EU´s New Guidelines on Israel – Not about money, but about politics European Union, 2013
Shimon Peres and José Manuel Barroso (from left to right)

“An earthquake”, according to an Israeli official. On Friday 19th of July 2013, the EU published new guidelines that ban EU funding for organizations, companies and groups based on Palestinian territory occupied by Israel. Under the guidelines, which will come into force during the next EU financial framework (2014-2020), any Israeli entity seeking to obtain funds from any EU agency will have to submit a declaration that it has no direct or indirect ties to the occupied territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. Furthermore, the directive covers all areas of funding: economic, science, culture, sports and academia.

Outrage in Israel

The decision provoked fuming reactions from Israel´s major policy-makers. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibbi” Netanyahu declared: “we will not accept any external dictates regarding our borders. This issue will be determined only in direct negotiation between the sides”. He then added that EU´s foreign policy should rather stress on “problems that are slightly more urgent in the region, like the civil war in Syria, or Iran's race to obtain a nuclear weapon.”

Additionally, Israel´s finance Minister Yair Lapid published, on Saturday 20th of July, an Op-Ed in the New York Times and frankly criticized EU´s latest controversial decision. To believe his words, the guidelines would do nothing but delay US efforts (led by John Kerry, the US incumbent Secretary of State) to resume the peace negotiations with Palestine – at they would prove to Palestinian extremist groups that they can obtain what they want without sitting at the negotiation table.

He writes: “the well-intentioned but misguided folks in Brussels who do not appreciate the nuances of our region. In one fell swoop, they have emboldened the extremists, allowing them to triumphantly claim to Mr. Abbas. “You see, we were right all along. You must not negotiate. We don’t have to do anything. The international community will do our job for us.” Why such an outrage?

Earthquake? Hardly an expected and tiny tremble…

However, despite those heavy-loaded words, the EU´s new guidelines are hardly a surprise. They are mostly codifying an agreement reached by EU member states last December. In a blog post, Sweden´s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt marks “The EU decision in itself was hardly sensational - it was a formalization of a position we have expressed with great clarity for a very long time” (Blog post in Swedish: here).

Besides, the EU decision will have a limited impact. In fact, the new guidelines apply only for EU funding, and not for the funding received from EU´s 28 member states. 

Just to detail some figures about EU funding to Israel - under the current budget period, the EU-Israeli cooperation program distributed about 800 million Euro to Israel among which less than 0,5% would have been affected if the guidelines had come into force earlier.

So, if the deal is not about money, what is it about?

EU Foreign Policy in the Making

The Israeli outrage is slightly a reaction to the EU´s novel move in foreign policy matters. As I wrote before, foreign policy is still an area where EU member states show diversity rather than unity. They tend to be unable to come up with robust common statements when responding to new developments throughout the world. Since 2009, Catherine Ashton – the Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security – has repeatedly “regretted” Israel’s continuous settlement building but never openly condemned it as EU member states were split on the question.

But this time, according to Daniel Levy – a Middle-East analyst at the European Council of Foreign Relations – the EU member states seem to have learned that unity means strength in the international area. Levy claims that after years of criticizing Israeli settlement activity, EU was putting “its policy where its mouth is. The EU “ have become convinced that they need to lean in a little in demonstrating that they are not totally toothless in translating those concerns into action.”

That´s why the deal is, as Rosa Balfour – a senior analyst at the European Policy Center, based in Brussels “about politics”.

The EU new guidelines can consequently be described as a promise of positive change concerning the making of the EU Common External Policy. Will this promise be broken as it has been before?

Edited by: Ana Postolache