The battle over EU settlement labeling has just begun
The union’s guidelines are mandatory for all member states, but it’s not all black and white, and Israel can yet try to soften the blow
The fight over the European Union’s labeling for settlements goods is far from over.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday told the Foreign Ministry to reassess the organization’s role in the peace process, ordering diplomats to suspend all contacts with EU institutions until that process is completed. But most European governments, unimpressed with what they see as Israeli posturing, have been readying to implement the controversial measure.
Most, but not all. While the European Commission’s instructions to mark Israeli goods from outside the pre-1967 lines are mandatory for all 28 member states, at least one country has repeatedly vowed to defy them.
“We do not support that decision,” Hungary’s foreign affairs and trade minister, Péter Szijjártó, declared earlier this month at an Israel Council on Foreign Relations event. “It is an inefficient instrument. It is irrational and does not contribute to a solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict], but causes damage.”
Szijjártó’s statement earned him praise from Netanyahu, but raised eyebrows among European Union officials. The union’s ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Anderson, approached his Hungarian colleague a few days later, informing him that labeling was not a matter of choice but binding legislation for all member states.
The Hungarian ambassador, Andor Nagy, remained unfazed.
“Our ministry is currently checking what we can do. Because if it’s a mandatory issue we have to fight with the Commission,” he told The Times of Israel last week. Labeling will not be the first issue Brussels and Budapest disagree about, he added, and if necessary, Hungary will take the matter to the courts.
Szijjártó studied economics in the United States and believes that Palestinian employees would be the first to be hurt if Israeli settler companies were to move their operations to Israel proper, Nagy added.
Either way, Hungary is not backing down, the ambassador asserted. “Because we think this is not the right tool to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.” Hungary only imports some halva products and dates from the West Bank, and therefore affixing special labels on them would be purely symbolic, he added. “And if we are speaking about symbolic issues, we think this is not the right measure.”
European officials view these kind of comments mostly as grandstanding, assessing that Budapest will eventually come around and, like everybody else, implement the Commissions “Interpretative Notice on indication of origin of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967,” which was published on November 11.
After all, they argue, the foreign ministers of all 28 member states in May 2012 decided to “fully and effectively implement existing EU legislation and the bilateral arrangements applicable to settlement products.” In other words, the note the Commission sent out a few weeks ago merely gives guidance on how and what to label, but in no way creates a new rule that Budapest or any other country can choose to disregard.
‘The EU expects all member states to comply with EU legislation’
That goods manufactured outside Israel’s internationally recognized boundaries should not be labeled as “Made in Israel” is a European consensus, the EU insists, and the need for labels is thus not optional.
“The European Commission expects all member states to comply with EU legislation,” an official in the union’s delegation to Israel said.
The note itself stated that the member states themselves are responsible for enforcing the proper labeling of settlement goods and need to “ensure that penalties for infringements of provisions of Union law are effective, proportionate and dissuasive.” The Commission will ensure compliance with the member states’ obligations “if need be by way of infringement proceedings.”
The overwhelmingly majority of EU states have nothing to worry about, as they intend to fully implement the labeling guidelines. Britain, Belgium and Denmark have already implemented voluntary guidelines on labeling. And in April, the foreign ministers of 16 EU states urged the union’s foreign policy czar, Federica Mogherini, to advance the publication of labeling guidelines, arguing that “this is an important step in the full implementation of EU longstanding policy, in relation to the preservation of the two-state solution.”
Indeed, The Times of Israel inquired in several embassies of EU member states, all of which — except Hungary and Germany — indicated they plan to implement the guidelines with no ifs, ands or buts.
“We are going to implement them because we don’t have a choice. The understanding that each country has the freedom to make an independent decision is false,” a senior diplomat from a European country said. EU states have been obligated to label settlement goods since 2012, but most waited for instructions from the Commission, the diplomat added. “Some countries did it right away. Others waited for guidance from the EU to do it in a harmonized way.”
What about Germany? Jerusalem expects Berlin — considered Israel’s best friend on the continent — to defy the guidelines or at least ignore them for as long as possible. During last week’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said the German government “came out against product labeling.” He was likely referring to a press release by the Bundestag faction of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party denouncing labeling, and to vague statements attributed by a German newspaper to the country’s food and agriculture minister, Christian Schmidt.
However, there are no definitive statements from government officials that indicate that Berlin opposes labeling of settlement goods. Germany is, for obvious reasons, not enthusiastically embracing a demarche that many Israelis consider anti-Semitic. Several German officials contacted for this article were extremely careful in discussing the matter, pointing to its “political sensitivity” and arguing that they simply do not want Israel’s enemies to “exploit” the matter. But at the end of the day, they indicated, Germany, too, will adhere to EU legislation and start labeling.
‘Proudly produced by Jews in Judea and Samaria’?
A lesser discussed aspect of the labeling controversy is the technical matter of the EU’s plan. Who labels what, when, where and how?
It is up to the member states to guarantee the correct labeling of imported goods, but “the retailer will have to ensure the products have the right indication of origin,” an official in the EU’s Israel embassy explained. “In practice, it might be that the producer, the exporter or the importer labels the products before or after the exports take place.”
Every country has different control mechanisms in place for noting imported goods’ countries of origin. Israel, knowing that technically all states are required to adhere to the EU’s labeling guidelines, hopes that friendlier countries will interpret grey areas and undefined aspects of the guidelines in Israel’s favor. Indeed, some countries are expected rush to ensure settlement goods are labeled as such, while others (like Hungary or Germany) might take their time before enforcing the commission’s guidelines.
“Israel is in contact with the EU member states on order to explain our opposition to the EU labeling directive. Our position is well understood,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said, refusing to further elaborate.
While the “correct” labeling of settlement goods is mandatory for all member states, the way the labels are placed is not. They could thus be large, conspicuous notices placed prominently on the product, or discreet notes hidden somewhere between the ingredients and the nutritional information on the back.
According to the EU Commission, marking products from the settlements as “Made in Israel” would be “incorrect and misleading.” But while the directive suggests the formulation “product from the West Bank (Israeli settlement.),” that is merely a recommendation. Each member state needs to decide how it wants to phrase the label, as long as it makes clear that the goods are not from Israel and were not made by Palestinian-owned companies in the West Bank.
Theoretically, therefore, the formulation “Proudly produced by Jews in Judea and Samaria” — the West Bank’s Biblical name — would be acceptable if a member state decides that that is what the label should say. An EU official confirmed to The Times of Israel that such a label “would be fine” in any country whose government chose that particular formula for the labels.
This won’t happen, of course. But it demonstrates to what extent the implementation of the Commission’s guidelines is up to the discretion of each member state. Israeli diplomats across the continent are aware of that, and they are currently busy trying to persuade their interlocutors in the various capitals to make their labeling of settlement goods as painless as possible.
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