Consumers in Europe already bombarded with labels such as “organic,” “fair trade,” “cruelty free” and “contains GM ingredients” may soon start seeing another label on products – and a politically loaded one at that. France recently announced that it will require goods made in Israeli settlements to have a clear label on their packaging.
The decision by the French government comes a year after the European Union issued an “interpretive release” that advises member states to be clear about how products from lands occupied by Israel are labeled. So far, no other member state has actually implemented such a labeling policy. France’s decision took all sides within this ongoing Middle East dispute by surprise.
Under the EU’s new guidelines, goods from regions occupied by Israel since 1967 — to which Palestine also claims rights — must include labeling that reaches beyond the location of where they were made. The regions in question include the Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and portions of the West Bank including East Jerusalem. Labels such as “product from the Golan Heights” or “made in the West Bank” are no longer acceptable. Instead, these goods must include text such as “product from the Golan Heights (Israeli settlement).” Goods from Palestine that are not originated from any settlements can continue to say “product from Palestine.”
EU policymakers claim such labeling would clear consumers’ confusion over a given product’s true origin. They insist products that simply say “made in Israel” mislead consumers and are inconsistent with EU legislation. Much of this decision lies in the fact that the EU does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territories it occupied after the Six-Day War in 1967.
The EU also said it is clear that it does not support the boycott of any goods from the region, and that products made in Israel will continue to benefit from preferential tariffs upon their arrival to Europe. Products made in Israeli settlements, however, do not receive that preferential trade status, which is why the EU said a clearer labeling policy was needed. EU ministers also suggest such a move became necessary in order to move Israelis and Palestinians closer to a peace agreement.
Israel’s government, however, was incensed by the EU’s new labeling standards, which affect products such as fresh produce, wine, honey and cosmetics. When it passed last year, the Israeli government assailed the decision as “disguised anti-Semitism.” The country’s foreign ministry was quick to express its displeasure with France’s most recent move, accusing it of “advancing measures that can be interpreted as encouraging radical elements and the movement to boycott Israel.”
Meanwhile, the Palestine Liberation Organization has long welcomed the EU’s labeling directive and called for increased European involvement.
Whether this will cause a massive change in how labels from this political tinderbox are scripted is doubtful. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner, with an estimated $30 billion in annual trade; but products from Israeli settlements make up less that 1 percent of the $14 billion in goods that Israel ships to Europe each year. The EU also leaves it up to member states to ensure they are following Brussels’ guidelines, but when questions arise about enforcement, the EU’s response is: “This is the competence of the member states.” A decision that has caused a diplomatic row over the past year may in the end become buried by other EU directives.
Image credit: Anthony Baratier/Wiki Commons