On 18 September 2012, the European Parliament Committee on International Trade (INTA) passed the Protocol on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (ACAA) by a slim margin.
The ACAA is attached to the European Union/Israel Association Agreement, in practice it allows industrial products to enter the EU/Israeli markets without additional testing and conformity assessment procedures. The positive vote at the committee level means the issue will now be debated in the European Parliament plenary and the final decision will be made there.
At present, there is only one annex to the ACAA protocol which covers pharmaceuticals, however in the future other annexes may be added, many believe cosmetics and toys may be next. Human rights campaigners across Europe have mobilized to challenge this upgrade in economic relations between the EU and Israel citing Israel's continued violations of international law and human rights abuses against the Palestinian people.
While supporters of ACAA argue that it does not constitute a formal upgrade of the EU-Israel Association Agreement, clearly it would mean a significant strengthening of the EU's relations with Israel, marking Israel's further integration into the EU market. Negotiations on the ACAA Protocol initially started in early 2009, but were suspended since June 2010, following the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla on 31 May 2010. This vote reverses the suspension, although no one has been held to account for the killings on board the Gaza flotilla. Importantly, it may also be a precedent setting agreement and open up discussions on other suspended protocols, such as the protocol allowing Israel's participation in certain EU Community programmes suspended since 2008.
There are significant legal concerns around the current formulation of ACAA. As a protocol of the EU/Israel Association Agreement it has the same territorial application, which in article 83 states that it applies to the "State of Israel". In contravention of international law, Israel's definition of its territory includes settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The European Commission has failed to provide assurances about the territorial scope of ACAA.
Particularly troubling about ACAA is its application to the pharmaceutical sector. The Israeli pharmaceutical industry is deeply involved in the occupation, with devastating consequences for Palestinians in need of basic healthcare. A report by the Coalition of Women for Peace in Israel on the Israeli Pharmaceutical Industry and the Occupation concludes that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are a captive market for Israeli and international drug companies, and this situation has grave ramifications for the occupied population.
The easy access to EU markets that the ACAA protocol would provide to Israel, is in stark contrast to Israel's stranglehold on the Palestinian economy in general and the pharmaceutical sector in particular. For example, the Israeli Ministry of Health only allows drugs registered in Israel to enter the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), blocking drugs from neighbouring Arab countries and more importantly denying access to cheaper generic pharmaceuticals produced in countries like China and India.
Although the European Parliament recently adopted a motion stating that "the Palestinian presence in the West Bank, with special regard to Area C, and in East Jerusalem has been undermined by Israeli Government policies", there is a clear discrepancy between condemning Israel's violations in the OPT and increasing trade links with Israel.
The EU has become Israel's biggest importer to the tune of 16.8 billion Euros in 2011 and the second largest market for Israeli exports. On 24 July 2012, during a meeting of the EU Association Council in Brussels, Israel was offered 60 new activities of cooperation with the EU. Human rights campaigners are clear that Israel should not be rewarded for its aggression in any way under any agreements, protocols or action plans. All such agreements must be suspended until such a time that Israel complies with fundamental international law and human rights law standards.
There is much work to be done between now and the final vote on ACAA at the European Parliament to make clear to officials that people of conscience around Europe refuse to continue 'business as usual' with Israel and would rather see the EU take action to prevent Israel from committing further crimes against Palestinians.