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EU can capitalise on political change in Israel (Andrea Frontini and Zuzana Novakova)

On January 22 Israelis went to the polls to renew the composition of the Knesset, the unicameral Israeli parliament, after a governmental crisis over the state budget had led Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to call early elections in an attempt to strengthen his mandate. Most Israeli and foreign forecasts had predicted a large victory for Netanyahu's Likud party and secular nationalists Yisrael Beiteinu, anticipating a robustly right-wing ruling coalition with a socially conservative and diplomatically hawkish agenda.

The election results revealed a rather different outcome. Indeed, the unforeseen re-emergence of centrist forces, the partial resurrection of the left, and Likud's failure to attract far-right voters make life for likely-to-remain-prime minister Netanyahu more difficult than expected. To avoid too fragile a majority, he will need to come up quickly with a broad coalition to be agreed upon with Yesh Atid. While a compromise seems to have been struck already regarding the inclusion of HaBayit HaYehudi and Kadima, ongoing negotiations might lead to both Shas and Hatnuah joining the coalition. Irrespective of the final composition of the next government, the above-mentioned developments are likely to pull Netanyahu's agenda more to the centre, with far-reaching consequences for several defining internal and external challenges.

Tackling domestic socio-economic difficulties – including mounting income inequality, rising housing and commodity prices, and a widening state budget deficit – will surely be a priority for the future government. While austerity measures will need to be adopted to contain excessive public spending and inflation, Yesh Atid's presence in the coalition is likely to push Netanyahu to focus cuts on Israel's costly welfare system: and particularly on subsidies and other privileges for ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs alike. Indeed, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid's call for fairer burden-sharing is basically aimed at increasing the contribution of these sections of Israeli society to the country's economy and security, including by abolishing their exemption from the military draft. Striking a balance between Yesh Atid's pressing requests and the tenacious resistance of large portions of the country's pious population – including their political representatives in the coalition – might prove more time-consuming than expected and put Netanyahu's negotiating ability and political leadership to the test.

One longer-term internal challenge awaiting Israel's future government is the country's persisting societal polarisation. Despite the rise of centrism in Israeli politics, the election results paint a picture of a nation marked by two major cleavages: a growing dissonance between secular and religious Jewish Israelis over the relationship between the state and religion; and a persisting disconnection between Jewish and Arab Israelis about the core issue of the country's identity.

The future Israeli government will also need to address a series of demanding developments arising from the ever-changing geopolitical context. These include: the persisting paralysis of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and increased political and legal intricacies following last November's hostilities in Gaza, Palestine's upgraded status of observer at the United Nations, and Israel's unilateral decision to expand settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank; the still unresolved issue of Iran's nuclear programme and its implications for the region's security architecture; the growing political cacophony and diplomatic stalemate between Israel and its former close allies in Cairo and Ankara; and mounting instability in both Syria and Lebanon; and unprecedented dissonance with both the United States and the European Union over Netanyahu's assertive foreign and security policy. Inaugurating more constructive diplomatic action could prove to be equally challenging, though, given the differing political priorities in Netanyahu's future coalition.

Despite a persistent risk of domestic retrenchment, these developments offer external players an unexpected opportunity to capitalise on political change in Tel Aviv and encourage much-needed peace-making initiatives. In particular, the EU should give more strategic depth to its relations with Israel, which have been focused almost solely on trade and investment despite a more ambitious 2004 EU-Israel Action Plan. By strengthening its partnership with the US after President Barack Obama's re-election and the new round of appointments to both the State Department and the Pentagon, and by reaching out to like-minded regional actors such as Jordan and Qatar, the EU should aim to re-engage Israel in three inter-related areas.

