STRASBOURG (EJP) --- Discussion on a technical trade agreement between the EU and Israel which aims to eliminate trade barriers to Israel’s highly advanced pharmaceutical products entering the European market threatened to turn into a politically polarised dispute over the impact of recognising Israeli sovereignty over disputed territories, ahead of a highly-anticipated vote on the ACAA agreement Tuesday night by the European Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg.
Despite a tense atmosphere in the assembly, a motion by fierce Israel critic Veronique de Keyser, a Belgian Socialist MEP, to send the agreement back to committee stage, where it had already been stalled for two and a half years, was denied, as the EU-Israel Agreement on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance (ACAA), a protocol to the 1995 EU-Israel Association Agreement, was passed by the plenary session vote, to rousing applause from Israel’s supporters.
The final vote was 379 votes in favor of the agreement, 230 against and 41 abstentions.
The vote represents a victory for the pro-Israel camp in the EU parliament.
The rapporteur on the issue from the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Portuguese Socialist MEP Vital Morera, launched the earlier debate by contending that the protocol on the agreement was "faulty," as he argued it did not make it clear whether the agreement would include products originating from Israeli settlements (which the EU contends run contrary to international law and do not recognise as belonging to the Jewish State) or not, as well as whether future expanding of the agreement could be implemented by an ad hoc committee, without prior approval by the parliament.
But EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht immediately dismissed concerns relating to the protocol, insisting that its intention was only to “eliminate the need for conformity assessment procedures, to reduce costs and time” for healthcare industries.
Confirming that the EU would continue to abide by its international obligations as determined by international courts, he added that “the EU does not recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied territories (and as such) the EU will observe this distinction in the application of the ACAA”.
Any products originating from post-1967 Israeli territory would not be included in the terms of the agreement, he added.
Fellow foreign affairs committee member, Veronique de Keyser argued, however, that the fact that MEPs were only permitted to vote on whether to approve the agreement in the pharmaceutical sector, but were not able to debate its potential future application in other sectors was “shocking”.
She further contended that approving the agreement whilst the situation worsened on the ground and Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanayhu continued to make further moves towards legalising exiting settlements was akin to “giving a gift to Netanyahu – that is not acceptable on the basis of EU law”.
Lithuanian Christian Democrat member Laima Liucija Andrikiene was among several MEPs who offered a word in support of the agreement, asserting it was a relief to see it finally come to plenary vote, after being held up in committee stage for the past two and a half years.
ACAA, she said, was “an agreement for the good of the EU and Israel”, adding that “it is in the EU’s interests to get Israel’s legislation and standards closer to ours”.
Adding that it was not an agreement limited in its application to the Jewish State, she reiterated that “Israel is the first country in the region to meet requirements for an ACAA agreement”.
Responding to human rights concerns regarding Israeli policy, she said that “human rights are universal, we shouldn’t have double standards – one for Israel and for Palestinians. Yes, human rights are important but this agreement is purely technical in its nature and is part of the EU-Israel association agreement”.
Other speakers slammed the limitations of the agreement for not allowing the EU to address its concerns regarding Israel’s perceived human rights violations, relating to its blockade of Gaza and settlement activity.
Dutch Liberal MEP Marietje Schaake however said that whilst human rights should be reflected in European trade policies, she didn’t believe that rejecting this protocol would improve the lives of Palestinians, rather that if implemented “it could be a real broker in the peace process”.
“Bending laws in different ways (than their intended use),” she added, “could harm the credibility of the EU.
French Green Yannick Jadot meanwhile argued that dismissal of human rights concerns from Europe’s consideration of a trade agreement with Israel was a "double-standard," considering trade is often purported as a solution to human rights abuses in China and the Arab world.
He further added that that coming after “the EU receives a nobel peace prize, it would be an aberration if we sent this positive signal to Israel, providing an award to Netanyahu’s government for his policies that are constantly criticised by all EU bodies."
Czech Conservative MEP Jan Zahradil on the other hand insisted that the agreement “should be judged on its trade merits alone”.
