Monday, December 17, 2012

Canada trade deal threatens Europe's environment

The funniest TV clip I've seen all year was broadcast in January. It featured an interview with Paula Broadwell many months before her affair with David Petraeus became public knowledge and forced his resignation as director of the CIA. "The real controversy here is: is he awesome or incredibly awesome?" The Daily Show host Jon Stewart said to Broadwell's face. With that brilliant put-down, Stewart underscored how her biography of Petraeus was an exercise in fawning.

At least Broadwell can point to how she was sleeping with her subject in mitigation. Lots of journalists have flimsier excuses for why they pander to the powerful. Take Bill Emmott: as editor of The Economist, he displayed his slavish devotion to the British establishment by insisting that the magazine support the war against Iraq.

Today, Emmott chairs the Canada-Europe Roundtable for Business (CERT), along with Roy MacLaren, a former minister in the Ottawa government. The two men want to convince us that a free trade deal between the EU and Canada will bring tangible benefits to ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic. But why should we take them seriously when both are wealthy elitists? Both are active in the Trilateral Commission, an unelected group of political and business leaders that holds an invitation-only confab about how the world should be run every few months. (This isn't a conspiracy theory; it's a statement of fact).

CERT could soon be celebrating. There are strong signals that the trade deal it covets will be signed in the near future. To show that this is no ordinary deal, it will have a fancy title: the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Documents that I have seen prove that corporations have been pushing for an accord that will give them the wherewithal to overturn labour and environmental laws which they perceive as barriers to making profit. Xstrata, the mining giant linked lately to Emmott's chum Tony Blair, has made specific proposals about the "dispute resolution" provision that is likely to be part of the trade deal. This provision will allow companies to sue the EU or Canada over measures or decisions they dislike. In a 2011 letter, John Smillie from Xstrata Nickel complained that REACH - the Union's main law on chemicals - can lead to substances being banned from the entire EU market based on the hazards they present.

Demand for "teeth"

"The challenge for any dispute resolution mechanism is how does it engage with a process that has no economic consideration and yet can have a very severe economic impact?" he wrote. "If the dispute resolution mechanism does not have the 'teeth' to deal with these sorts of issues, it is just another tariff-based trade agreement, and not the landmark, comprehensive and ambitious framework agreement that is being claimed and, we understand, both sides want."

Regardless of Smillie's concerns, the deal looks like it will be comprehensive and ambitious. An internal briefing paper written by the European Commission last month indicates that a dispute resolution mechanism will be included but that there was some difference of opinion about what it should cover. There is nothing in the paper to suggest that the Commission has told Xstrata or any other company that rules designed to protect nature and human health cannot be diluted on the say-so of a chief executive and his legal team. On the contrary, EU officials are pushing for a mechanism with "teeth".

CERT has breezily dismissed protests against the trade talks. When the National Union of Public and General Employees and several other Canadian groups called for transparency about what was under negotiation, CERT's Jason Langrish sent a "for your information" note to his contacts in Brussels. "Not a major concern, but shows engagement," he wrote.

Ideological warrior

Langrish is an ideological warrior. In a separate email message, he argued that Ontario's state-controlled alcohol shops should be privatised. "We would like to be able to buy our wine at the corner store at whatever time we want like anywhere else in the world. Most people recognise that the government really shouldn't be in an area where business can do the same job as well, if not better. It isn't health care, after all."

His pay-off line was misleading. CERT and its partner BusinessEurope have seen the trade talks as an opportunity to fundamentally transform Canadian health care. At their behest, the European Commission has advocated that large pharmaceutical companies should enjoy more robust "protections" for their "intellectual property" as a result CETA. Most particularly, the Commission wants Canada to introduce new restrictions of up to a decade on selling non-branded versions of patented medicines. A study carried out for the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association has calculated that the EU's demands could push up the cost of medicine plans by $2.8 billion per year. Most of the extra spending will fall on provincial authorities, which cover 45% of prescription drug spending in Canada, according to the study.

