Why is EU citizens’ watchdog shielding Israel from scrutiny?

Emily O’Reilly is failing to ensure transparency over the EU’s relations with Israel. (European Union) 

An unwritten rule for Irish emigrants is that we must don the green jersey.

The rule does not really relate to clothing; the jersey is rather a metaphor for how we are supposed to behave.

Whatever differences of opinion we had at home are assumed to vanish once we step off a plane in a foreign land. While abroad, our task is to cheer each other on. Talking down hard-working compatriots is forbidden.

It is a rule that I encountered soon after moving from Dublin to Brussels nearly 25 years ago. And it is a rule that I have long rejected.

In that spirit of rejection, I wish to denounce the only Irish person now heading a European Union institution.

Emily O’Reilly, the EU’s ombudsman, has carved out a reputation as a champion of transparency.

Describing herself as a watchdog on behalf of citizens, she has been willing to challenge the “jobs for the boys” culture in the Brussels bureaucracy, as well as the unhealthily close ties between policymakers and corporate lobbyists.

“Climate of trust”

For some reason, O’Reilly’s courage deserted her when she was asked to address Europe’s links with Israel.

Using a freedom of information law, I recently sought access to briefing papers on relations with Israel that were prepared for the EU’s foreign policy team in 2007 and 2008. I chose that period as there was considerable discussion during it about a possible “upgrade” of EU-Israel relations.

When my request for the documents was refused by the EU’s diplomatic service, I submitted a complaint to O’Reilly.

To her shame, O’Reilly sided with the diplomats.

She argued that the diplomatic service was “justified” in refusing me the documents I had sought. A clause in the EU’s freedom of information law allows documents to be withheld, she noted, if they concern international relations.

O’Reilly accepted that the clause comes into play without asking questions about why it should.

She claimed that it was “reasonable” for the diplomats to claim that releasing the documents would “negatively affect the climate of trust between the EU and Israel.”

Why is preserving that “climate of trust” reasonable?

Israel epitomizes an apartheid state, as defined by the United Nations – a state where one ethnic or racial group dominates over another.

The Nation-State Law – approved by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, last year – enshrines such domination in quasi-constitutional legislation. Yet the domination was already in place for decades before that law was drafted.

The European Union’s core rulebook, by contrast, lists equality of citizens and respect for human rights as fundamental “values.”

If those “values” mean anything, then there should be no climate of trust between the EU and Israel. Any dealings they have should be restricted to the EU protesting against the oppression of Palestinians and demanding that it end.

Litmus test

The exemption for international relations in the EU’s freedom of information law is at odds with the accord covering its relations with Israel.

That association agreement – as it is known – stipulates that human rights and democratic principles are “essential elements” of the relationship.

The only way of assessing whether this legally binding requirement is being taken seriously is through full transparency. Journalists, human rights workers and others must have access to all material relevant to the EU’s interactions with Israel.

The human rights clause in the association agreement must, therefore, be accorded greater weight than the exemption for international relations in the EU’s freedom of information law. As Israel abuses the basic rights of Palestinians every minute of every day, it does not merit protection from the European Union or anyone else.

I made this argument in my complaint to O’Reilly.

Her decision – published below – only refers to the argument in passing. No explicit mention is made of how the EU-Israel relationship is supposed to be based on human rights.

The omission is telling. O’Reilly’s job is to oversee if the EU is being properly administered. Yet in this case, she will not examine if a deal underpinning the Union’s embrace of an apartheid state is being implemented in the way it is supposed to be.

I used to respect O’Reilly. In her previous career as a journalist, she broke a 1984 story that disturbed and politicized me and countless others.

It described how Ann Lovett, a 15-year-old from a small Irish town became pregnant at a time when teenage pregnancy was a taboo subject. Keeping her pregnancy secret, Ann gave birth to a stillborn baby in a grotto and died herself soon afterward.

The story exposed the toxic effects that conservatism can have.

O’Reilly would probably still regard herself as progressive.

A litmus test for whether EU representatives are truly progressive is if they are prepared to hold Israel accountable.

O’Reilly has flunked that test. She is the watchdog who shields Israel from scrutiny.




This decision and its subsequent endorsement by O'Reilly underscore the unique position Israel has obtained globally. Elites and elite institutions everywhere are prepared to suspend the rules when it comes to Israel, even as they sanction and boycott numerous other states with little or no debate. We have to ask ourselves, what is it about Israel that elicits this unquestioning support? Can it be that as a technologically advanced quasi-fascist ethnocracy Israel represents a model to be adapted for use more widely in the coming age of capitalist collapse, mass migration and wholesale repression? How else to explain this warm stream of sympathy for so cold and ruthless a social experiment?