Firstly, it should persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations based on pre-1967 borders by seeking the support of all pro-peace Israeli political forces, and by fostering a trustworthy and sustainable reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas. Secondly, it should pursue regional dialogue and cooperation between Israel and its neighbours, notably Egypt and Turkey, including by pushing for a more politically meaningful Union for the Mediterranean. Thirdly, it should devote much more aid and political thinking to supporting Jewish and Arab Israeli civil society actors in addressing the country's internal cleavages and in building a more integrated, pluralistic and multi-cultural society, independently of the two-state solution.

Democratic Deficit and National Elections

What must be done to tackle the democratic deficit of the European Union and bring citizens closer to the EU Institutions? Major reforms are required, alongside an overall review of the Treaties towards a stronger role for the European Parliament.

This process, however, could and will endure for many years. In the meantime, we cannot accept living in an undemocratic Europe until the great game of treaty change has come to an end. This would simply represent a wonderful gift for anti-European and neo-nationalist parties throughout the EU, feeding their hunger for power: something that we – as citizens – can no longer afford.

Enormous progress can actually be achieved independently from the process of treaty revision even at European level, for instance with the (in)direct and political election of the president of the European Commission. Many other opportunities, however, are in the hands of each individual member state and its political class. National politicians could do a lot to address the democratic deficit of the EU, if only they were willing to do so.

What follows is a simple proposal which could inspire national leaders to fight back against the neo-nationalist politicians popping up in their constituencies.

The Council, all over again?

Few people among the public at large are aware that this powerful chamber of the EU, the Council of the European Union, besides being one of the least transparent and least democratic bodies of the Union, is actually also an institution with 'variable geometry'. This is true in both directions: there is horizontal variable geometry, when the Council brings together ministers from different member countries to discuss and vote on sectoral issues. And there's vertical variable geometry, as the overwhelming majority of the negotiations (and votes) do not happen at ministerial level (ministers do not have time to spend weeks in Brussels defining details of legislation).

Most of the power of the Council stays in hands of the Permanent Representatives, who are chosen by national governments as their 'ambassadors' in Brussels and hold negotiations in Coreper, the Committee of Permanent Representatives. They negotiate national positions on all the normal legislative acts, and they seek agreements with the 'lower chamber', the European Parliament. They are the true 'upper chamber' of the Union, as national ministries, most of the time, ratify only with minor changes the agreements struck in Coreper meetings.

In contrast to members of the European Parliament, however, most of the Permanent Representatives (or ambassadors) have never faced a popular vote. They are selected by their national government as purely as an expression of the national interest, and they cannot be held accountable to the electorate for their decisions. In other words, Coreper is an essential institution of the current set-up of the EU, but is also one of the main sources of democratic deficit. How can this essential issue be addressed without harming the working machine of the EU?

It’s as easy as it seems!

The solution to this is elegantly simple and does not require any stressful European Summit for it to be agreed upon. Moreover, it would make happy thousands of national MPs all over the Union, if national parliaments are indeed desperately seeking a role in the decision-making process of the European Union which none of the current procedures would ever provide.

The idea is simple: at each new national election, let national parliaments elect, within the ranks of the government majority, the Permanent Representatives. There is no need for coordination here: a single national government could act independently in initiating this new procedure for democratising the Council when they consider it more appropriate. Some would maybe never do that, and they will be accountable for that to their citizens. But others will, increasing the role of parliaments and of citizens in the daily management of European affairs. The position could simply be renewed at each national election: over time, citizens will learn that voting for the national parliament does matter for Europe. and, again, it must be stressed that no treaty change or comprehensive agreement is needed: national governments will independently decide on the issue.

In the long run, the Council would become, progressively, a real Chamber of Nations, rightfully counter-balancing the Chamber of the Union. Democracy has subtle ways of proceeding when great constitutional agreements are missing, and the 'parliamentarisation' of the Council would surely be one of them, a small step forward in European integration that would strike a deadly blow to the (true) foundations of the resurgent neo-nationalist rhetoric. The Union, its member states with their parliaments, and most of all, citizens, would greatly benefit from such a change.

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