It appears that the EU is attempting to damage Canada's health system - until now, much better than America's. Poverty among Canada's elderly has been rising since the mid-1990s - after two decades of being reduced. The old will inevitably suffer most if medical bills rise. Why do Brussels officials want to make senior citizens poorer? Will the EU simply do anything that Big Pharma asks it to? Is this the kind of behaviour we can expect from recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize?

•First published by New Europe, 16-23 December 2012.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Is Europe starving Iran of vital medicines?

Adolescents cannot be blamed for the policies of autocrats. So why did 15-year-old Manouchehr Esmaili-Liousi have to die because the West wants to punish Iran's leaders?

Manouchehr lost his life when no medicine could be found to treat haemophilia. Iran used to import drugs for this disease but has been unable to recently because it is subject to a trade embargo.

This young boy may be the first victim of sanctions imposed on Iran by America and the European Union. He is unlikely to be the last. In November, The New York Times - not a journal renowned for decrying US imperialism - reported that Herceptin, a cancer medicine, had "disappeared" from Tehran's hospitals and pharmacies. Theoretically, humanitarian supplies are not covered by the sanctions. In practice, the ban on financial transactions with Iran is so comprehensive that it has affected supplies of essential drugs.

The death of Manouchehr serves as a depressing reminder of what happened in neighbouring Iraq. Denied equipment, medicine and even blood, Iraqi doctors struggled and often failed to provide the most rudimentary of care to their patients. UNICEF estimated that 600,000 children died over a decade as a result of sanctions.

According to the official narrative, everything was Saddam Hussein's fault. Saddam was blamed for the sanctions against his country because he wouldn't allow scrutiny of the nuclear and chemical bombs he was suspected to have been developing. Eventually, America invaded Iran based on a pack of lies. Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. And he had nothing to do with the atrocities committed on 11 September 2001.


Iran has replaced Iraq as the bogeyman we are supposed to fear most. In October this year, the EU's foreign ministers agreed to extend the scope of their sanctions on Iran, citing "deepening concerns" over the country's nuclear programme. The sanctions were "not aimed at the Iranian people," we were told.

If that assurance was genuine (and I don't believe it was), then our governments must immediately lift the embargo. In 2004, EU officials drew up guidelines for the use of sanctions as a tool "to maintain and restore international peace and security". These guidelines state that sanctions should be carefully targeted so that any "adverse humanitarian effects or unintended consequences" can be avoided "to the maximum extent possible".

The EU's sanctions against Iran run counter to those principles. Rather than being focused on the Tehran authorities, they prohibit all dealings between European and Iranian banks, except under "strict conditions". This amounts to economic warfare.

Why has Iran been singled out in this way? The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently reported that Iran was not providing it with the "necessary cooperation" to determine whether or not the country's nuclear programme has "military dimensions". That is worrying. But it is hardly poses a greater threat to world peace than what Australia has done this year. Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, has clinched a deal with India to supply it with uranium. Whereas Iran has signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, India and its enemy-next-door Pakistan have refused to.

An obstacle called Israel

Did the EU introduce sanctions against Australia for giving the key raw material required for nuclear weapons to India? Did it denounce the Canberra elite for helping to exacerbate tensions in South Asia? I've checked all of the statements that the main EU institutions issued about Australia over the past twelve months. Not one of them was critical of Gillard's reckless behaviour.

There is much that the EU could do about nuclear proliferation at home. The NPT requires signatories that have nuclear weapons to get rid of them. Britain and France have ratified the treaty but, the last time I looked, both of them still had nuclear weapons. With the Labour Party still in power, Britain's House of Commons voted in 2007 to renew its Trident nuclear submarine programme. David Cameron has indicated that he remains committed to that objective and that a decision will be made on the matter in 2016. It follows that Cameron is way more dangerous than Mahmoud Ahmadenijad. Yet I haven't seen any EU countries threatening Britain with sanctions over its enduring love affairs with nukes.

