WASHINGTON, May 21 (UPI) -- The visiting delegation from the European Union was startled this week when Israel Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said his government was weighing an application to join the EU.
"It doesn't mean he is preparing the dossier for applying tomorrow," an Israeli spokesman said. "In principle, the minister thinks a possibility exists for Israel to join the EU, since Israel and Europe share similar economies and democratic values."
Shalom broached the subject Tuesday, but there is no immediate prospect of this happening, since under EU rules, new members must have no outstanding border disagreements with their neighbors. The incoming new members from Eastern Europe, particularly Hungary and Romania, had to resolve long-standing disputes to clear their path for entry.
But if and when Israel does achieve a peace settlement with Syria and Lebanon and the Palestinians (it already has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan), Israeli membership could make a great deal of sense for Israel and the EU alike.
The EU is already deeply, indeed inextricably involved in the Middle East, and not just as a member of "the Quartet" of the United States, EU, Russia and the United Nations that have jointly drawn up the "road map" to a peace agreement. The EU is one of the main customers for Middle Eastern energy exports, and under the Barcelona Agreement, has forged a series of trade and cooperation agreements with the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea.
Turkey, a strategic Middle East player and an Islamic though legally secular country, has been formally accepted as an EU candidate member. North African Arabs now account for 10 percent of France's population, and the French and British colonial heritage in the Middle East gives them strong links to the region.
For Israel, EU membership would mean an end to the regional isolation it suffers, and a strong security guarantee, along with all the economic advantages of the vast EU market. Joining the EU would presumably mean joining the euro, shielding Israel from the kinds of currency crises that have hit the shekel since the intifada battered its important tourism industry.
For the EU, Israel's impressive high-tech industry could be useful, but any economic advantages to Israeli membership would have to be balanced against the wider political costs to the EU, unless the Jewish state's relationship with its Arab neighbors is transformed. Even then, those European countries like France that already sneer at Britain as "America's Trojan horse" (and the German media that sneers at Poland as "America's Trojan donkey") might hesitate before admitting another such pro-American member.
There are voices in the EU that support the idea, including one member of the EU Parliament delegation that was told of Israel's deliberations Tuesday evening.
Marco Pannella, an Italian member of the European Parliament and president of the Transnational Radical Party, is promoting the initiative. He told reporters in Israel that while support was growing in the European Parliament for Israel to join the EU it could take "up to a decade" to complete the process.
The EU and Israel already have a formal Cooperation Agreement, ratified by the Knesset, Israel's parliament, three years ago. Its provisions include regular political dialogue, liberalization of trade in goods and services, the free movement of capital and competition rules, the strengthening of economic cooperation on the widest possible basis and cooperation on social and cultural matters. (Israel has long taken part, for example, in the annual Eurovision Song Contest.)
One possible motive for the Israeli foreign minister's announcement is to repair the difficult relations with the EU, repeatedly accused by Israeli officials and ministers of being partial toward the Palestinians. Israeli diplomats also noted that the initiative shows Israel's commitment to peace.
The Israeli foreign minister's statement also coincided with a report by the Washington-based Cato Institute think tank, which suggested an important geopolitical aspect to Israeli membership.
"Signaling to the Israelis and the Palestinians that a peaceful resolution to their conflict could be a ticket for admission into the EU, would be more than just enticing them with economic rewards," the Cato report said. "Conditioning Israel's entry into the EU on its agreement to withdraw from the occupied territories and dismantle the Jewish settlements there, would strengthen the hands of those Israelis who envision their state not as a militarized Jewish ghetto but as a Westernized liberal community."