Thursday

21st Mar 2019

EU code on Israel settler exports expected by December

  • Industrial product origin labels are voluntary in the EU (Photo: Inhabitat)

Diplomats expect the EU to publish its guide on retail labels for Israeli settler exports by December.

The European Commission, whose lawyers are writing it, told EUobserver it’s still “a work in progress” and declined to give a date.

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EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini, who’s giving political guidance, recently said the “work is coming to a close”.

Her spokeswoman also declined to give a date.

But the institutions are coming under pressure from the 16 EU states which, in April, signed a letter to Mogherini urging progress.

One EU diplomat predicted it will come “by the end of September”. A second diplomat from the group of 16 said it’s expected “in autumn”. A third one said: “We’re asking, every month, what’s the latest timing?”.

A fourth diplomat said the EU has tacit US approval and a US precedent.

“Similar labelling rules already exist in the US, but almost nobody knows about them. We just recently stumbled across the US code”.

The European Parliament, on Thursday (9 September), also added pressure.

A landside of 525 MEPs voted Yes to a resolution saying settler products require “differentiation” and “encouraging” the Commission to publish.

It’s been a long time coming.

Member states tasked EU institutions with it in May 2012. Some of the EU consumer labelling laws on which it’s based date back 15 years.

The issue itself goes back to 1967, when Israel conquered Palestine’s West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights, and settlers began to build farms and factories.

Sneak preview

EU sources say the code will be a short “interpretative note”, which references existing EU consumer law, and which will be published in the bloc’s Official Journal.

A 2013 internal note drafted by the EU foreign service, and seen by EUobserver, gives a preview of what it’ll say.

“The main principle behind labelling legislation is that the consumer has the right to an informed choice, and hence labelling must not be misleading”, the 2013 note explains.

It says origin labels are, under EU law, “already mandatory” on food and cosmetics.

It lists the food items as: fresh fruit and vegetables; wine; honey; beef and veal; olive oil; eggs; organic products; and fresh meat from swine, poultry, sheep, and goats.

It says EU states can “voluntarily” put origin labels on “non-food/industrial” goods, for instance, Israeli firm Sodastream’s fizzy-drink gadgets, which are made in the West Bank.

It adds: “When labelling is mandatory, the geographical origin must be correctly included in the label. When it is voluntary, traders are free to decide whether they want to display the origin on the label, unless omission of that information would mislead the consumer as to the true origin of the product. If the origin is indicated, the information must be correct so as not to mislead the consumer”.

EU precedents

Prior action by Belgium, Denmark, and the UK also indicates what the EU code will say.

Belgium’s guidelines, published last year, “recommend” that settler products should be labelled “Product from the Golan Heights (Israeli settlement)” or “Product from the West Bank (Israeli settlement)”.

If Palestinians made them, they should be labelled “Product from the West Bank (Palestinian product)”.

Denmark, in 2012, told retailers: “Food from the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories must not be labelled with ‘Israel’ as the country of origin”.

It recommended “Origin: West Bank (Israeli settlement product)” or “West Bank (Palestinian product)”.

The UK, in 2009, said retailers should use “Produce of the West Bank (Israeli settlement produce)” or “Produce of the West Bank (Palestinian produce)”.

It noted that if retailers label settler exports “Produce of Israel” they’re “almost certainly committing an offence”.

Trade impact

The EU-level code will have little direct impact on trade.

The EU, last year, imported €30 billion of Israeli goods. The Commission doesn’t know how much of it came from settlers, but its best guess is “a marginal percentage”.

The World Bank, in 2012, estimated that EU settler imports are worth €230 miilion a year.

On past form, the UK code, six years ago, prompted a handful of shops to stop selling settler products.

But the Belgian, British, and Danish action didn’t cause mass boycotts.

None of the three countries have a compliance mechanism in place or keep data on the impact.

A Danish source said Copenhagen did it mainly to “raise the political profile” of the issue.

A Belgian source said its code amounts to little in reality. “I don’t know about you, but I simply don’t bother to read all the labels on products I buy. Too much info (calories, salt content - who cares?) and the print is too small anyway”, he told this website.

Political impact

The impact on EU-Israel relations could be ugly, however.

Mogherini communications people predict a “tsunami” of Israeli complaints.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in London on Thursday, compared labelling to anti-semitism on the eve of World War II.

“We already have a historical memory as to what happened when Europe marked products of Jews”, he said.

An EU source noted the code was “very important” for Netanyahu when he met EU Council president Donald Tusk in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Danny Ayalon, an Israeli diplomat, in a Facebook post on Monday, also feted Israeli firm Bazelet Hagolan, which makes wine in Syria’s Golan Heights, for “challenging” what he called “this [EU] boycott”.

The company has shipped 4,000 bottles of wine to Europe stamped, on the cap, with a blue Star of David.

“This sends a clear message to the BDS [boycott] movements in Europe: The Jewish people are not occupiers in their eternal homeland”, Ayalon said.

Timing

The Commission’s official line is “there’s no particular moment for releasing it [the code] and there’s no linkage to any particular event”.

Since the code is based on old laws, it doesn’t need an EU Council decision to go ahead.

But given its sensitivity, EU diplomats expect Mogherini to consult EU embassies or EU foreign ministers prior to publication.

One reason for not doing it in September is a new EU initiative to restart Arab-Israeli peace talks.

Mogherini, in the margins of the UN assembly in New York this month, aims to launch an enlarged version of the Quartet, the UN group handling the peace process.

It includes the EU, the Russia, the UN, and the US. Mogherini, on the basis of a French proposal in July, wants to add Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

She told MEPs on Wednesday there’s a “deep lack of trust” between Israel and Palestine which must be rebuilt via “confidence-building” measures.

But some of her staff believe the EU retail code will see Israel “circle the wagons” against EU diplomacy.

Diplomats say the EU might wait for the US Congress to first approve the Iran nuclear deal in order not to rock the boat.

It might also wait for big Jewish holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah, on 24 September, or Yom Kippur, on 4 October, to go by in order “not to rub salt into the wound”.

Enforcement

The other question is to what extent the EU will enforce its code.

The Commission and Mogherini say it’s “voluntary”, even though it’s mostly based on “mandatory” laws.

When EUobserver asked if the EU has, ever, launched infringement proceedings against EU countries for non-compliance on origin labels, an EU official said: “No Commission action on non-application with regard to labelling of Israeli settlement products took place”.

The EU is also likely to downplay the code politically.

“The political imperative is to rhetorically downgrade it and to present it as as small a move as possible”, an EU source said.

Another EU source noted that when the Commission, in 2013, published rules forbidding EU grants to Israeli settler entities it tried to be as quiet as possible.

“It was also just applying existing EU laws”, the contact said.

“But Israeli diplomats and Israeli media shot themselves in the foot by calling it ‘EU sanctions’, which stoked the debate on Israel’s legitimacy”.

In numbers, the Israeli settler population has grown from almost nil in 1967 to more than half a million people.

It’s grown by 20,000 a year since the EU, in 2012, decided to draft the code.

The settler exports may be worth just €230 million a year.

But Israeli occupation has crippled the Palestinian economy, with “Product from the West Bank (Palestinian product)” exports to the EU worth 15 times less.

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