If the Union was serious and consistent about tackling the radioactive menace, it would be overseeing disarmament within its own borders. That would put it in a strong moral position to advocate the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. There is one major obstacle to giving the Middle East this status. It is Israel, another NPT rejectionist. Declassified documents show that the US has known that Israel possessed nuclear weapons since at least 1975. In 1999, the US Defence Intelligence Agency estimated that Israel possessed between 60 and 80 nuclear weapons. Others believe it has more. Yet William Hague, the British foreign secretary, has stated in recent days that there is no appetite among the Union's governments to penalise Israel. He was speaking about Israel's ongoing colonisation of the West Bank. The same double standards apply to nuclear weapons.

The most plausible explanation for why Iran is being harried is that it refuses to act as the West's doormat. In 1953, Mohammad Mossadegh's government was overthrown as it had the audacity to suggest that Iran's oil resources didn't belong to Western firms. Europe and the US are hoping for another regime change today. To bring it about, they are robbing pills from cancer wards.

•First published by New Europe, 9-16 December 2012.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Comment l'Europe courtise l'industrie d'armament israélienne

Haneen était âgée de 10 mois, Omar 11, Ibrahim 1 an. Pour avoir commis le crime de vivre reclus dans Gaza, ces enfants ont été tués à l’aide de missiles israéliens dits ‘à précision guidée’.

Quelques jours avant leur mort, la Commission Européenne parrainait ‘la 2nde conférence internationale sur la sécurité intérieure’ tenue à Tel-Aviv. Lors de ce qui ressemblait plus à un bazar qu’à un lieu d’échange, l’évènement a fait la part belle aux sociétés israéliennes leaders en matière d’armement et leur a permis d’exposer leur arsenal. Lors de l’allocution de clôture, le président Israélien, Shimon Peres, a profité de cette auguste occasion qui lui était donnée, pour se vanter, tel un trafiquant d’armes pour adolescents, d’être ‘impliqué dans la création des entreprises israéliennes de défense’. Puis Peres d’ajouter qu’il était ‘ravi de voir les innovations en matière de développements technologiques leaders dans le domaine de la sécurité intérieure’ et enfin d’exprimer la fierté qui était la sienne d’être à la tête ‘d’une nation riche en créativité, sagesse, courage et culot’.

A ma connaissance, l’implication de l’Union Européenne à ce salon est passée inaperçue dans les médias. Ce qui est en soit très déconcertant. Cela dénote que la Commission peut soutenir des firmes qui tirent profit de bombardements sur des enfants palestiniens sans que personne ne sourcille.

Les responsables qui ont donné leur aval à la participation de l’UE au salon de Tel-Aviv ne peuvent nier le lien avec la dernière offensive sur Gaza. Toutes les deux ont fourni là l’occasion pour l’industrie de l’armement de promouvoir ses produits : dans le premier cas dans une salle de conférence, dans le second sur le ‘champ de bataille’. Defense News, un magazine bien connu des vendeurs d’armes, a rapporté que Rafael, la société publique d’armement israélienne,‘a lancé des opérations urgentes et intenses’ pour pouvoir répondre à une demande en forte hausse pour l’acquisition de l’Iron Dome, un système ‘intercepteur’ de missiles qui est récemment venu compléter l’arsenal israélien.

Ce n’est pas non plus un cas isolé. Les institutions européennes sont régulièrement représentées lors de salons ou l’industrie israélienne de l’armement a la possibilité de mettre en avant ses dernières ‘innovations en matière de développements technologiques’, selon les termes employés par Peres. En Septembre dernier par exemple, l’Agence de Défense Européenne a offert son aide à l’ILA – un salon aéronautique proche de Berlin - au cours duquel la susnomméeRafael tenait un stand. En juin, plusieurs firmes israéliennes prirent part à Eurosatory, un salon de l’armement organisé à Paris ; des délégations de l’UE et de l’OTAN étaient également présentes.

