JERUSALEM Israel has a closer relationship with the European Union than official EU-membership candidate Croatia, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Wednesday.
"Israel is, allow me to say, a member of the European Union without being a member of the institutions," he said to warm applause from a conference of business and political leaders in Jerusalem. "It's a member of all the programs..."
"No country outside the continent has the type of relations Israel has with the European Union," Solana added, emphasizing Israel's participation in EU research and technology programs.
"I don't see the president of Croatia here," Solana said, looking out over the audience.
"But I have to tell you, now that he is not here, -- he is a candidate to be part of the European Union -- that your relation today with the European Union is stronger than the relation of Croatia."
"Don't tell him that," Solana added.
Croatian President Stjepan Mesic was visiting Israel this week and was due to address the 2009 Israeli Presidential Conference later in the day.
His country is an official EU membership candidate. It is first in a queue of five Balkan hopefuls seeking a place in the European Union and could join in 2012.
EU membership is Croatia's highest priority. It is trying to complete entry talks and join the block as quickly as possible, hoping the common market will boost its developing economy and living standards.
Israel takes an active part in many EU programs and EU membership is favored by some in power. But the country has never made a formal bid to join the 27-member EU.
(Additional reporting by Igor Ilic in Zagreb)