Trade in seal products

On September 7, the European Parliament’s Plenary held a discussion on Cristian Silviu Buşoi (EPP, RO)’s report on trade in seal products and the implementation of the WTO Dispute Settlement Body recommendations and rulings.

By Sophie Bolla

08 Sep 2015

The following day, on September 8, the European Parliament adopted the legislative resolution with 631 votes in favour and 31 against. Please note that the adopted text is the result of the trilogue negotiations between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council.

Please find a summary of the debate below

Cristian Silviu Buşoi (EPP, RO), rapporteur, said that the agreement reached in June under the Latvian presidency aligns the EU regulation with the WTO ruling. He reminded his colleague that in 2009 the EU regulation opted for a ban of the trade in seal products with two main exceptions:                         

  • for goods derived from hunted seals, for personal and non-commercial use by members of the Inuit community
  • for goods derived from seals hunted for the sole purpose of the sustainable management of marine resources on a not-for profit basis and for non-commercial reasons (MRM)

The aim was to ensure that products for commercial purposes are no longer found on the EU market.

However, this regulation was challenged in the WTO by the State of Canada. On June 18 2014, the Dispute Settlement Body of the WTO disapproved the MRM exception. Following this ruling, Canada and the EU agreed that there would be 16 months to apply the WTO ruling. This period ends in October 2015. Thus, Mr Buşoi said he was pleased that the final agreement reached is in line with the WTO ruling. He added that for the Inuit community, this agreement puts forward new criteria under which they can put seal products on the market. He underlined the importance for those communities to be able to support their livelihood. Indeed, the proposal reiterates that seal hunting is a part of the culture of the Inuit communities providing food and income to support families and supporting their traditional existence.

He then mentioned article 5A, on the information to consumer that will allow European consumers to know that the seal product they are buying is of legal origin. He also explained that the European Parliament added, in article 7, an obligation for the Commission to report about the situation and the consequences of the regulation for the Inuit communities by the end of 2019.

Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, explained that the amendment became necessary after the WTO ruling. Indeed, the Dispute Settlement Body concluded that the MRM exception had some discriminatory effect. He believed that the constructive cooperation between the European institutions led to a good result that complies with international rules within the tight deadline. He stressed that it was a very important step for the credibility of the EU.

He then said that he was pleased to have come to an end of this process as he knows it is a politically sensitive issue. The Commission is satisfied by the balanced compromise. The final agreement upholds the ban and addresses the shortcoming identified by the WTO. It also provides for a balanced approach between fulfilling the WTO obligations and addressing the issues for the Inuit communities and affected Member States.

He added that the Commission made two statements related to the horizontal institutional issues which he has transmitted to the European Parliament services for recording in the minutes:

  • on the use of the clause for the adoption of the implementing acts
  • on the use of the comitology procedure for the issuing of technical guidance notes

Bendt Bendtsen (EPP, DK) argued that the regulation has been shown to be a bad thing for the Inuit community. He added that the Commission has not conducted any impact assessments. Thus, he would like to tidy up the text as it would be very harmful to the Inuit communities. The previous version of the regulation has destroyed their businesses and especially affected north Greenland. He then thanked the rapporteur for all his work but added that he could not, however, thank the Commission.

Janusz Wojciechowski (ECR, PL) said that the AGRI committee gives this text its positive opinion. The Committee definitely wants to have limitations when it comes to seals due to cruelty in the hunt. The ban is welcome, he said, but the Parliament has to understand the specific situation of the Inuit population and an exception should be upheld for them. It is the aim of this regulation.

Andreas Schwab (EPP, DE) congratulated the rapporteur and noted that there was no doubt that the EU, and the internal market, respects the rules of the WTO. He however questioned how in the future the EU will deal with environmental protection on one hand and economic issues on the other. For this file, the report has taken into account the balances needed.

Christel Schaldemose (S&D, DK) said that the S&D group supports the report which contains a good balance between applying the WTO ruling, applying the ban on import and supporting the Inuit community and their sustainable skin products in the EU. She said she was happy with the results on the table.

Daniel Dalton (ECR, UK) noted that for the ECR, WTO compliance was the most important thing and he is very happy with the result. He added that it is vitally important for the Inuit community to be able to also sell the skin of seal. He then said that in line with the ECR commitment for better regulation, it is important that the Commission study the effect of this regulation. He concluded by saying he is supportive of the agreement as it is a good step for the future.

