The European Union has been forced this month to register a European Citizens’ Initiative that seeks to block trade with settlements in occupied territories.
The measure could potentially close off the lucrative access to EU markets enjoyed by businesses operating in Israeli colonial settlements built on Palestinian land in violation of international law.
This comes after the Commission – the EU’s executive body – suffered a legal defeat earlier this year.
European Citizens’ Initiatives are supposed to provide a mechanism for ordinary people to influence the policy and legislative agenda of the notoriously undemocratic and opaque Brussels bureaucracy.
In 2019, seven nationals of EU states filed an initiative seeking to stop settlement trade which helps fuel Israeli colonization and contributes to massive violations of Palestinian human rights.
But the Commission rejected the initiative, claiming that it did not have authority to consider what would amount to imposing sanctions. It argued that only member governments could decide on sanctions.
This contorted and arbitrary reasoning flew in the face of the Commission’s previous assertions that it alone – not EU member states – had authority to make policy about external trade.
With the assistance of the European Legal Support Center, the EU nationals took their case to court and won.
In May, the EU’s general court ruled that the Commission failed to give adequate reasons or a sufficient legal basis for refusing to register the initiative and allowing it to move forward.
“Significant legal step”
“My clients never sought to sanction any foreign states,” Gilles Devers, the lawyer representing the seven EU nationals, stated on Thursday.
He said that their only demand is that “the EU complies with its international obligations and stops trading away the sovereign rights of occupied people over their homeland and resources.”
According to Devers, registration of the initiative is a “significant legal step” because it signals that “the Commission officially acknowledges that stopping trade with illegal settlements is an EU trade measure and not a sanction.”
“After years of evading its own responsibility, the Commission has now recognized that it has the authority – and therefore the duty – to propose the adoption of import and export prohibitions towards illegal settlements,” Devers added.
The lawyer said that the EU’s recognition that stopping commerce with settlements is an EU trade measure also means that individual member states have the authority to restrict business with settlements under existing EU rules.
These rules allow states to block certain imports “for reasons of public morality and public policy,” according to Devers.
Opportunities for action
Registration of the initiative is only an early step. It would have to go through many more stages, including gathering the support of a million people across the EU before it has any chance of being enacted.
At every step, the staunchly pro-Israel EU bureaucracy can be expected to look for more ways to obstruct the will of the citizens it is supposed to represent.
Israel’s formidable Brussels lobby will undoubtedly mobilize all its efforts to prevent Tel Aviv being held accountable.
Over the last decade, more than 100 European Citizens’ Initiatives were submitted for registration. Of the 76 that were accepted, just six have been able to gather the required one million signatures.
According to an expert analysis, however, “their impact has been minimal.”
None was ever fully implemented and the Commission only ever partially adopted the proposals of two initiatives.
While this is undoubtedly discouraging, organizers of this initiative see their effort as legally precedent setting, as well as an opportunity to mobilize people in EU member states on several fronts.
“This legal victory now needs to be translated into action to finally stop trade with illegal settlements in all occupation-related conflicts, present and future,” said Tom Moerenhout, one of the initiative’s founders.
Organizers see avenues for action in addition to gathering signatures and pushing the initiative through the EU process.
Individual EU member states, like Ireland, can now press forward with their own legislation to ban Israeli settlement goods.
Members of the European Parliament can also be more aggressive in demanding the Commission act to stop settlement trade, now that it has admitted it has the authority to do so.
Organizers also point out that member states can bring proposals to stop settlement trade to the EU Council – the bloc’s intergovernmental policy-making body.
Because this is now acknowledged to be a trade matter, such measures could pass by a majority vote. Sanctions, by contrast, require unanimity.
In response to a request for comment, an EU spokesperson pointed The Electronic Intifada to an 8 September press release stating that the “Commission considers that this European Citizens’ Initiative is legally admissible.”
The EU is now “reassessing the proposed initiative” in light of additional information from the organizers and the court decision earlier this year, the statement adds.
A website – #StopSettlements – set up by the initiative’s organizers provides information on how people in the EU can support the campaign.
This article has been updated with the response from the EU.