BRUSSELS: EU lawmakers voted on Tuesday to revise the 28-nation bloc’s ban on the sale of products derived from seals in an effort to bring the legislation in compliance with global trade rules ahead of an impending deadline.
A year ago, the WTO’s Appellate Body confirmed that the EU’s seal import ban, while justified on public morality grounds relating to animal welfare concerns, was in violation of global trade rules due to the way it was applied. Specifically, WTO judges found that the policy resulted in “arbitrary and unjustifiable discrimination” against Canada and Norway due to certain exceptions included in the ban.
The EU Seal Regime bans the sale of seal products in all EU member states, subject to the above-mentioned exceptions. The ban specifically targets commercial sealing operations, such as those in Canada and Norway, which launched the WTO case in 2009 (DS400, DS401).
Those three exceptions specifically included the sale of products derived from hunts carried out by indigenous peoples (IC), products from hunts that were conducted for the sustainable management of marine resources (MRM), and products brought in by tourists.
It was these first two exceptions that WTO judges particularly took issue with in their rulings. The EU, they explained, failed to show how the different treatment of seal products derived from IC hunts – versus those derived from “commercial” hunts – can be reconciled with the 28-nation bloc’s objective of addressing public moral concerns regarding seal welfare.
The same animal welfare conditions prevail in all countries where seals are hunted, the Appellate Body noted, and therefore “the same animal welfare concerns as those arising from seal hunting in general also exist in IC hunts.”
WTO judges also found the “subsistence” and “partial use” criteria of the IC exception to be ambiguous, and may result in seal products derived from what should, in fact, be properly characterised as “commercial” hunts gaining entry into the EU market.
Moreover, the Appellate Body was not persuaded that the EU has made “comparable efforts” to facilitate the access of the Canadian Inuit to the IC exception as it did with respect to the Greenlandic Inuit.
Following the result, the EU, Canada, and Norway agreed last September that a “reasonable period of time” for Brussels to bring the WTO-inconsistent parts of the ban into compliance would be 16 months from the adoption of the reports – in other words, 18 October of this year.
Under the terms approved by parliamentarians on Tuesday, products derived from seal hunts conducted by Inuits will still be allowed on the EU market, but only when they come from traditional, subsistence hunts that are conducted with due regard to animal welfare. Meanwhile, another exception that had been deemed illegal by the global trade arbiter – that involving seals culled for marine resource management purposes – would be removed entirely.
The European Commission will also need to inform the public and customs officials about the changes and the IC exception, with the EU executive being tasked to issue a report in 2019 on the new rules’ implementation with a specific focus on how it is affecting Inuits.
The vote passed with 631 lawmakers in favour and 31 against, with 33 abstentions. Along with the European Parliament’s signoff, the changes must also be approved at the European Council level.