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Limited appetite among member states for EU trade sanctions on Israel

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Euractiv | 30 May 2024

Limited appetite among member states for EU trade sanctions on Israel

By Alexandra Brzozowski and Thomas Moller-Nielsen

Amid growing calls for economic sanctions against Israel in view of the worsening humanitarian toll of its military operations in Gaza, EU trade ministers briefly discussed the issue on Thursday (30 May) but remained far from deciding on actual steps.

Earlier this week, EU foreign ministers decided to call for a meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council “to discuss the situation in Gaza and respect human rights under the obligations Israel has assumed”, the bloc’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said.

Spain and Ireland earlier this year issued a joint call seeking an “urgent review” of whether Israel is complying with human rights obligations under its trade agreement with the bloc.

The European Commission has yet to respond to the letter sent by the two countries, EU officials confirmed.

Asked about the request on Thursday, Vice-President and Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters the EU “keeps constant review of trade agreements and the values they’re based on”.

A date and place for an EU-Israel Association Council meeting still to be set, pending a mutual agreement from the EU and Israel.

EU officials say it would be technically possible to suspend only the trade part of the EU-Israel Association Council, but admit this remains far from likely.

Very few EU member states – such as Ireland, Belgium, and Spain, who have been pushing for pressure on Israel through trade sanctions – have expressed their willingness to actually consider reviewing the bloc’s trade ties with Israel.

Ireland’s Trade Minister Peter Burke reaffirmed his country’s calls to re-open the EU’s deal with Israel.
“There are significant clauses contained within that in relation to violation of human rights, in relation to our obligations under international law and upholding it,” Burke said.“And we have seen the exceptionally distressing scenes in Rafah despite orders from the [International Criminal Court] – it is critical that we do examine that agreement and our relationship with Israel because this is a very defining moment in Europe,” he added.

Most EU member states, however, and especially staunch Israel supporters like Germany, Austria, Hungary or Czechia, are unlikely to be open to such steps.

During talks between EU ambassadors on Wednesday, several member states, including Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria, questioned whether there was actual unanimity to convene the Association Council.

Some EU diplomats admitted that in the “heat of the moment” and the “need for speed of the discussion” due to time constraints, it was far less conclusive than communicated.

Asked about the pushback from EU member states, Belgium’s Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib told reporters that Thursday’s talks “did not create any reactions”.

Belgium has said it hopes such talks could happen during the country’s EU presidency which ends on 30 June.

Finland’s Foreign Trade and Development Minister, Ville Tavio, told reporters in Brussels, that he “personally thinks we should continue the trade with Israel”.

“We have to look at the bigger picture on the trade issue and what we can achieve [by making] that trade more complicated,” Tavio told reporters.

“It is a high technological country that has industries that the EU should be able to work with – and we also have some defence trade with Israel,” he added.

Danish Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen reiterated that Copenhagen wants to “first try with the good words” and considers it “too early” to draw definite conclusions.

“But, it goes without saying that in the long run, words cannot do it alone if they are not listened to,” Rasmussen said.

“We have now decided to convene a meeting of the [Association] Council, and that’s the right place to start.”

 source: Euractiv