Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Micheál Martin T.D., Joint Committee on European Affairs discussions on the Middle East
Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Micheál
Joint Committee on European Affairs discussions on the Middle East
22 June 2010
We have had a number of opportunities recently, in the Dáil and last week here in the Committee, to discuss the events of the past few weeks and the broader issues of the Middle East conflict.
I understand that today’s session is concentrating on the question of the EU-Israel Association Agreement, and specifically Article 2, and I am happy to discuss this question with you.
However, I also feel it is important that any discussion of the EU-Israel Agreement should be placed in the appropriate context. I am sure I do not need to recall the importance and priority which I and the Government have attached to achieving political progress in the Middle East and to addressing such basic obstacles to peace as the Gaza blockade and settlements. I have been a consistent critic of the blockade since becoming Foreign Minister two years ago, on the basis that it is unjust, illegal, counter-productive and in nobody’s strategic interest, least of all Israel’s.
Members will recall the clear position I took on Operation Cast Lead and my condemnation of Israeli actions at that time as completely disproportionate and destructive. This criticism can be applied equally to the Israeli military assault on the Gaza flotilla last month. As you know, I was the first EU Foreign Minister to visit Gaza in over a year when I travelled there last February. I believe that my visit, and those subsequently made by EU High Representative Ashton and UN Secretary General Ban in March, succeeded in focusing renewed attention on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. They also contributed, in turn, to a slight easing of the Israeli blockade which was already visible even before the more substantive policy change which was announced earlier this week.
Ireland has always pursued a strong and vigilant policy on Middle Eastern issues, reflecting the deep concern which exists both within the Oireachtas and among Irish people generally with the region and the need to promote a peaceful and just settlement there. In that vein, I have strongly criticised Israeli settlement policy and indicated that my Department, in conjunction with the relevant line Departments and agencies, will examine introducing voluntary guidelines to provide for better labelling of produce emanating from Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
In response to the recent attack on the flotilla, a major consular operation was undertaken by my Department to ensure the safety and welfare of any Irish citizens caught up in those events. I want to pay particular tribute to the Ambassadors and staff of our Embassies in Tel Aviv and Ankara for their tireless efforts on behalf of Irish citizens. From speaking with a number of those Irish citizens detained, I know how much all their efforts were sincerely appreciated.
Ensuring the safety and welfare of Irish citizens and safeguarding their right to travel freely abroad, as well as defending the integrity and well-earned international reputation of the Irish passport system, also guided the Government’s response to the outcome of the recent investigations into the fraudulent use of Irish passports by those suspected of involvement in the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The firm action taken by the Government last week in requesting Israel to withdraw a member of its Embassy staff shows clearly that we are ready to take appropriate measures when required.
I have tried to cover briefly some of the major issues which we have been addressing recently in relation to Gaza and to our relations with Israel. This is necessary, I believe, in order to provide some context and to allow a fuller understanding of how the Government approaches the specific issue of the EU-Israel Association Agreement.
I will now like to set out the background to the EU’s Association Agreements, and that with Israel in particular; cover the ‘upgrade’ of relations which arises in one of your motions under discussion; explain the Government’s view on proposals for a trade boycott against Israel, which is a key background issue relating to this; and talk specifically about Article 2.
The EU-Israel Association Agreement, which entered into force in 2000, is a framework agreement regulating and structuring contacts and cooperation between the EU and Israel across the full range of policy areas. This formal structure is the way in which the EU organises its relations with all of its immediate neighbours. When the draft agreement with Syria is signed, which I hope will be soon, Association Agreements will be in place with all of our partners in the Mediterranean, except Libya.
It is important to recognise that it is the EU which has insisted on putting this framework in place. Most external partners would prefer to be able to access ad-hoc cooperation with the EU without having to accept the formal structured relationship which the Association Agreement establishes. One of the critical and most valued elements of this approach for the EU is the establishment of formal dialogues on political and human rights issues. I will return later on to the importance of Article 2, which is more or less equivalent in all the Association Agreements.
The bulk of the actual activity taking place under any Association Agreement is contained in the European Neighbourhood Policy Action Plan with the relevant country. This sets out projects for practical cooperation between the EU and the partner country in areas such as agriculture, public health, transport, etc. This often involves helping the partner country to come up to EU norms and standards in administration, good governance, commercial practice etc. It is the normal intention of the EU, in developing closer relations with all of its neighbours, that these Action Plans would be progressive, with progress achieved leading on to deeper cooperation.
The existing Action Plan with Israel was due to run until June 2009, by which time a new Action Plan would have been negotiated to replace it, building on the progress achieved under the first Plan. In anticipation of this next step, the Israeli Government proposed in 2008 that the opportunity be taken to enhance and deepen EU-Israel relations. In June 2008 the EU agreed in principle to this at the annual Association Council meeting with Israel. The EU restated this agreement in principle at its December 2008 External Relations Council.
