ECI Annual Policy Conference 2019Brussels, December 7th, 2019 – The European Coalition for Israel hosted on Wednesday its Annual Policy Conference in the European Parliament in Brussels, celebrating 60 years of diplomatic relations between the European Union and the State of Israel.

Conference co-host, ECI Founding Director Tomas Sandell, reminded the audience that 60 years does not tell the whole story of the long and sometimes complicated relations between the Jewish people and Europe. “Jewish life in Europe dates back more than 2000 years, and in Israel for more than 3400 years”, he said.

He added that there could be no Europe without the influence of the Jewish people, but it is equally true that there would, humanly speaking, be no modern State of Israel if it were not for important decisions made in European cities such as Basel (1897), London (1917) and San Remo (1920). But the complicated, and sometimes tragic relationship between Europe and the Jewish people is also sadly recorded at other European locations, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Mauthausen and Theresienstadt.

Next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps and the beginning of the end of the Holocaust (Shoah). Only three years later, in 1948, Israel declared independence and in 1957 the European Community was born. Two years later diplomatic relations with Israel were established.

In his speech, ECI Director for UN Affairs, Dr. Gregory Lafitte elaborated on the important contributions which the Jewish people have made to Europe. “A central part of Jewish thinking is that we should not make a census, in order to measure our strength as a people, but rather that each one should make his or her own contribution to the common good”, he said, and added: “Whereas the Jewish people are small in numbers and the State of Israel is not a large country, their impact and contributions to Europe have been immense. Starting with the Mosaic law, Jewish thinking has laid the foundation for much of what we today call Western civilization. Today, Jewish contributions span from philosophy to technology.”

“The day all Israeli technology would be removed from Europe, our continent would come to a standstill”, said ECI Special Envoy, Dr. Andreas Kelling. “The fact of the matter is that Europe may need Israel more than Israel needs Europe, hence the EU should cherish this special relationship instead of adding restrictive conditions.”

Israeli Ambassador to the EU and NATO, Mr. Aharon Leshno-Yaar, called for the political high-level dialogue, an essential component of the EU-Israel Association Agreement, to be resumed and not be made conditional on the progress of the peace process. He warned of the consequences of the current rise of anti-Semitism which could ultimately destroy Europe and called upon all member states to action.

This call was echoed by both Katharina von Schnurbein from the European Commission and MEP Karoline Edtstadler from Austria. Edtstadler, who chairs the European Parliament working group against anti-Semitism, found the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition on anti-Semitism to be helpful in that it enables national authorities to clamp down on new forms of anti-Semitism. She found the recent parliamentary debates in France and Portugal to be important in terms of having an open discussion on the subject but was at the same time surprised and concerned over the many anti-Semitic attitudes which have been revealed in these discussions.

EU-coordinator on combatting anti-Semitism, Katharina von Schnurbein, shared about the many measures that the European Commission has taken in order to combat anti-Semitism during her four years as the EU-coordinator, but reminded the audience that it is up to the member states to implement these decisions. She also noted that she made her first public appearance as EU-coordinator at the ECI Annual Conference in 2015 and thanked ECI for the good cooperation.

The European External Action Service (EEAS), the foreign policy arm of the EU, was represented on the highest level through the Managing Director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Fernando Gentilini, who assured the audience of the importance of good relations between Europe and Israel. The EU is today Israel’s largest trade partner and Israel is part of many important EU-programs such as Horizon 2020 for research and innovation. Thanks to the EU Open Skies initiative, Israelis can today fly to 70 European destinations from the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Whereas the relations are deep and wide, he admitted that there are also political differences, but concluded that these differences are among friends, not enemies.

ECI Director for Outreach, Dr. Emilie Noteboom, gave a historical overview on EU-Israel relations over the last sixty years, noting that a major shift took place in 1973 during the Yom Kippur war and the subsequent oil embargo when the European Community adopted the Arab narrative of the conflict and became more critical of Israel. “Until then, the European countries had been predominantly pro-Israel. It is speculation, but it is plausible that the Arab pressure invited European nations to re-interpret established legal wisdom, resulting in different interpretations of their long-standing legal positions,” she said.

In his concluding remarks co-host MEP Bert-Jan Ruissen from the Netherlands painted his own future scenario of EU-Israeli relations in 2030, where he hoped that the EU and Israel would be working in an even closer partnership and where the former arch-enemy of Israel, the Islamic Republic of Iran, would finally be a democratic state.

In conjunction with the conference, MEP Charlie Weimers from Sweden hosted a reception for MEPs and international guests to celebrate the 60 years of diplomatic relations, expressing his support for stronger relations with the Jewish state.