Arguing that the “EU has already concluded and agreed similar agreements with the Palestinian Authority”, he said that “Israel is a normal country, a democratic country and we should treat it like this, not like some sort of feudal dictatorship."
British Conservative MEP Charles Tannock demanded if opponents to the agreement would “agree that Israel is a democracy with free and fair elections, where people can throw their government out, whereas Gaza is a dictatorship run by a group the EU outlaws. This has nothing to do with our discussions today about providing cheap healthcare”.
Dutch Bastiaan Belder, who heads the EU-Israel parliamentary delegation, slammed “politicised” motives for stalling the bill for this long.
“For too long I’ve looked forward to the approval of this important trade agreement, I don’t know why it’s been delayed for too long. The rapporteur is responsible for this. They seem to have difficulty with the basic principle of democracy. In a normal parliament, where there are differences, you simply vote on it and accept the results. I am striving for civil relations between the EU and the Jewish State,” he added.
British MEP Diane Dodds added that the stalling of the implementation of the protocol was “deeply regrettable”, as the impact on the human rights of Palestinians had already been stipulated for in the terms of the agreement, insisting “focus must then turn to the rights of EU citizens to the rights for cheap healthcare”.
Arguing that the EU compromised its role as one of the “few recongised negotiators” in the Israel-Palestinian dispute by appearing to “give preferential treatment to either side”, she said: “One and half years ago, despite Hamas and the death penalty, we allowed an agreement (for the Palestinian Authority) too, now we’re rejecting it on the same principles. I want to see the principles being maintained for both sides. You can’t have credible politics run on this basis.”
According to Italian MEP Matteo Salvini, of the Europe of freedom and democracy group, declared : “The nobel peace prize is awarded to the EU but I think citizens should see the other face of dialogue and tolerance. Technically, economically and socially the ACAA is useful, it’s useful in terms of dialogue, it’s useful for consumers. I don’t care whether pharmaceutical workers are Chritian, Muslim or Jews, they have a valuable product. Human rights are ignored in other parts of the world – no one will win if we continue this fight between Israel and Palestinian, we should bring peace to the two sides.”
Ioannis Kasoulides, a Christian Democrat from Cyprus, further added that rejection of the agreement would signify a sanctioning of Israel, since objections to its terms had already been answered. “Sanctions will not work with Israel, which has enough backing from the US, we will create a void for ourselves by sanctioning Israel”, he added.
Pro-Israel MEP Frederique Ries, a Liberal from Belgium, increased tensions in the chamber when she accused Morera of “having a vivid imagination” by calling for “the agreement to be sent back for the umpteenth time” and thus deprive European healthcare systems of useful generic medicines that could save them money individually."
Her Finnish colleague Hannu Takkula said “it is worrying seeing people wanting to politicise this, it’s not the way to go. I understand there are many powers against Israel and the Jews and want to pervert this technical agreement to this end. We know there are good drugs coming from Israel that we need.”
Another Italian MEP, Fiorello Provera, dismissed claims the agreement was “about spelling out borders or conferring sovereignty rights, (instead) this is an agreement of a technical nature, which will allow many EU citizens access to top class pharmaceutical products, saving the healthcare systems of individual members money at a time of crisis”.
And Jose Ignacio Salafranca Sanchez-Neyra, a Christian Democrat from Spain , argued that the EU had an ongoing commitment to Israel, stemming from its 2007 cooperation agreement with the Jewish State, adding: “Whilst we may not like some individual policies of the Israeli government, it is clear that once the US elections have been held, the peace process will be resumed and we cannot stay on the sidelines of that.”
Greek Christian Democrat Marietta Giannakou meanwhile called on her colleagues not to reject the agreement on political motives. “The Middle East conflict cannot be solved by this agreement, it would be naive to think this agreement could have any bearing on settlement and the settlement of the lid east conflict. We also recognise that the EU is making a lot of effort to fully support the Palestinian Authority, so I don’t think there’s any reason to reject this agreement based on settlements,” she added.