends to reset relations with Israel if he is reelected in 2022, according to a diplomatic source with knowledge of the meeting.
Danon also gave a surprisingly muscular speech at Bastille Day celebrations in July, stressing France’s position that “the Mullahs’ regime should never possess the nuclear bomb.”
“I think we changed our point of view in France about Iran,” Philippe Latombe, vice president of the France-Israel Friendship Group in the National Assembly, told The Times of Israel in September.
A summer crisis in bilateral relations — which involved the suspected use of Israeli spyware developed by NSO Group to allegedly hack the phones of Macron and other senior French officials — seems to no longer be causing tensions.
In October, France deployed a Rafale fighter squadron in Israel for the first time, as part of the international Blue Flag aerial exercise.
While France’s presidency has been showing new warmth toward Israel, its foreign ministry — often referred to as the Quai d’Orsay — under Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has been especially critical of Israel. In May, Le Drian said Israel was at risk of “long-lasting apartheid” if the Palestinians did not obtain their own state.
Lapid has also sought a “new start” with the EU, after former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had aligned Israel with the pro-Israel Central European bloc known as the Visegrad Group. Lapid addressed his counterparts at the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels in July, where there was support for restoring the Association Council.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed his own desire to set ties on a new path, calling Lapid’s visit “an opportunity for a fresh start, for restarting the relationship with Israel from the point of view of our bilateral relations, but also about the situation in the Middle East.”
Lapid has also been meeting with representatives of countries that have been among Israel’s loudest critics, such as Ireland and Sweden.
Despite Lapid’s efforts, profound disagreements continue to cast a shadow over the relationship. While Borrell was waxing about a fresh start, he was sure to add that bilateral relations “are conditioned to many issues in which we have differences. And the proof is that the Association Agreement meetings have been canceled since.”
“We expect Israel to offer a political perspective to end the conflict,” he warned.
In October, the EU issued a statement criticizing Israel’s declaration that it would build over 1,300 new homes in West Bank settlements. France joined in with its own denouncement.
In December, a meeting between a senior Foreign Ministry official and a group of European diplomats quickly devolved into a shouting match over building plans in the West Bank.
A decade without the Association Council
In 1995, Israel signed an Association Agreement that defined its relationship with the EU and ratified it in 2000. It stipulates that the two sides will meet once a year, in an Association Council, to discuss matters of mutual concern. The last time the sides met was in 2012, when current Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman was foreign minister.
Israel canceled the council in 2013, when the EU angered Israel by issuing new regulations according to which no Israeli body that operates or has links beyond the Green Line can receive EU funding or have any cooperation with the European bloc.
In subsequent years, it was the European side that prevented the meetings from taking place. It was not the EU as an institution holding up councils over the years, but instead individual states, especially France.
France, and most EU countries, has expressed openness to reestablishing the meetings.
No points to gain
France’s presidency is encouraging for Israel, but change takes time in Europe, said Arie Bensemhoun, CEO of ELNET France.
“What is most important is to change the agenda at the European level. As president of the EU, Macron has this capability, has this potential, to move in the right direction in the medium and long term,” he said.
“We understand also that President Macron would also like to change the vision of the Arab-Israel conflict. He said many things that are very positive about the Abraham Acords. The question is, will he have the time to go as far as we would like him to go in the three coming months.”
But an agreement on restoring Association Council meetings is not likely.
The EU has many issues on its agenda that are far more pressing, including COVID-19, migration, Russia, and economic recovery. In order for an Association Council meeting to happen, all 27 EU foreign ministers would have to agree on an agenda, which someone would have to take the time to draft.
“Israel and the PA are not on the agenda these days,” pointed out Maya Sion-Tzidkiyahu, an expert on Israel-Europe relations at the Mitvim Institute. “The EU has so many other things to deal with that are urgent and demand a response, and since Guardian of the Walls [the flareup with Gaza terror groups in May] nothing has happened here, it’s relatively quiet. There is no peace process…. If it was possible to talk about a peace process, of course the EU would come into the picture.”
Macron, who is fighting for reelection, could have his political future riding on his handling of France’s EU leadership, which is no small task. He must guide a Europe deeply divided over, among other issues, nationalism versus integration.
The presidency got off to a bumpy start in that regard for Macron, after an EU flag was raised at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on New Year’s Eve in place of the French flag to mark the beginning of the EU Council presidency. Right-wing critics accused him of erasing France’s national identity.
Pushing ahead on an issue like Israel — highly divisive in Europe and within France — does not make much sense for Macron, even though he might personally want to.
“In France, what the president wants in foreign affairs is supposed to happen,” explained Sion-Tzidkiyahu, “but there is a foreign minister who is much more critical, as is the foreign ministry. I’m not sure that the president wants to invest his political capital at all in this.
“There aren’t points to gain here.”
What Israel can hope for in its relationship with Europe in the near future is to make the most of existing agreements like Horizon Europe.
“The EU is committed to a regular and result-oriented dialogue with Israel, which again recently led to the conclusion of the Horizon Europe agreement,” Danon, the French ambassador, told the Times of Israel. “A meeting of the Association Council would certainly generate great new prospects but requires prior consensus on its key objectives and messages. We will be working hard in the next weeks and months to obtain such consensus, in light of respective political environments.
“In the meantime, it does not prevent us from moving forward on the cooperation tracks already identified, including on bilateral EU-Israeli trade,” he said.
With France itself, modest goals are also in order.
“What Lapid can do through his relationship with Macron is that France will attack us less,” said Sion-Tzidkiyahu, “and when there is a place for criticism, it won’t lead that camp.”
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