Cuts to EU populists will affect us in a big, big way

Among the cacophony of sirens from southern Israel, the Trump circus and Brexit, it is all too easy to lose sight of hugely significant developments that pass under the radar. Today is such a day.

A few of you (hello my dear fellow European Union-watching geeks, we are the equivalent of train-spotters in the pantheon of cool) will have seen the news that the EU is to spend more of the bloc’s money on Italy and other southern states hit by the economic and migration crises, while giving less to the ‘Visegrad Four’ countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia).

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You may wonder what any of the above has to do with Israel and Jews. Trust me, this is the most significant development in Europe for us in a very, very long time.

I would argue that it’s way bigger – and its effects more far reaching – than Brexit, although it won’t make the big headlines. Let me say, too, that I’m no conspiracy theorist, no whack-job Breitbart-Bannon acolyte. I’m just a very boring middle-aged man. So bear with me.

Structural funding – that is, the money given to each EU Member State – is the glue holding the EU together. Everyone chips in, and the poorer countries get something out. Any Eastern or Central European country is largely dependent on this. On your way to or from an airport there, look at any road, public building or infrastructure project and chances are you will see a small EU flag on it. That’s structural or cohesion funds.

The Visegrad Four have been clear on migration: “We don’t want quotas and we don’t want to be told how we should be doing things on migration.” Elections have given power to populist forces, dubbed “illiberal democracies” by some, or much better, as “defective democracies” by Jan-Werner Müller, the author of the excellent book What is Populism? The Princeton professor is quite right when he says that “defective” is a better descriptor as many would wear the “illiberal” badge with pride.

The 23% cut in real terms to Poland is particularly significant. The cut will hurt the countryside where the Law and Justice Party command the largest support. They will not take it lying down.

IN SHORT, two things are likely to happen as a consequence of this not lying down across the Visegrad Four: First, as populists who use the self-proclaimed mantle of ordinary people railing against a liberal out-of-touch elite, they will just repeat this accusation. Second, they won’t budge on immigration (after all, it’s what got them so much success at the ballot box), and will say that they won’t be sanctioned for “protecting their people” from the great unwashed hordes who seek to undermine Judeo-Christian values (with particular emphasis on the Christian).

So this move, this funding cut, effectively puts Europe into two blocs now: 1) the “mainstream,” who will toe the Berlin-Paris line, and 2) others, who rather like the British on Brexit, want all the benefits without having to swallow the pain and electoral fallout of migrant quotas.

OK, so how does this affect us? First, thanks for sticking with me. Now, to answer your question. It so happens that the Visegrad countries are also some of the biggest supporters of Israel. On the flip side of that coin – Jewish affairs – there will be nationalistic push-back that may impact further upon other religions, particularly Islam. We may get caught in the crossfire as attacks on ritual slaughter, dress and circumcision step up a gear.

That’s why the context is important, because it will have a big, big effect on us.

Let’s deal for a second with Israel and, for example, embassy moves: The “mainstream” will say the other countries’ attitudes and willingness to break with the consensus on Israel and Jerusalem is just further proof of them being outside the pale. My primary concern as an advocate for Israel and Jewish affairs is simple: We have many friends in the “Four,” and their voices from now on can be discounted as being outside of the “norm,” meaning the mainstream can belittle them and their political weight. Second, and directly related to it, will these countries now use the issue (and conversely, us) precisely to that effect, to drive a wedge into this normative EU foreign policy? On Jewish affairs, the move by the EU largely cuts off the Visegrad Four and gives the countries freedom to proceed as they wish when it comes to domestic policies. The EU took the easy route of just cutting the money without addressing the problem, or root causes of this populist sentiment. The response will just be deeper entrenchment and more populist policies. That potentially means more antisemitism, and more laws to feed the ravenous nationalistic/populist narrative.

So, that’s my take. As I say, to me this is deeply significant for Israel and Jewish advocates everywhere. Many of us, and I really hope the Knesset, need to think, and think hard about how we position ourselves in light of what is looking like a deteriorating situation in the EU as a whole. Oh, and I didn’t even get started on Italy.

The writer is the director of EIPA: Europe Israel Public Affairs, a multi-disciplined pro-Israel advocacy Group based in Brussels, with offices in Paris and Berlin.