Fricoter avec ceux qui tirent profit de la guerre n’est en soi pas répréhensible. Mais octroyer des subventions à ces mêmes profiteurs revient à cautionner le non-respect des droits de l’homme dont dépend leur résultat de bas de page. Israël prend actuellement part à 800 projets de recherches scientifiques subventionnés par l’Union Européenne, pour un montant total évalué à 4,3 Milliards d’euros. Israël lorgne déjà sur une part encore plus grande de Horizon 2020, le prochain pactole mis à disposition par l’Union.

Il est intéressant de noter que, plus tôt dans le mois, le salon de Tel-Aviv mettait l’accent sur la manière dont les équipements de surveillance pouvaient être utilisés lors d’évènements sportifs majeurs comme les Jeux Olympiques. Lorsque Londres a accueilli les jeux au cours de l’été, l’UE a financé les tests d’un nouveau système de sécurité menés à l’aéroport d’Heathrow. Elbit, un fabricant de drones largement utilisés ces derniers temps pour survoler le territoire gazaoui, constituait l’un des ‘partenaires’ de ces tests.

Il y a comme une ironie sordide de la part de l’UE derrière cette recherche de conseils auprès d’Israël pour rendre nos aéroports plus sûrs. En 2001, Israël détruisit le seul aéroport de Gaza. Il avait été construit avec 9,5 Millions d’euros d’aides de l’UE. Chris Patten, alors en charge des Relations Extérieures au sein de la Commission Européenne, refusa de poursuivre Israël pour ces faits. Il essaya de justifier son inaction en prétendant qu’une fois les chèques remis à l’Autorité Palestinienne, l’Union Européenne n’en n’était plus la propriétaire.

L’an dernier, à la même époque, la Commission publia une liste de 82 bâtiments détruits par Israël et financés à l’aide de subventions de l’UE. Les responsables ont évalué le préjudice subi par l’Union Européenne à 30 Millions d’euros. Et pourtant, la bureaucratie bruxelloise n’engagera aucune action en justice qui rendrait Israël responsable ; lorsque Israël lança la dernière offensive majeure contre Gaza en 2008 et 2009, l’UE débloqua des fonds d’urgence pour réparer les dommages causés par Israël à l’aide de composants et d’armes européens et amé y a fort à parier que le schéma se reproduira très prochainement.

Pour quelles raisons l’UE est-elle si encline à supporter la machine de guerre israélienne ? Un indice réside dans le ‘plan d’actions’ en faveur ‘de la compétitivité de l’industrie de la sécurité’ publié en Juillet dernier par Antonio Tajani, Commissaire Européen pour l’entreprise. On peut y lire que le marché de la sécurité représenta en 2011 plus de 100 Milliards d’euros -soit dix fois plus qu’en 2001.

Les responsables bruxellois savent qu’Israël est le sixième exportateur en matière de biens de ‘sécurité’. Coopérer avec Israël est donc nécessaire, disent-ils, pour permettre à l’Europe de développer sa propre industrie de la ‘sécurité’. Cirer les pompes du gouvernement de Benjamin Netanyahu leur permet d’espérer que les firmes européennes pourront signer de juteux contrats. A titre d’exemple, l’italienne Finmeccanica a arraché au cours de cette année, un accord d’un Milliard de dollars pour la livraison à Israël d’avions d’entrainement.

Et lorsque l’Europe vient à manquer d’armes, elle fait appel à Israël. L’agence en charge du contrôle aux frontières, Frontex, caresse le doux rêve de commander des drones israéliens pour contrôler les demandeurs d’asile. On rapporte que le Danemark a fait l’acquisition de bombes israéliennes après qu’elle ait épuisé son stock lors de sa participation à la guerre menée par l’OTAN contre la Lybie. Le mois prochain, l’Union Européenne recevra très officiellement le Prix Nobel de la Paix à Oslo. On nous vantera les engagements de l’Union Européenne en faveur des Droits de l’Homme & d’autres ‘valeurs’. Le spectacle ne manquera pas d’être nauséeux. Le soutien indéfectible de l’Union Européenne à l’égard d’Israël prouve que ces ‘valeurs’ qui sont vraiment chéries peuvent être quantifiés en termes monétaires. Au nom de quoi l’Union Européenne ne continuerait-elle pas à aider ceux qui gagnent à mettre Haneen, Omar & Ibrahim dans de petits cercueils ?


