EU Commission tables proposal to revise seal import ban

16 February 2015

The European Commission put forward a proposal last Friday to amend its ban on importing and marketing seal products, as part of its effort to bring the WTO-illegal aspects of the policy in line with global trade rules.

The nine-page proposal outlines a series of suggested changes to the EU Seal Regime, which is made up of a 2009 European Commission regulation and related implementing measures. The regime bans the sale of all seal products in all EU member states, subject to certain exceptions.

Friday’s Commission proposal – which still must go through EU legislative procedures before it can enter into force – specifically addresses the two import ban exceptions that the Appellate Body had deemed discriminatory last year by modifying one and removing another.

In a landmark ruling issued in May 2014, the global trade arbiter had found the EU ban to be justified in principle on the right to protect public morals, specifically with regards to animal welfare. However, the Appellate Body had also determined that the design and/or use of certain exceptions to the ban constituted arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination against Canada and Norway, who had jointly challenged the EU policy. 

The current ban features three exceptions. These include those products derived from hunts carried out by indigenous peoples (IC); products from hunts used for the sustainable management of marine resources (MRM), and products brought in by tourists that were not meant for commercial re-sale.

Of these three, the IC and MRM exceptions had been those cited by the Appellate Body as inconsistent with global trade rules, with the recommendation that the EU bring those aspects of the seal import ban into compliance.

Canada, Greenland, and Namibia – a third party in the WTO dispute – account for 60 percent of seals culled annually worldwide, according to EU statistics. Russia and Norway also hunt seals for commercial purposes.

The EU’s existing ban, which entered into force in 2010, was designed after various member states individually began weighing whether to enact restrictions on seal imports at a national level, and some had already introduced such bans. One-third of global seal trade either passes through or is sold on the European market, the bloc has said.

Indigenous communities exception

WTO judges had deemed last May that while the overall principle behind providing Inuits and other indigenous communities with an exception to a ban was itself justified, Brussels had failed to demonstrate how treating products from IC hunts differently to those from “commercial” hunts could still answer the EU’s public moral concerns regarding animal welfare.

The Appellate Body also said that the IC exception criteria requiring that such hunts be conducted for subsistence purposes or partial use was ambiguous and created the risk that seal products derived from hunts that should be deemed “commercial” might make their way onto the European market.

Under last week’s Commission proposal, the IC exception would be modified so that products derived from these hunts can only be placed on the EU market if certain animal welfare criteria are met. The proposal acknowledges, however, that a “genuinely humane killing method cannot be effectively and consistently applied” in any seal hunts, indigenous or otherwise.

The proposal states that these hunts, in order to qualify for the IC exception, must be “conducted in a manner which reduces pain, distress, fear, or other forms of suffering of the animals hunted to the extent possible, while having regard to the traditional way of life and the subsistence needs of the Inuit and other indigenous communities.”

In addition, the proposal says the IC exception should be limited to meet indigenous communities’ subsistence needs, rather than primarily for commercial purposes. The Commission has thus asked that it be enabled to restrict the quantity of seal products placed onto the EU market in order to ensure that products derived from “commercial” IC hunts do not slip past.

Another prominent issue in the WTO case had been whether the EU had made “comparable efforts” to ensure that Canadian Inuits have the same option of using the IC exception as Greenlandic Inuits. While Greenland is not part of the EU, it is an autonomous territory of Denmark, which is part of the 28-nation bloc.

On this subject, EU officials have said that they are already working with Canadian experts in an effort to make it easier for Canadian Inuits to make use of the IC exception, specifically by establishing an attestation system.

“An expert group representing the two sides will work expeditiously towards the establishment of the administrative arrangements required for access to the European Union, in accordance with applicable laws and regulations, of seal products that result from hunts traditionally conducted by Canadian indigenous communities and which contribute to their subsistence,” the EU and Canada said in a joint statementendorsing this plan in October.

Canada’s National Inuit Organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), welcomed the initiative at the time, while stressing the importance of ensuring that the country’s Inuit be directly involved in the process, both in its planning and its implementation.

Marine resource management exception

The other exception faulted by WTO judges as being illegal was the sale of products derived from seals hunted for the sustainable management of marine resources, with the global trade body finding that there was not enough of a difference between those hunts and commercial hunts to justify special treatment.

The proposal released on Friday would thus remove the MRM exception in its entirety, though this would be “without prejudice to the right of member states to continue regulating hunts conducted for the purposes of management of marine resources.”

Animal welfare groups laud proposal

Friday’s proposal has drawn praise from animal welfare groups such as Humane Society International (HSI) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), who deemed the suggested changes as a viable compromise that ultimately strengthen the ban by removing existing loopholes.

“This is a good day for EU politics and a good day for seals,” said Sonja Van Tichelen, IFAW’s EU Regional Director. “The EU Commission has taken a regulation that reflects the concerns of millions of Europeans about animal welfare and cruelty and adjusted it to make sure that it is also fair for indigenous peoples in Europe and elsewhere.”

HSI’s EU executive director Joanna Swabe similarly praised the move, suggesting that the WTO challenges by Norway and Canada may have “backfired.”

“This proposal not only improves the European Union ban on commercial seal products, but sends a strong message to Canada and Norway that the EU will not accept products that result from cruelty to animals,” she said.

October deadline

The EU, Canada, and Norway agreed last September that a “reasonable period of time” for Brussels to bring its WTO-illegal measures into compliance would be 16 months, effectively giving the EU a deadline of 18 October 2015.

The Commission proposal, along with a modification of the “implementing regulation” used to enact the current EU seal ban, would therefore need to be adopted and enter into force by that time.

This would require the sign-off of both the European Parliament and the European Council and could mean negotiations and possible changes to the Commission proposal in order to achieve a mutually acceptable outcome in that time period.

Should Canada and Norway claim that the final EU changes are insufficient to meet WTO rules, or if the agreed October deadline is not met, the two complainants would then have the option of launching additional dispute settlement proceedings.

ICTSD reporting.

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