Berlusconi charms Israel with EU talk
Silvio Berlusconi is seldom shy about making headlines, and he’s also known to turn on the charm when he meets foreign leaders.
So it was hardly surprising the Italian prime minister kicked off a three-day visit to Israel on Monday by declaring his hope that Israel might one day become a member of the European Union.
“My greatest dream, a
s long as I am a mover and shaker in politics, is to welcome Israel as one of the European Union’s member states,” the 73-year-old billionaire announced to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who went on to praise the shared Judeo-Christian roots of Rome and Jerusalem.
While Berlusconi’s comments made headlines, at least in Israel and Italy, it’s not the first time he’s laid out such an ambition — he said almost exactly the same thing during a visit to Croatia in January 2003, when he backed Zagreb’s bid to join the EU and said he hoped Israel, Turkey, Ukraine and Moldova would follow.
Expressing such a hope is an easy thing for Berlusconi to say and makes him look generous towards his hosts. But he also knows that Israeli EU membership is extremely unlikely any time soon, not only because of opposition among existing EU member states, but because there’s not enormous enthusiasm on Israel’s part either.
Half a dozen countries are already in preliminary or more advanced discussions with Brussels about joining the 27-nation bloc, including Iceland, Albania, Serbia, Turkey and Croatia. But even among those candidates, most of whom are geographically far closer to Europe than Israel, there is scant enthusiasm among many member states for further enlargement, especially when it comes to Turkey, a majority Muslim country that is regarded by some as lacking core Christian-European values.
Israel, with its hot technology sector and rapidly expanding economy, might make a strong economic partner for the EU, but member states that have concerns about Turkey’s membership are likely to have similar concerns about Israel, a Jewish state that remains a long way from reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Israel is aware of that, and also knows that many of the benefits of the European Union can be enjoyed without having to go through the heartache and strictures required to become a fully-fledged member. Israel is already a participant in the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy, is a member of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, and enjoys favourable EU trade terms via an association agreement that came into force in 2000.
Closer EU ties, particularly on trade and economic issues, would always be welcome, but full EU membership, involving the surrendering of some of Israel’s hard-fought-for sovereignty and giving up the shekel for the euro, remains far too much of a reach. Joining the OECD is an Israeli priority, but Berlusconi’s dreams are very unlikely to become a reality.