I might add that similar upgrade proposals are currently in discussion with a number of other Mediterranean partners, depending on the progress achieved under the existing arrangements.
During the negotiations which took place at the time, the EU did not generally accept some more ambitious Israeli proposals for regular high profile political contacts, and the actual Council decision was for the principle of enhancing relations, with the full detail of what exactly this would entail remaining to be worked out in the negotiations for the new Action Plan. In fact, however, those negotiations had scarcely begun when first the Israeli offensive into Gaza and then the Israeli general election in February 2009 intervened, and little progress was made.
It is worth noting that the EU had made clear that any upgrade would have to include the establishment of a full subcommittee on human rights issues.
Ireland had all along expressed concern that, whatever was involved in practice, the ‘upgrade’ of relations with Israel might be seen, in Israel and by others in the region, as a tacit political endorsement of Israeli policies with which the EU was in fact in serious disagreement. We had acted to ensure that the language of the Council decisions included a clear linkage to the EU’s political concerns in the region, especially progress on the peace process.
Following the Gaza conflict, and in cooperation with a number of EU partners, I argued strongly that the EU should not proceed with the upgrade. I wrote specifically to the Czech Presidency at the time, setting out my concerns. The Motion passed by the Committee on 15 January 2009 gave helpful support to my actions on this point. In June 2009 the Council agreed that the time was not right to proceed with the ‘upgrade’, given the overall lack of progress in the peace process. This remains the position. For practical purposes, the previous Action Plan has been prolonged, in the absence of negotiations on a replacement.
Needless to say, I remain strongly of the view that no basis exists at present for reviewing the decision to suspend any proposed upgrade, pending clear evidence of overall progress in the peace process and of Israeli willingness to respect its international commitments in relation to such issues as settlements and restrictions on movement throughout the Palestinian territories.
In the debate which took place in 2009, it was clearly accepted by Ireland and like-minded partners that a suspension of the ‘upgrade’, which we sought, would not interfere with the normal continuation and development of trade and practical cooperation with Israel under the existing arrangements. Indeed, had we challenged this position, it is unlikely the Council would have agreed to suspend the ‘upgrade’.
It is a central policy of the EU to seek to remove barriers to trade, and to develop trade, with all of its partner countries, in the Mediterranean or elsewhere. This is no different with Israel.
Trade sanctions or similar measures such as academic or cultural boycotts are often advocated by concerned groups in relation to many countries, including Israel. The frequent proposals for the suspension of the Association Agreement with Israel are clearly intended as a first step in the same direction, by removing the favoured trading status which Israel – like many other states – enjoys with the EU.
I understand and sympathise with the powerful desire to ‘do something’ which motivates these calls. But no Irish Government has supported a policy of boycotts or sanctions against Israel, and it is absolutely clear that there would be no possibility whatever of obtaining agreement at EU level for such a ban.
A very large proportion of our economy, and of the jobs of our people, are directly reliant on foreign trade. The list of countries around the world with whom we might have serious human rights concerns is a long one. We can only really consider proposals which subordinate trade policy to political objectives in the broader context of EU or (preferably) UN sanctions, so that we are not simply cutting Irish exporters out of a market without any effect on the country concerned.
In addition, trade policy and market access are largely EU competencies, and any restriction on imports from Israel would have to be concerted at EU level. It is worth reiterating that there is no possibility whatever of reaching agreement at EU level on a trade ban with Israel.
I have been very active, as has the Irish Government over a long period, in speaking frankly and directly to Israel, including strong criticism of many of their policies. In doing so, a critical part of the audience I am trying to reach – perhaps the most important part – is public opinion and opinion formers within Israel itself. It should be remembered that over the years many of the strongest critics of Israeli policies, and the most effective advocates on justice issues, have been Israeli citizens and NGOs. We are trying to persuade Israel to change its policies. It is important for us in doing so to show Israelis that we are open to good relations with them, that we are not inherently hostile or negative, that we genuinely believe we have their best interests at heart. It is quite clear to me that our influence in Israel would be lessened, and our voice weakened, if we were to advocate – futilely, as I have pointed out - a policy of bans or boycotts.
This is also true at EU level. Ireland has earned, by dint of long, committed and consistent engagement on the issue, a certain weight and influence on the Middle East question, at EU and UN levels, well above what our size and distance from the region would suggest. I intend to build on and use that influence as constructively as I can, and I will not weaken it by counterproductive gestures.
Turning now to Article 2 of the Association Agreement, this establishes that human rights and democratic principles are an essential basis for the agreement. It is the same with the similar agreements concluded with other Mediterranean partners. This is often an element which partner states are very slow to accept when negotiating these agreements. Over time, however, the EU has become firmer in its insistence that these are essential elements in our dealings with partners.
These provisions of Association Agreements establish that issues of human rights and democracy are areas of mutual concern for discussion between the two sides. They help us, crucially, to counter the traditional defence that these are entirely domestic issues with which the EU has no business concerning itself. This is their essential significance and purpose – they get us in the door and give us a framework in which we can raise these critical and highly sensitive topics for formal discussion.
