The need to distinguish between fabrication and fact

Michael Freund claims the German government is joining other European Union members in their efforts to “apply special labels of origin to products manufactured by Jewish-owned factories in Judea and Samaria.”

June 16, 2013 21:48
4 minute read.
A WOMAN removes a German flag

A WOMAN removes a German flag 370. (photo credit: reuters)

In his column of June 11, Michael Freund claims the German government is joining other European Union members in their efforts to “apply special labels of origin to products manufactured by Jewish-owned factories in Judea and Samaria” – something that to Freund equals declaring “don’t buy from Jews.”

According to him, “Germany has been thrown back to its darkest past.”

There is an important difference between fabrication and fact. How and why should a German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership suddenly adopt revisionist policies with regard to Israel? How and why should the country that has become Israel’s most important ally in Europe deviate from its chosen path and betray the Jewish state? Is the Germany which Freund singles out in his column the same Germany that has shown and proven through the post-war years that it treats Israel and Jewish communities around the globe with utmost respect and sympathy? We better take a look at the facts instead of being led astray by rumor, prejudice and uninformed opinion.

The EU-Israel Association Agreement provides for products from Israel to be imported into EU countries at a preferential tariff rate. In 2012 alone, German imports from Israel amounted to 1.65 billion euros – a positive development and hopefully one that will experience further growth.

The preferential treatment under the Association Agreement does not cover products from beyond the lines of June 4, 1967. They can enter the EU – and will be able to do so in the future. But customs duties need to be paid. Israel and the EU agreed on this in a Technical Agreement in 2005.

All EU foreign ministers have repeatedly reiterated that they will not recognize changes to the pre- 1967 borders, unless agreed by the conflicting parties. They have equally made clear that EU law needs to be fully implemented. No change there.

So what is this really about? EU consumer protection law sets very detailed requirements for retail labelling. They exist to provide a level playing field for trade across Europe and to inform consumers on the origin of products, among other things. Anybody vaguely familiar with this legal maze knows how extensive these regulations are. Thus, for some agricultural products – fresh fruit, wine, olive oil to name but a few – the country of origin must be stated, in accordance with the specific rules applying to that product.

When such labelling is mandatory, the geographical origin must be correctly included in the label.

When it is voluntary, traders are free to decide whether they want to display the origin on the label, unless omission of that information would mislead the consumer.

So the labelling requirements are there already. They have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The question is, however, whether products are labelled correctly.

Incorrect labelling amounts to misleading the consumer, which is prohibited under EU law.

These specific EU laws raise difficult questions with respect to all territories considered occupied, be it the West Bank or Nagorno- Karabakh.

From the EU’s point of view, “Made in Israel” is not the correct label for a product that originates in the West Bank. And it needs to be emphasized: No Israeli government has ever claimed that these areas are part of the State of Israel.

So what is currently being studied by the European Commission, as the guardian of the treaties, is the question of what exactly the existing requirements of labelling are for different kinds of products; and what correct labelling could look like for products that originate from outside the internationally recognized borders of the State of Israel. Nothing more, nothing less.

As any Israeli products are already labelled “Made in Israel” (whenever origin labelling is required) and as Palestinian products face the same requirements for origin labelling as Israeli products, all talk about a special label for Jews is nonsense. There is no question of creating new EU legislation on labelling. Neither are we in the business of calling for boycotts.

Germany decidedly rejects any such attempt. What this is about is making sure that the labels in use are legally correct.

In contrast to other EU member states, Germany has not introduced national guidelines on labelling. One member state, for example, recommends to traders and retailers to use the label “Produce of the West Bank” and then to add in brackets, if they so wish, “Israeli settlement produce” or “Palestinian produce.”

We will see what the competent European bodies will propose.

Until then, I recommend some honesty in the debate.

And just to remind you. Germany is and remains one of Israel’s closest partners. All those who deal with our intimate relationship in this country know how advanced and meaningful our cooperation has become in all fields – from security to the economy. Germany would never support policies which are directed against the fundamental interest of the State of Israel.

The writer is the German ambassador to Israel.

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