Sante FIORELLINI 12/01/2017
In November 2015, the European Commission issued an interpretative notice on the “indication of origin of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967”. The document, formally related to customer protection, is drafted so as to sound non-political and unbiased; yet, it bears a remarkable diplomatic weight. It is in fact aimed at responding to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government policy of building Israeli settlements outside Israel’s recognized borders, an agenda widely regarded by the international community as being in stark contrast with international law and already condemned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2234 as recently as December 2016. This intervention will cover the main points of the document and its consequences for the EU-Israel relations.
In spite of its ambitious political intentions, it is appropriate to start with highlighting the (limited) scope of this interpretative notice, which is, giving guidelines to the Member States on how to apply existing EU legislation on product labeling. In other words, the EU recommends avoiding the label “Made in Israel” for goods produced in the occupied territories should be avoided, in favor of expressions such as “Made in the West Bank (Israeli settlement)”. However, the responsibility to implement said indication rests solely on the member states. It is worth noting that United Kingdom, Belgium and Denmark had adopted similar rules even before the the issuing of the Commission guidelines.
Second, the document only concerns those goods produced in the settlements to be exported to the EU (mainly grapes and dates, wine, poultry, honey, olive oil, and cosmetics). According to the Israeli Ministry of Economy, their value amounts to a mere €45 millions, a drop in the ocean of the €30 billions total value of Israeli exports to the EU.
Third, the EU identified as occupied territories the Gaza Strip, the West Bank including East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Interestingly, the latter, annexed from war-ridden Syria, were not mentioned by the above mentioned UNSC Resolution. Commentators close to Israel, such as Eugene Kontorovich, felt that the mention of the Golan Heights accounted for clear evidence of EU’s real intention, namely, to indiscriminately sanction the state of Israel.
Finally, and most importantly, labeling products from the settlements is not the same as declaring them illegal, as the EU is not imposing a ban on their import.
It is clear that the document has a mere symbolic value: it neither affects Israel’s economy, nor it changes the existing agreements between the two parties, or really affects the situation on the ground.
As predicted, Israeli firms were barely touched by the Commission policy: since it was implemented only Ahava, a multinational cosmetics company, decided to relocate out of the West Bank – and the correlation with the EU labeling policy is dubious at best, as it was already facing financial difficulties prior to the issuing of the Commission notice, and it ended up selling its shares to a Chinese investment group soon afterwards.
Still, Israel’s response was quite assertive, to the point of chilling down diplomatic contacts with the EU. Amongst other reasons, Netanyahu, acting as interim Minister of Foreign Affairs, lamented EU’s double standard vis-à-vis Israel compared to other conflicts. A questionable argument, as the EU, simply does not have “one standard” and decides its position on a case-by-case basis, taking into account both international law and political opportunity. For instance, it can be argued that, on the one side, it quietly acquiesced to Moroccan’s control over Western Sahara, and it is not involved in the Chinese-Tibetan issue, while, on the other side, it banned any import of goods from Crimea and Sevastopol carrying the label “Made in Russia”.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s decision to play hardball over the document paid off, as he won the diplomatic standoff. In fact, more than a year later, EU’s expectations crushed under the weight of pragmatism and political divisions. If anything, the document served an unintended purpose: highlighting and exacerbating EU’s internal rifts. The majority of the member states essentially ignored the guidelines, while Hungary, Czech Republic and Greece openly opposed them. With these premises, in February 2016, the EU and Israel resumed talks through a phone call between Netanyahu and Federica Mogherini. The High Representative stressed that the implementation of the guidelines depends exclusively on the member states: implicitly, the EU admitted that it doesn’t have the political power to propose further restrictive measures. Overall, if the objective was to put pressure on the settlement policy, it certainly failed.
At the time of writing, only one country implemented the guidelines: France, in November 2016.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process goes into 2017 with no progresses between an increasingly assertive Israeli government and an increasingly weak Palestinian leadership, with the issue slowly fading out of the international agenda. The EU, for its part, after the labeling guidelines’ blunder, is in search of a new role: a first indication of the Union’s intentions will come from the Middle East Peace Conference, to be held in Paris on January 15.
Sante Fiorellini is an IRD student from the Keynes Promotion.
Vince Chadwick, Maia De la Baume, “How one phrase divided the EU and Israel”, Politico, 04/01/16, available at: http://www.politico.eu/article/best-before-1967-how-the-eu-labeled-israels-occupied-territories-food-labels-european-commission/
Eugene Kontorovich, “The ‘true origins’ of the E.U.’s Israel labeling policy”, The Washington Post, 16/11/2015https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/11/16/the-true-origins-of-the-e-u-s-israel-labeling-policy/
Hugh Lovatt, “EU differentiation and the push for peace in Israel-Palestine”, European Council on Foreign Relations, 31/10/16, available at: http://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/eu_differentiation_and_the_push_for_peace_in_israel_palestine7163#a4
Steven Schefer, “Israel fumes over planned EU labeling of ‘settlement’ products”, Reuters, 10/11/15, available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-eu-labelling-idUSKCN0SZ21120151110