The European Court of Justice recently delivered a unique judgement regarding the origin of food products that are being sold in the European Union. The court held that foodstuffs whose origin is in the Israeli settlements must be suitably labelled so that the consumers know the origins of the products they are purchasing. The ruling came because the EU law says that consumer choices are influenced by health, economic, environmental, social and ethical considerations.

While it is a norm in the food industry to name the country of origin, the requirement of labelling Israeli Settlement is surely unique. In November 2015, a European Commission published ‘Interpretative Notice of the European Commission of 12 November 2015 on indication of origin of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967’. This publication stated that there is ‘a demand for clarity from consumers, economic operators and national authorities about existing Union legislation on origin information of products from Israeli-occupied territories’.

Israel indeed has a complicated history, present and some say even the future. The Court brilliantly encapsulated the history in a few short paragraphs which are as follows-

“In the aftermath of a short military campaign in June 1967 Israel occupied certain territories which had been either previously part of or controlled by three other States, namely, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. In the case of Egypt, the territory in question was the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. (Egypt had administered the Gaza Strip from 1948 to 1967 although it was not part of Egypt as such.) The Golan Heights were part of Syria and the West Bank and East Jerusalem had been administered by Jordan between 1948 to 1967.
In the case of the Sinai, this territory was returned to Egypt as part of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979. Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip in 2005, although it controls access to the territory by land, air and sea. The Gaza Strip is currently under the de facto control of the organisation known as Hamas.
Save for a small part of territory returned to Syria in 1974 and a tiny demilitarised zone, the Golan Heights remain under Israeli occupation. The Golan Heights were effectively annexed by Israel in December 1981.
East Jerusalem also remains under Israeli occupation. The situation with regard to the West Bank is more complex. Part of it is administered by the Palestinian National Authority, but large swathes of that territory are nonetheless claimed by Israel. Israel has also constructed extensive settlements for its citizens in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. It had previously constructed such settlements in the Sinai, but these were dismantled when this territory was returned to Egyptian control. There were also some settlements in the Gaza Strip, but they were also dismantled when Israel evacuated that territory in 2005.”

Tracing from the UN Security Council resolutions as well as judgment of international courts on the issue, the European Commission had concluded that the label “Produce of Israel” was not apt for all regions and wordings like “product from the Golan Heights (Israeli settlement)” or “product from the West Bank (Israeli settlement)” were better suited.

Placing reliance on this publication by the Commission, the European Court of Justice examined the principles of 'country of origin’ and ‘place of provenance’. The Court even stated the dilemma of the consumers by stating, “there may well be many potential consumers who are prepared to purchase Israeli goods (i.e., in the sense of goods produced within the pre-1967 internationally recognised boundaries of Israel), but who would baulk at or even object to the suggestion that they might purchase goods originating in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967 and, where applicable, of settlements within those territories.”

Finally, the Court concluded, “for a product originating in a territory occupied by Israel since 1967, the indication of the geographical name of this territory and the indication that the product comes from an Israeli settlement if that is the case”.

There are important lessons that other countries can take from this ruling of the European Court of Justice. If China starts making products from the artificially created islands in the South China Sea, maybe India can indirectly object my creating this labelling requirement. At the same time, China may also object to many Indian goods originating from Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Overall, this labelling requirement based upon ethical considerations is a novel non-tariff barrier, which is akin to restricting Sino-American trade due to human rights violations.

The Government of Israel has already shown its displeasure at the judgment and has tweeted the following-

“Israel strongly rejects the recent ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which serves as a tool in the political campaign against Israel. The ruling's entire objective is to single out and apply a double standard against Israel. The ruling diminishes the chances of reaching peace. It plays into the hands of the Palestinian Authority, which continues to refuse to engage in direct negotiations, and emboldens radical anti-Israel groups that call for boycotts against Israel and deny its right to exist.”

EU imports from Israel amounted to €147 billion in 2017 which are majorly chemicals, machinery and transport equipment and other manufactured goods. Foodstuff constitutes a small part of the overall imports, but the labelling requirement will surely create ill will.

For its part, Israel has labelled Europe’s top court as a “tool in the political campaign against Israel”. After all, the law is not neutral, its political.

 

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