Later this month the European Parliament will vote on whether it should approve the latest in a series of agreements designed to boost trade between the EU and Israel.
Supporters of the Agreement on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (ACAA) — as the deal is known — present it as a purely technical measure. They even argue that because it is focused on pharmaceutical goods, the agreement will improve access to medicines and benefit our health (“Stuck at the border,” European Voice, 26 April 2012). These arguments are highly misleading.
Once it enters into force, ACAA would give quality checks on manufactured goods carried out by the Israeli authorities the same status as similar checks carried out within the European Union. In 2009, the European Commission stated that implementing the agreement would mark the first step towards integrating Israel into the EU’s single market. Despite being limited initially to pharmaceuticals, the agreement could be extended to cover other goods. So far from being technical, it is inherently political. The human rights organizations campaigning against ACAA have grasped this point.
The ACAA vote will follow an important decision taken when EU representatives met Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, in July. Under that decision, work will be undertaken on about 60 different dossiers to strengthen relations between the EU and Israel. The issues involved range from agriculture to police cooperation (“EU move to upgrade relations with Israel,” The Guardian, 23 July 2012).
The July decision was taken despite how an earlier move to upgrade relations was “frozen” after Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s all-out attack on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.
Human rights central?
Respect for human rights is supposed to be central to everything that the European Union does, especially in the area of foreign policy. The EU’s Lisbon treaty, which came into force in 2009, states unequivocally that there must be coherence between the Union’s foreign policies and its activities in other areas, including trade.
The Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq recently launched a campaign to mark an anniversary which fills us with sadness: Israel’s wall in the West Bank is 10 years old and so is the burden of the human rights violations which have resulted from its construction. In its advisory opinion of 9 July 2004, the International Court of Justice confirmed that the construction of the wall and the establishment of Israeli settlements in the territories occupied in 1967 are illegal under international law.
So what are the political consequences for Israel? There have been none. The work on constructing the wall and the settlements continues, and countless companies, not only in Israel, are making a profit from it. The Coalition of Women for Peace — an alliance of Palestinian and Israeli activists — has compiled a list of companies and corporations which are profiting from these activities.
The bitter truth
Earlier this year, the peace advocacy group Pax Christi launched its “Occupation tastes bitter” initiative to publicize the trade preferences illegally granted to products originating in Israeli settlements and being imported into the EU. Goods made in the illegal settlements are also imported into Europe under the label “Made in Israel.”
Since the end of 2005, Israeli goods imported into Europe have theoretically been subject to an informal “technical arrangement.” As part of the arrangement, all goods officially described as “Made in Israel” are supposed to be accompanied by papers indicating a place of production with an accompanying postcode. This should enable the customs authorities to ensure that goods produced in the settlements do not benefit from the low trade taxes levied on goods produced within Israel’s internationally recognized boundaries.
In its judgment of 25 February 2010, the European Court of Justice ruled that such an approach by the European customs authorities is lawful and that the EU’s preferential tariff arrangements do not apply to products originating in illegal settlements. Pax Christi is calling for a labelling requirement for settlement products so that consumers can decide whether or not they wish to purchase products from illegal settlements (“Pax Christi, German section, demands unambiguous labelling of products from Israeli settlements,” 31 May 2012 [PDF]).
A labelling requirement has been in place in the United Kingdom since 2009 and was recently introduced in Denmark and South Africa. The Swiss supermarket chain Migros plans to label settlement products as such from summer 2013. The European Union has now compiled a long list of postcodes of all production sites not entitled to benefit from the preferential tariffs (“Clarification on the notice issued to EU importers,” Delegation of the European Union to Israel, 12 August 2012).
One problem could persist, however. Some companies with sites both in Israel and in the occupied West Bank have been labelling their settlement products with the postcode of their site in Israel itself, in a bid to outwit the system, according to the Israeli political scientist Neve Gordon. Around 136 Israeli companies produce goods in the West Bank, and 96 of them reportedly have a headquarters inside Israel (“South Africa: what’s in a label,” Al Jazeera, 13 June 2012) .
Germany’s astonishing claims
The German government has recently responded to our queries on this issue by saying there is no legal reason why settlement products cannot be labelled as such.
Also responding to our queries, the government has stated that it does not consider that Israel is violating the EU-Israel association agreement. In place for 12 years now, that agreement emphasizes that any benefits conferred on Israel are conditional on respect for human rights.
Considering the well-documented human rights violations for which Israel bears responsibility, the German government’s conclusion is truly astonishing. Chancellor Angela Merkel herself has repeatedly criticized the construction of settlements on the grounds that they violate international law.
As signatories of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the EU’s member states have an obligation to ensure that international humanitarian law is respected. Dating from 1949, the convention forbids an occupying power from transferring its own civilian population into the territory it occupies. By definition, then, Israeli settlements in the West Bank are unlawful.
With their tacit acceptance of illegal practices, including the construction of settlements, EU governments and institutions are failing to honor their own obligations under international law.
Sadly, there appears to be no change to the EU’s Realpolitik in the region, which is motivated primarily by the EU’s own economic interests. The German government recently became a talking point once again with its sales of submarines and tanks to the region. This does nothing to enhance its credibility. It’s hardly surprising that Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations are disillusioned with European policy.
The EU’s relations with the Middle East as a whole must be placed on a new footing. That process is well overdue and must include turning respect for human rights into practical action.
In late August, the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton appointed Stavros Lambrinidis, formerly the Greek foreign minister, as the Union’s “special representative” for human rights. Taking up his new role, Lambrinidis stated that human rights must guide the EU’s activities in all policy areas, including trade (“‘Double standards’ no reason not to talk about human rights, says new envoy,” EU Observer, 4 September 2012).
Does this represent a new course of action for the EU? If so, one of the first tests will come when the European Parliament votes on deepening trade relations with Israel this month. It is vital that the opportunity be seized in order to demonstrate that Europe is serious about defending human rights.
Annette Groth is a member of parliament for Germany’s Left Party (Die Linke). Her website is www.groth.die-linke-bw.de. Tanja Tabbara is her advisor on human rights and the Middle East.