EU commissioner pledges stronger co-operation with Israel

Tensions continue over EU research funding

Shimon Peres, who met European Commission vice-president Antonio Tajani today. Photograph: Gali Tibbon/Reuters

Shimon Peres, who met European Commission vice-president Antonio Tajani today. Photograph: Gali Tibbon/Reuters


European Commission vice-president Antonio Tajani pledged today to strengthen industrial co-operation between the European Union and Israel, despite continuing tensions over European research funding which threatens to undermine diplomatic ties between the two blocs.

“We want to work with Israel today and tomorrow,” Commissioner Tajani said ahead of a meeting with Israeli president Shimon Peres as part of a two-day EU enterprise trip to Israel. “It is one of the most important partners for the European economy.”

Earlier, Israel’s minister of economy Naftali Bennett described the EU proposals, which prohibit the disbursement of EU funding to research projects linked to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, as “unacceptable”.

Negotiations have been ongoing between Israel and the EU since July, when Brussels announced new guidelines that will oblige Israeli researchers in receipt of EU research money to declare that the funds will not be used for projects in Israeli settlements. While current rules stipulate that only Israeli universities and companies registered within pre- 1967 borders qualify for funding, for the first time Israeli funding recipients will be obliged to make a written declaration to this effect. It follows suggestions that some Israeli companies were exploiting loopholes in the agreement, after a Jerusalem-headquartered company, Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories, allegedly used some of the money it received from Europe in a factory located in the occupied territories.

The new rules will form part of the next EU funding round, known as Horizon 2020, which falls under the control of Ireland’s commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the EU commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation. The European Union is Israel’s largest single source of public research funding, with Israel receiving and contributing to EU research programmes since 1996.

Commissioner Tajani said today that his visit was sending a “strong political message,” to Israel that Europe wanted to partner with Israel.

A third round of diplomatic discussions between the two sides are expected to commence within the coming weeks, with both sides under pressure to secure an agreement before Horizon 2020’s start date in January. While Israel could join the programme at a later date, in reality certainty regarding the EU’s funding stream is needed for Israeli researchers to draw down funding from other sources.

Earlier this week,the president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Professor Ruth Arnon urged warned prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to sign the Horizon 2020 agreement, claiming that failure to do so would do “irreversible damage to Israeli science in particular and to the state in general”.

Some 65 European businesses accompanied Commissioner Tajani, the EU Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry, on the two-day trade trip which aimed to foster industrial and business links between Europe and Israel. Europe is Israel’s largest trading partner, with approximately 27 per cent of Israel’s exports going to the European Union. .

A number of bilateral arrangements were agreed between the EU and Israel during the two-day enterprise trip, including a “letter of intent” on industrial cooperation and Small and Medium Enterprises, and a Global Navigation Satellite System agreement between the EU and the Israel Space Agency.