No EU state, including Ireland, considers that these clauses thereby establish a corollary that, if we are not satisfied with human rights in a given country, we must suspend the Association Agreement with that country. If such were the case, I think we would find that all of our Association partners would immediately refuse to accept such clauses.
The Agreement itself makes no provision for suspension. Instead, it provides (in Article 75) that either party may raise a problem with the operation of the Agreement at the annual Association Council, where the parties will work to resolve it. In other words, this is a political process, not a legal one.
This was always quite clear. There are few, if any, Association partners with whom we do not have ongoing human rights concerns. Indeed, differences and dialogue on these issues are, as I have pointed out, institutionally built into and provided for in the agreement, through the creation in the political and human rights subcommittee of a regular mechanism to discuss and try to achieve progress on these issues. The Agreements themselves have evolved over the last ten years, and it has become the EU’s standard practice to seek the establishment of a full, separate human rights committee as part of the agreements which are currently being negotiated.
I will continue, as I have done, to lay strong emphasis on human rights and justice issues which go to the core of the daily challenges faced by most Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. Any failure to respect and properly safeguard human rights also reflects negatively on Israel itself as well as threatening the fragile opportunity which now exists to achieve a lasting peace. But I do not consider that seeking the suspension of the Association Agreement would be a useful element in that effort.
I would now like to say a few words in relation to developments occurring since the Israeli military assault on the Free Gaza flotilla and, in particular, the announcement by the Israeli Government last Sunday which appears to herald a partial lifting of the blockade on Gaza.
The Israeli Government has, of course, announced an internal investigation in to the events of 31 May, with two outside observers including David Trimble. This inquiry, both in its make-up and parameters, has engendered a mixed response internationally.
I have stated my support for UN Secretary General Ban’s proposal for an international commission, possibly led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Palmer. He has said that this does not have to conflict with the Israeli inquiry; the two could usefully complement each other. I think that the Secretary General’s proposal is the most realistic and credible idea on the table. It is the approach with the greatest chance of achieving international acceptance and it should be pursued.
The question of the transfer to Gaza of the humanitarian cargo from the initial flotilla ships has now been settled between Israel and the UN Special Coordinator Robert Serry, with the agreement of the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish IHH. All of the cargo is being moved into Gaza via the crossing points, and the UN will oversee its distribution to the recipients.
The UN is now in similar discussions relating to the cargo on the Rachel Corrie, and I hope we will see agreement shortly for its aid to be moved into Gaza in its entirety. The reported initial refusal of Hamas to admit goods seized by Israel is now understood by the UN to have been reversed; certainly there would have been no understanding for this Hamas position if they had maintained it.
Most importantly, perhaps, has been what I hope may be the beginning of the end of the blockade of Gaza, in response to the universal international reaction that this state of affairs could not continue. I welcome the indications that Israel has decided to significantly relax the conditions it imposes on the transfer of goods to Gaza. Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated that Israel will accept, instead of the very small list of permitted items at present, a switch to a short negative list of items which will be blocked. This includes acceptance that all goods not on this list will be free to enter, that building materials for important and properly overseen UN or PA-approved reconstruction projects may enter, and that additional crossing points will re-open.
While welcoming this development, we will wait to see the detail of what it will mean in practice. The exceptions to the measures announced by Israel should be arms and dual-use goods which can be clearly used for offensive purposes; in circumstances where dual use goods are needed for the economic recovery of Gaza, such goods should be allowed in under strictly controlled circumstances. Everything else should be allowed, and there should be no restriction on volume.
If the expectations created by this week’s announcement are to be fulfilled and confidence sustained, it is vital that the changes signalled should be delivered very quickly on the ground.
What we are talking about here, of course, is not just a question of humanitarian aid. Gazans need to be able to resume a normal life and to have full mobility and freedom to travel. They need to be able to import and export goods so that they can earn a living, provide for their families and lead the normal and productive lives which they have been denied hitherto. They must also have complete freedom to travel, whether to the West Bank or elsewhere, for study or medical treatment. These are part of the essential rights and freedoms to which Gazans are entitled as much as anyone else.
Israel has a right to remain vigilant over the movement of arms into Gaza, and to expect an end to attacks upon its territory. It is also right to say to anyone who is listening that this would be an appropriate moment to release the captured Sergeant Shalit, who has been held in Gaza now for four years, with no access to visits by the Red Cross or messages from his family.
Looking further ahead, I hope that we will see in due course the reopening of the port of Gaza and free movement of people for all purposes. I want to conclude by reiterating that my clear objective remains the complete lifting of this blockade, which I have consistently opposed. I will continue to press strongly for this at EU level. I can think of no confidence-building measure which would do more to transform Israel’s image internationally and to improve the overall environment for achieving progress in the current proximity talks, which we continue to support fully.
22 June 2010Top