Monday, December 3, 2012

EU takes tax advice from Enron's auditor

Would a mafia godfather be trusted to end organised crime? Would a wife-beater be the right man to ask about how domestic violence should be punished? Would an auditor to Enron be the best source of advice on making companies pay more tax?

The answers to these questions hardly need to be spelled out. Unless they repent or display signs of remorse, wrongdoers are not usually consulted by policy-makers tasked with addressing the harm they cause. For some reason, though, an exception is made for accomplices to corporate misdeeds.

Before the end of this year, the European Commission will publish an action plan for tackling tax avoidance and evasion by large firms. As I've been trying to deepen my knowledge of taxation issues for a while, I was eager to learn who the EU executive has turned to for guidance. To my astonishment, I found out that the Commission's tax department has hired PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to write a number of studies in recent times.

PwC is world's biggest auditor. Although Arthur Andersen may be the accountancy firm generally associated with Enron, PwC was also deeply implicated in that scandal a decade ago. It provided advice on off-balance sheet transactions both directly to the Houston giant and to partnerships run by Andrew Falstow, its chief finance officer. That was despite how ethical standards applying to the accountancy profession require a degree of objectivity when dealing with different clients.

As if that wasn't bad enough, PwC gave a clean bill of health to the accounts of banks and other financial service operators that engaged in highly risky activities before the global crisis. PwC was the auditor for American Insurance Group for many years, yet did not disclose a "material weakness" in AIG's accounting methods until 2008. By that time, AIG was involved in a dispute over "collateralised debt obligations" with Goldman Sachs. PwC was also the auditor for the "vampire squid", to use Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi's colourful description of Goldman Sachs.


Meanwhile, PwC confessed in 2011 that it failed to detect flaws in the accounts of JP Morgan over many years. In a separate case, it agreed last year to fork out $7.5 million to settle charges by the US Securities and Exchange Commission over the deliberate inflation of revenue by India's Satyam Computer Services. Because of the scale of the misreporting, the affair has been dubbed "India's Enron".

And, of course, PwC has handled Mitt Romney's accounts since 1990. Documents unearthed during the US presidential election campaign indicated that Romney availed of legal loopholes to dramatically reduce his tax bill over a 15-year period.

In his book on tax havens Treasure Islands, Nicholas Shaxson calls major auditors like PwC "the private police force of global capitalism". The limitations of private police forces were highlighted when the Olympic Games came to London during the summer: G4S was unable to perform tasks traditionally done by the public security forces. The same can be said of PwC. Is it right to give a for-profit auditor the sole responsibility for signing off the accounts of the globe's most powerful corporations?


PwC clearly serves the interests of its masters. It helps ensure that the super-rich pay a much smaller proportion of income tax than the rest of us. PwC is active in those tax havens that EU officials profess to abhor. In Jersey, it even wrote a law designed to shield auditors from scrutiny.

On the surface, it appears absurd that the European Commission has hired PwC to provide expert analysis on such subjects as business tax reform and the links between tax avoidance and global poverty. Yet if you work from the assumption that the Commission is undertaking no more than a window-dressing exercise, things begin to make more sense.

The EU executive has indicated that the forthcoming action plan on tax avoidance is part of its work on "corporate social responsibility" (CSR). We are supposed to believe that by working in tandem with big business, the Union's governments and institutions can convince them to cough up a bit more so that future generations will have good quality schools and hospitals.

Yet CSR is about as meaningless as putting a picture of a dolphin on a tank replete with toxic chemicals. As Joel Bakan explains in his book The Corporation, the laws of most countries are clear about the role of big business. Under these laws, the overriding responsibility of corporate decision-makers is to maximise corporate gains. "The law forbids any other motivation for their actions," Bakan writes. "Corporate social responsibility is thus illegal - at least when it is genuine."

