Thursday, 30 September 2021

Questions (1)

John Brady


1. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if, given the registering of a European citizens' initiative by the European Commission calling for an end to trade with illegal settlements in occupied territories in Palestine and Western Sahara, the Government is prepared to examine the issue of trade with illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. [47099/21]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

Given the registering of a European citizens' initiative by the European Commission calling for an end to trade with illegal settlements in occupied territories in places such as Palestine and Western Sahara, is the Government prepared to examine the issue of trade with illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories?

I thank the Deputy. I am aware of the European citizens' initiative to which he refers. Following its registration, the European Commission has six months to consider the initiative and any proposals arising from it. My officials will actively follow developments on the issue.

Ireland has previously raised at EU level the question of whether goods from occupied territories, including from settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, should be excluded from the EU market. However, it is clear that at present there is no possibility of getting substantial support, still less consensus, for such a proposal. A ban on trade with settlements at national level would not be compatible with EU law or capable of being implemented. That is the clear legal advice I have. The Government will therefore not be taking it forward.

We have instead focused our advocacy on practical measures to differentiate in EU policies between Israel and the illegal settlements. This has resulted in a number of EU measures, including guidelines on the labelling of settlement goods so consumers can identify them and make their own choices. Ireland has supported legal avenues to differentiate between settlements and Israel, for example, by joining a case before the European courts in 2019 on these labelling guidelines. As settlements are not part of Israel, the EU-Israel Association Agreement does not apply to them. This means that different tariffs apply to goods from settlements, and they are not eligible for participation in EU-Israel programmes. EU law and guidelines on this issue are an important part of the EU contribution to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemns the construction and expansion of settlements. I have directed my officials to continue to explore further such options and the potential for them to gain support from EU partners. Ireland will maintain vigilance to ensure full implementation of these laws and guidelines.

On 8 September this year, the European Commission registered a European citizens' initiative that calls for an end to trade with illegal settlements in occupied territories such as Palestine and Western Sahara. This came after the organisers of the initiative won a law suit against the Commission, which had first rejected the initiative claiming a lack of competence. That rejection was annulled by the European Court of Justice. By agreeing to register the citizens' initiative, the Commission officially acknowledges that stopping trade with illegal settlements is an EU trade measure, not a sanction.

This decision is a significant legal step. After years of evading its own responsibility, the Commission officially recognised that it has the authority and, therefore, the duty to propose the adoption of import and export prohibitions towards illegal settlements. Will the Minister reassess his previous refusal to support measures such as the occupied territories Bill, given that his opposition has been shown to be based on a false narrative?

The case the Deputy makes reinforces the position I am taking. I have always said in respect of the occupied territories Bill that this is a trade matter for the EU collectively and the European Commission to make recommendations and decisions on. That has always been our position. It is why Ireland on its own cannot make decisions in this area. If it did, would not be able to implement them without EU support.

If this is an EU trade measure and competence and the EU has the authority to do it, then it is an EU decision. I have said to the Deputy on many occasions that Ireland has supported and continues to support at EU level ensuring there is a differentiation in treatment between goods from occupied territory or illegal settlements and goods from Israel proper. That continues to be our position. I cannot go beyond that because Ireland does not have the competence to do it.

It does, because the recognition that stopping such trade is an EU trade measure confirms that individual member states can decide to stop trade with settlements at any moment under EU common rules for imports, which allow for import restrictions for reasons such as public morality and public policy. We have a moral obligation and an obligation under international law. The false narrative that it breaches EU rules or law is now shown to be baseless. The notion that we would be working in contradiction of EU law does not stand. It is up to the Minister. He can take the high moral ground and do the right thing. We passed an important motion that declared Israel has breached international law by annexing Palestinian territories. There needs to be consequences for that. This is the logical thing we can do and we can act on our own without waiting for other EU members to do so.

I received extensive advice from the previous Attorney General and the current one. The advice is the same. It is that this is an EU competence, not a member state competence, in regard to taking the actions the Deputy has suggested. The threshold that would need to be overcome for Ireland to act on its own is not deemed to be met. If there is to be a sanction or trade measure introduced on goods from illegal settlements, the EU needs to collectively decide to do that. I do not believe there is even close to a majority or consensus to do that-----

Is there new legal advice on this issue?

That is why we should focus on what is possible and is already there, which is clear differentiation on labelling. That should be implemented across member states.