Kaja Kallas (ALDE, EE) underlined the cultural traditions in some small part of Europe. She said that the reality is that in Nordic countries, authorities still issue licenses for hunting seals. In Estonia 50 licenses are issued each year. She added that the fact that Inuit people cannot make any use of what they hunt is not the best solution. This is not able animal welfare but also about sustainable use. She concluded that the EU need to allow tradition to be able to stay.

Anja Hazekamp (GUE/NGL, NL) applauded this historical moment as animal protection is winning over economic interests. If one product should be banned, she said, it should be seal skin. Indeed, it is often very young animals that are killed for their skin or skinned while they are conscious. She said that in 2009 Europe limited imports and banned the practise of seal hunting with two exceptions and one unfortunately will remain. She added that if the EU supports cultural hunting, it needs to make sure that Inuit people do not make any money out of it or seal babies will still be killed.

Igor Šoltes (Greens/EFA, SL) said that this is very important issue and the regulation is extremely important for the Greens/EFA group because the goal was to protect animals and it is something they are extremely committed to. The Green group has always fought for animal welfare. In this file relating to the WTO ruling, every group tried to bring in as much amendments as possible which watered down report. Fortunately, the strong line was confirmed in IMCO and with during negotiations with the Council. He was happy that the MRM exception was to be removed from the text. However, he called for the Commission to assess the impact of the remaining exception.

Replying to a blue card on the importance of the Inuit exception for these communities, he said that believes that this regulation represents the broadest possible compromise. Inuit communities will be able to continue to hunt in a traditional way. However, he noted that where there are exemptions, it should be well defined.

Margot Parker (EFDD, UK) was concerned about the impact of the regulation on the Inuit communities. No impact assessment has been done and this is a concern for her. In recent figures, the ban has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on communities in Greenland. The European Parliament must ensure that the livelihood of Inuit communities should be held in the same regard as animal welfare.

Franz Obermayr (ENF, AT) said that the ban is currently not followed. Indeed, in Greenland 150 000 seals are hunted every year. How to make proper use of the products from these hunts, he asked. We have to be aware that we cannot have these hunts happening, the EU has to keep limits of these hunts.

Jiří Pospíšil (EPP, CZ) explained that he thinks that the ban on seal product is good as it reduces animal suffering. However, there is still one exception left. Philosophically, he said, if a rule has exceptions then it attracts different interpretations. Therefore, he is afraid that this exception which is very complex and has very small rules will be very difficult to watch. The exception says that this should be an exemption for non-commercial purposes and the hunt must be humane. It will be important for the Commission to watch if it is well applied. It should take good care of the balance between animal welfare and the Inuit communities.

Evelyne Gebhardt (S&D, DE) said that in 2009, when the EU passed the general ban, everyone agreed that it was a positive thing. The EU established an exception for Inuit communities because seal hunt is important for their livelihood. Now, we cannot simply say that it should be abandoned, she said. The European Parliament has to respect the fact that some EU citizens need a basis on which to survive. She concluded saying that she was happy with the final agreement which is a good compromise.

Frederik Federley (ALDE, SE) was happy that, in the WTO decision, animal welfare has been mentioned for the first time noting that it is good for future negotiations. However he deplored that there was no differentiation between hunting and hunting. In Sweden, hunting is done to protect fish stocks for example, which is important for fishermen.

Christofer Fjellner (EPP, SE) said that if the EU really wants to ban trade in seal products, it needs to be clear about it adding that people will continue to hunt seals. He then explained that the seal population is increasing and the local population has to be able to react to act: either we kill them or we do something else. We really have to start from scratch and work on this again, he concluded.  

Jens Nilsson (S&D, SE) explained that sustainable management of marine resources is very important especially in the Baltic Sea. In order to ensure management of marine resources, we need balance maintained throughout the Baltic, he said. Thus, getting rid of this exception will be a mistake. It is already difficult to find people who have the expertise to hunt seal when they need to be controlled in terms of their number, he noted. It is important to focus on sustainable management or in the future there will not be good huntsmen for the seal population that need to get under control.

Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, said that the updated regulation aims at ensuring that the fundamental interests of communities hunting seals will not be endangered.  The MRM is not part of the outcome because it is not compatible with the WTO. The Commission found not possibility of keeping exception without the risk of not respecting WTO rules.

Cristian Silviu Buşoi (EPP, RO) said that he understands that the agreement does not really satisfy everyone especially in the Nordic countries. He believes that, after meeting Inuit communities and NGOs, the hunt by Inuit communities does not harm the habitat and health of the seal population. Inuit communities hunt to sustain their families, for tradition and for preserving their cultural heritage. 


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