What is the role of European Civil Society in policy change?

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ECFR’s MENA programme held a conference in partnership with the LSE’s Middle East Centre entitled “Europe’s Toolbox and Israeli-Palestinian Relations After the Kerry Effort: What Role for What Purpose?” on 29 May. The discussion sought to explore European policy options in support of Israeli-Palestinian peace following a hiatus in US negotiating efforts and included experts from Europe and the United States, as well as from Israel and Palestine. Panellists from the event have also been asked to write short contributions on the discussion points.  

Speaking personally as a British and European Citizen, I want my governments to ensure that no money (either private or public) can flow from Europe or its member states to Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise. But the Trading Away Peace report published in late 2012 by 22 development and human rights NGOs from 11 European countries, and in which I was involved, demonstrated very clearly that through its lack of differentiation between Israel and its settlements across the Green Line, Europe was facilitating €230 million of trade annually with settlements, allowing settlement businesses to participate in EU-Israel bilateral programmes, and turning a blind eye to EU businesses, charities and individuals cooperation with settlements.

Trading Away Peace highlighted the gap between the EU’s rhetoric “settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace” and its actions, which in fact sustain the settlement economy and contribute to the Israeli occupation; actions which were also undercutting EU aid intended to help the capacity building to prepare for an independent Palestinian State. The report made 12 practical suggestions for measures the EU or its member states could take to bring its actions into line with its rhetoric, and concerted private and public lobbying across Europe backed up the report. One of the recommendations was for new regulations to stop public funds flowing to settlements; achieved when the funding guidelines were implement in 2014.

The importance of the EU guidelines is much bigger than their relatively minor financial effect – for example under the previous science programme FP7, funding to settlement entities was only about 0.3 percent of the funding to businesses and universities within Israel. But this was the first time the EU had taken a principled position and then stuck to it, despite strong lobbying and rhetoric from the Israeli government, including an empty threat on Israel’s part to withdraw from Horizon 2020 rather than accept the EU’s rules. The guidelines were the EU’s first public challenge to Israel’s creeping annexation of Palestine, and demonstrated to Israel’s scientific community at least, that there will be a cost for Israel if the occupation continues. The implementation of the guidelines, unchanged, provides a strong precedent for further EU action and also shows the value of a political decision by EU foreign ministers followed by administrative implementation by the Commission without the need for further political involvement.

Other measures which have already been taken by the EU or individual member states, or are in the pipeline include: the introduction of clear labelling of settlement origin on fresh fruit and vegetables by the UK in 2009 and Denmark in 2012, with a commitment to EU-wide labelling guidelines at the May 2012 Foreign Affairs Council. The Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK have issued advice to businesses against trade or investment in settlements and the Commission is working on EU-wide business guidelines. More robust procedures by customs authorities to ensure settlement products do not wrongly claim import duty relief in August 2012.

Israel’s continued deepening of the occupation, failure to make any positive moves in political negotiations, and growing threats to formally annex Area C of the West Bank demonstrate that Europe must use its leverage as Israel’s biggest trading partner and take more robust action. The rhetoric has certainly been stepped up with threats from the Foreign Affairs Council in December 2013 that continued settlement expansion would lead to negative consequences for Israel, and a senior EU official suggesting EU aid to the PA would be phased out “because the question is, what’s the money for if a Palestinian state isn’t established?” 

But threats need to be backed up by action and some of the actions the EU should be implementing urgently, including: immediate publication of EU-wide guidance on correct labelling of all products from settlements and strong EU-wide guidance to businesses including banks to avoid involvement in breaches of international law by disinvesting from settlement businesses. There is a growing awareness in the private sector of the potential legal, financial, and reputational risks of involvement with settlements. The recent disinvestment by Dutch pension fund PGGM from five Israeli Banks is potentially very serious for the Israeli financial sector, but governments should be leading on this, not hiding behind the private sector. Another key move would be suspending the EU-Israel Association Agreement until Israel stops obstructing the operation of the EU-PLO Association Agreement. Finally, in Area C the Israeli authorities use their discriminatory planning system to block development projects intended to benefit the Palestinian population and maintain them on their land. There should a concerted move by the EU and member states to fund infrastructure projects in Area C without waiting for permits from the Israeli Occupation Authorities.

Dr Phyllis Starkey was a Member of Parliament in the UK from 1997 until 2010. This post was also published on the LSE Middle East centre blog.

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