Citizens Initiative

On 8 September 2021 the European Commission registered a European Citizens Initiative (ECI) that calls to end trade with illegal settlements in occupied territories such as Palestine and Western Sahara. 

This only came after the organizers of the Initiative won a lawsuit against the European Commission, which had first rejected the initiative claiming a lack of competence. Their rejection was annulled by the European Court of Justice.

This legal victory now needs to be translated into action to finally stop trade with illegal settlements in all occupation-related conflicts, present and future. That action will have to play out on four fronts.

  • Individual Member States can and should move forward on their own plans to outlaw trade with illegal settlements. This will push the Commission to finally do the same for the whole EU.
  • Second, European citizens can push the Commission to stop trade with settlements by signing the European Citizens Initiative. 1 million signatures and the Commission will feel the power of EU citizens, who demand that EU trade respect human rights. (The Initiative is being prepared – it will be launched within the next month).
  • Third, Members of the European Parliament can finally play a more active role as they provide democratic oversight over the EU’s external economic relations. The Committee on International Trade and individual MEPs can immediately request the Commission to implement a general rule that will stop trade with illegal settlements
  • Fourth, Member State governments can and should discuss the stopping of trade with illegal settlements in the European Council. The Council can request the Commission to work out a proposal by simple majority, and vote over it by qualified majority. Unanimity of Member States in the Council, as is required with foreign policy actions, including sanctions, is not needed.

What is the European Citizens Initiative about?

The European Citizens Initiative (ECI) demands that the European Commission proposes legal acts to prevent the EU from trading with illegal settlements in occupied territories.

 Why does the European Commission have to stop trading with illegal settlements?

 Settlements that are created and expanded by an occupying force in occupied territories violate the highest norms of international law. When occupied territory is annexed de jure or de facto, for example by means of settlements, this is against international law, and such an annexation and settlements have no legal validity. As a result, trade with such settlements is illegal.

 Is stopping trade with illegal settlements a sanction?

 No, it is not a sanction, and the Commission has now formally acknowledged this. A sanction targets a specific State with the aim of changing its behaviour. The goal of this ECI is that the EU enacts a general rule that clarifies it will never trade with any illegal settlements. That includes stopping trade with illegal settlements in present occupations such as in Palestine and Western Sahara, but also in future conflicts where territory is illegally annexed.

Is stopping trade with illegal settlements an obligation under international law?

Yes, it is. Illegal settlements break the highest norms of international law. These include the prohibition to acquire territory by the use of force, the prohibition on colonialism and apartheid, the right to self-determination, and the fundamental norms of international humanitarian law. All States and international organisations, including the EU and its Member States, have obligations to not recognise and not assist breaches of these norms. Trade, however, both recognises and assists  illegal settlements.

Why did the European Commission first reject the registration of the Citizens Initiative?

The Commission claimed that the ECI wanted a sanction, even if it was clear we wanted a general measure that acknowledges the EU will never trade with illegal settlements. We presumed bad faith on the side of the Commission and challenged the rejection in front of the European Court of Justice. We won.

Is the European Commission evading its responsibility?

Most certainly so, but hopefully that will change. The Commission has confirmed that the measure envisaged by the ECI would require enacting import and export prohibitions or restrictions vis-à-vis territories that are occupied under international law, and that it has the competence to enact such measures. If the Commission confirms this competence, then why has it continued to trade with illegal settlements all these years? This has been and continues to be in direct violation of its obligations under international law.

Are individual Member States also obliged to stop trading with settlements?

They certainly are. The international legal obligations of non-recognition and non-assistance also apply to all EU member states. They are also explicitly permitted under EU law, namely under the Common Rules for Imports, to enact trade restrictions for reasons of public morality and public policy. They do not need approval from the Commission for this, nor do they need to wait for the Commission to act, because every day they allow settlement trade in their territory is another day they themselves are violating obligations under international law.

What can Members of the European Parliament do?

Members of European Parliament play a critical role as they provide democratic oversight over the EU’s external economic relations. The Parliament’s Committee on International Trade and individual MEPs can immediately request the Commission to implement a general rule that will stop trade with illegal settlements.

What can parliamentarians from Member States do?

National MPs can and should stop trade with settlements on their own, for example by invoking the right to do so under the Common Rules on Imports. A general framework of a law that can do this is already available to them and can be found here.

What can governments from Member States do?

Member state governments should support national legislation to stop trade with illegal settlements. They can and should also discuss the stopping of trade with settlements in the European Council. The Council can request the Commission to work out a proposal by simple majority (i.e. 14 member states in favour), and vote over it by qualified majority (i.e. 15 member states representing 65% of the European population in favour). Unanimity, as is required with foreign policy actions, including sanctions, is not needed because stopping trade with settlements is not a sanction.

 What can citizens and civil society do?

Increase the pressure both within their countries and towards the European Commission. Citizens can help pressure the Commission to stop trade with illegal settlements by signing the European Citizens Initiative.