Why EU guidelines on Israeli settlements are welcome

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Anti-occupation protest, Hebron. [ISM Palestine/Flickr]

EU guidelines on the “indication of origin of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967” are a long overdue step forward, writes MEP Alyn Smith.

Alyn Smith is a Scottish, SNP member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament. You can follow him on Twitter @AlynSmithMEP, or visit his website, www.alynsmith.eu

I grudgingly welcome the EU guidelines on settlement produce as a step forward to ensure the EU enforces international law and does not entirely fall complicit in Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories. The question why we tolerate the importation of goods from illegally occupied land at all is, presumably, a little closer to being answered. But in the meantime, forcing them to be accurately labelled is a good start, and I welcome it.

Getting this small step forward was hard fought. It is clear European consumers want more clarity and transparency on the produce they buy, and do not want to buy from illegal Israeli settlements.

It is equally clear that while these guidelines will have limited economic impact, they will underline to the Israelis that the EU is finally starting to get serious. It is the impact these measures will have on Israeli opinion where they can do the most good, and I note that both Israelis and Palestinians supporting peace have welcomed the EU efforts. The public endorsement from over 550 Israeli figures, such as former Speaker of the Knesset and Chairman of the Jewish Agency Avraham Burg, Israeli Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, and former Israeli Ambassador Elie Barnavi, underlines that voices of progress within Israel do not regard this as unhelpful.

However I believe we can and should do much more. This Tuesday (10 November) in the Foreign Affairs Committee I told the EU Special Envoy to the Middle East Peace Process, Fernando Gentilini, that EU guidelines needed to be improved to prevent EU-based companies from issuing bank loans and mortgages to Israeli settlements, that we should not recognise qualifications earned in settlement-based institutions, and we should end the tax-exempt status of European charities that deal with Israeli settlements.

To put it in a nutshell, EU guidelines should not only be improved, but extended to cover all commercial dealings with illegal settlements. Not just goods, but also services.

It is not that we cannot act. We saw the EU was quick enough to act when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, yet the EU has, thus far, chosen not to. The fact I welcome these guidelines on labeling of illegal produce shows just how slow the EU’s actions have been when it comes to Israel.

To be clear, the EU guidelines are a reminder that we recognize Israel’s right to exist and that it has a right to expect security within its own borders. But as I said to EU Foreign Policy High Representative Federica Mogherini before, this does not give Israel a right to illegally occupy Palestinian land or allow settlers to illegally occupy Palestinian land and exploit it for their profit.

As my constituents in Scotland remind me, European consumers are most often not informed that the products they buy come from illegal Israeli settlements, exporting nothing less than cosmetics, fresh fruit and vegetables, wine, poultry, honey, olive oil, beef, veal, swine, sheep and goats to name but a few examples. We are complicit in Israel’s policy of land grabbing, the economic development of Israel’s settlements, and all of the consequences that derive from the daily occupation of 4.5 million Palestinians.

Much remains to be done, and the European Court of Justice will have to enforce EU law in light of the recent guidelines, which state that “[EU] Member States must ensure that penalties for infringements of provisions of Union law are effective, proportionate and dissuasive.” Although Denmark, Belgium and others have already started to request strict transparency rules for illegal settlement products, the EU decision is welcome as it states explicitly that “the indication ‘product from Israel’ is considered to be incorrect and misleading in EU legislation”, if coming from Israeli occupied territories.

That is to say that the EU needs to treat both sides on an equal footing. The Palestinian Authority has recognised Israel’s right to exist on 78% of historic Palestine, and it has chosen the path of peaceful struggle for the past twenty-three years, yet the EU has done too little to prevent the disaster that are the Israeli settlements today. In my last trip to Ramallah the Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister told me he feared there would be no prospect for a viable Palestinian state if the settlements continued – indeed from 200,000 Israeli settlers in 1993, consistent Israeli subsidies have managed to increase the settlers threefold to 600,000 now. That is how much the settlements are a threat to peace.

Will I be satisfied if I see that European retails import products from Israeli settlements and add -as it is still legal- that those products come from “West Bank (Israeli settlement)”? No, I will not, that is why I have called on the EU not to accept illegal products, as in Crimea’s case. But transparency will at least allow our citizens to see what they are offered, make choices accordingly and, perhaps, ask why the EU is allowing such breathtaking double standards in the first place. We have seen a small step forward today but we still have a long way to go.

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