BRUSSELS (EJP) --- The EU’s hard line on Israel could be under review after a committee meeting to discuss easing barriers to bilateral healthcare trade reached consensus following a two year-long dispute Tuesday.
The European Parliament’s International Trade Committee met to discuss the stalled agreement on conformity assessment and acceptance (ACAA), which would automatically certify medically safe Israeli products as such within EU member states and vice versa, with the aim of cutting healthcare industry costs and creating a single market for Israel’s renowned pharmaceutical goods industry within the European Union.
The proposed bill, which formed part of the 1995 EU-Israel Association Agreement, had been held up by alleged politically-motivated concerns following the deterioration of Europe’s relationship with Israel regarding its continued West Bank settlement activity, was approved with 15 votes in favour, 13 against and two abstentions, and will now face a vote of the European Parliament plenary session as a whole in October, in order to ratify it.
Belgian Liberal MEP Frederique Ries said that thanks to this agreement "a significant number of new medicines could enter much more quickly on the European market than today. They will be available faster and on more moderate cost for the European patients and thus for the member states", stressing that the Israeli Teva company is the number one in the world for producing generic medecines.
Whilst committee members objecting to the bill argued that passing it would serve to legitimise Israel’s contested settlement building activity, those in favour contended that as the bill constitutes an add-on to the existing EU-Israel Association Agreement, which already calls on Israel to observe international human rights law and its position on West Bank territories, this was not a valid negation.
Reacting to Tuesday’s vote, committee chair Vital Moreira said the decision by fellow MEPs was “inconsistent with EU foreign policy”, adding that it threatened to “undermine the Union’s firm condemnation of Israeli policy to the Palestinians”.
Describing Israeli attitudes to Palestinians as “a collective punishment of the whole population”, she concluded that “upgrading relations with Israel at this time is not appropriate”.
Fellow Social & Democrat MEP Veronique de Keyser “regretted” the decision and insisted that although maintaining strong relations with Israel was important, “these relations must be based on fairness and on respect for international law”. Adding the centre-left group would be lobbying for West Bank goods to be excluded from the agreement, she declared that “anything else would be giving up (the) EU’s international obligations and respect for UN resolutions”.
Pro-Israel committee members however insisted that the EU already has technical agreements in place whereby goods originating in West Bank territories can be identified as such at EU borders and denied preferential treatment.
The UK already uses specific labels for settlement manufactured products and Denmark has announced plans to follow suit imminently. South Africa also provoked a diplomatic dispute with Israel earlier this year with the introduction of plans to label settlement products.
In June, a Europe-wide petition was launched to lobby the European Parliament to reach resolution on the supposed politicisation of European healthcare, in light of the two year wait for approval of its ACAA agreement with Israel.
The EU-Israel ACAA was approved for signing in March 2010 by the European Council prior to being forwarded to the European Parliament for its consent. Whilst the parliament has the power to block it, it has not a yet done so, and the international trade committee was charged by its critics of having frozen discussions on the issue, following Israel’s dispute with Turkey over the controversial flotilla incident.
Whilst the ACAA agreement was not designed in order to ‘upgrade’ relations between the EU and Israel, merely to recognise and facilitate the level of trade which Israel represents to the EU (to the value of €20 billion each year), it has however drawn criticism from Palestinian lobbying groups, who claim it signifies a whitewash of controversial Israel policies. Conversely, the delayed vote has been slammed by any groups for politicising what is essentially designed to be a neutral trade agreement saving national EU health systems billions of euros each year by providing access to Israel’s highly-developed pharmaceutical industry.
An Israel embassy spokesman was keen to downplay the significance of Tuesday’s decision, which he claimed was merely the natural progression of an agreement first conceived in 2010. He further denied claims it represented “any kind of upgrade of EU-Israel relations.
At a press conference following the annual meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council in Brussels in July, at which Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was present, EU Commissioner Stefan Fule and Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou- Markoulis were keen to emphasise that the action plan agreed on was an extension of existing policy under 2005’s European Neighbourhood Policy, rather than an upgrade in relations between Israel and the EU.
Alluding to “occasional difficulties” in the course of ongoing relations, Fule nevertheless paid tribute to the Jewish State as being “among the EU’s biggest trading partners in the region”, adding that “the EU is committed to cooperate with Israel on all area of the current action plan that remain to date unexploited”.