On Feb. 1, 2020, Britain left the European Union. It wasn’t the first to do so – that honour (or calamitous decision, depending on how you feel about Brexit) went to Greenland. It left what was then called the EEC in 1985.
But with all due respect to Greenland, Britain is a much bigger fish, economically and politically. It was a major and important member of the European Union.
From my perspective as a director of a pro-Israel Jewish advocacy group operating at the heart of the EU institutions, Brexit was a big, big deal at the time. Many questioned if the EU could withstand such a blow, or whether it was the beginning of wave of countries peeling away.
And today? After COVID and the war in Ukraine, Brexit is yesterday’s news. The EU continues to lurch from crisis to crisis but endures. The single currency, on paper and against all logic, survives. As Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, said in 2012, the Euro is like a bumblebee: It shouldn’t fly – and yet it does.
But what of another fluttering thing that also continues to defy the odds, the Union Jack? A smaller symbol of United Kingdom, PM Boris Johnson, one of the architects of Brexit, has been ousted. The battle to succeed him is between two names that are hardly on the tips of anybody’s tongue, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and current Foreign Minister Liz Truss. We should know the result on Sept. 5.
But honestly, in the grand scheme of things does it really matter? From Brussels, watching the Tory leadership contest feels a bit like waiting on the announcement of who the next James Bond will be. Not only because, while it is of interest, it will have little impact on your life, but also because Bond is representative of a Britain that no longer really exists – of rule Britannia, of empire, of central importance and stature. Sure, the suit is sharp, the car is sexy and the martini is still shaken and not stirred, but in the cold light of day, it feels, well, nostalgic.
As advocates for Israel and for Jewish interests, do we still seek out British approval and help on initiatives? Yes, of course, we seek allies wherever we can get them. But looking at recent history, the UK-Israel relationship has been and remains a rollercoaster ride with as many highs as lows: From the conflict during the British Mandate to good relations during the Suez Crisis. In the ’60s, Britain was seen as mostly pro-Arab. The ’80s were not much better, with Britain imposing an arms embargo on Israel during the 1982 Lebanon war.
But since then, things have been on the up again. Relations are strong, a majority of British parliamentarians are pro-Israel (over the last couple of years the British Government began efforts to outlaw the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement’s efforts to impose systematic discrimination against Israel in the UK) and this July, unshackled by EU rules, Britain announced that it is actively pursuing a free trade agreement with Israel.
Of course, all that could have changed dramatically if hard-left former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn had won the 2019 election, but since his ouster, major policy alterations with respect to Israel now look much less likely even if current Labour leader Keir Starmer were to win the next election.
On the whole, it is clear that, as advocates, we lost a good, solid and largely dependable pro-Israel voice within European institutions as a result of Brexit. But as Ian Fleming himself presciently wrote, “history is moving pretty quickly these days, and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”
So, who are today’s heroes from a Brussels-based, pro-Israel perspective? The Visegrad group of countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), and the Baltic states. Since Brexit, their voices have become louder in the European Council, Parliament and Commission. Britain’s departure showed cracks in the old established power blocs, and these smaller nations are now the cement keeping the EU together.
As these countries enjoy a by and large excellent relationship with Israel, so their fortifying role can only be good news for Jewish advocates like myself, and we already enjoy a deeper and more co-operative relationship with them at the Permanent Representative and EU institutional level. When it comes to the EU, size doesn’t matter: Latvia’s veto and voice on foreign affairs is as meaningful as France’s.
The truth is, in my line of work, the adage of a week being a long time in politics is true. When Britain left the EU playing field, we didn’t have any other choice than to adapt quickly.
Can Britain take its place at the global casino table of European politics again?
In “Skyfall”, James Bond says “everybody needs a hobby.” When Raoul Silva asks in response: “What’s yours?” Bond replies: “Resurrection”.
This not a word that resonates with many Jews – so here in Brussels, we won’t be holding our breath for a British resurgence.