As it happens, PwC is not the only "expert" with a less than pristine record advising the Commission's tax department. Michael Devereux is one of those to have contributed to a data-heavy study on the "effective tax levels" paid by corporations, which has been prepared at the Commission's request. He is director of the Oxford University Centre of Business Taxation. The centre's website thanks a number of corporations for their "generous" financial support. Among them are Vodafone, a British telecommunications company that paid no corporate tax in Britain last year.

Depriving EU countries of an estimated 1 trillion euros per year, tax evasion and avoidance is one of Europe's most pressing problems. Turning to those who benefit from this problem for "expert" advice is one sure way of preventing a solution.

•First published by New Europe, 2-8 December 2012.

Monday, November 26, 2012

How Europe courted Israel's arms industry on eve of Gaza attack

Haneen was 10-months-old; Omar 11 months; Ibrahim one year. For the offense of being reared in Gaza, these infants were killed with the aid of Israel's "precision-guided" missiles.

A few days before their deaths, the European Commission sponsored the "second international homeland security conference" in Tel Aviv. More of a bazaar than a talking shop, the event featured exhibits by Israel's top weapons companies. Shimon Peres, the state's president, gave the closing address, using this august occasion to boast of how, as a youthful arms dealer, he was "part of founding Israel's defense industries." Peres said he was "delighted to see the innovative technological developments which are leading the world in homeland security" and expressed pride in heading "a nation with creativity and wisdom, courage and chutzpah."

As far as I can see, the EU's involvement in this exhibition went unnoticed by the media. That is deeply disturbing. It suggests that the Commission can endorse firms which profit from dropping bombs on Palestinian babies without anyone batting an eyelid.

The officials who rubber-stamped the EU's participation in the Tel Aviv fair cannot claim it was unrelated to the latest offensive against Gaza. Both provided an opportunity for the arms industry to advertise its wares: in one case in a conference centre; in the other case on the "battlefield." DefenseNews, a popular magazine among weapons traders, has reported that Rafael, the Israeli state-owned weapons company, "initiated emergency, round-the-clock operations" to meet rising demand to supply Iron Dome, a missiles "interceptor" system that is a recent addition to Israel's arsenal.

Subsidies for war

Nor is this an isolated case. EU institutions are regularly represented in fairs where Israeli weapons manufacturers can show off their latest "innovative technological developments", to quote Peres. In September, for example, the European Defence Agency lent its support to the ILA -- an air show near Berlin -- at which the aforementioned Rafael had a stall. In June, numerous Israeli firms took part in Eurosatory, an arms fair in Paris; so did delegations from the EU and NATO.

Rubbing shoulders with war profiteers is not in itself reprehensible. But awarding subsidies to the same profiteers amounts to acquiescence in the human rights abuses on which their bottom line depends. At present, Israel is taking part in some 800 EU-sponsored scientific research projects, with a total value of €4.3 billion ($5.6 billion). Israel is eyeing an even bigger share of Horizon 2020, the Union's next pot of research money.

It is interesting that the Tel Aviv fair earlier this month focused on how surveillance equipment can be used for major sporting events like the Olympics. When London hosted the games during the summer, the EU financed the trial of a new security system in Heathrow airport. Elbit, a maker of drones that have been heavily used over Gaza's skies in recent days, was one of the "partners" in this trial.

Sordid irony

There is a sordid irony behind how the EU is turning to Israel for advice on how to make our airports safer. In 2001, Israel destroyed Gaza's only airport. It had been constructed with €9.5 million worth of EU aid. Yet Chris Patten, the Union's external relations commissioner at time, refused to sue Israel for this damage. He tried to justify his inaction by contending that once cheques were handed over to the Palestinian Authority, the EU no longer owned them.

Around this time last year, the Commission published a list of 82 EU-funded facilities that had been destroyed by Israel. Officials estimated that the loss incurred to the Union as a result was almost 30 million euros. Still, the Brussels bureaucracy would not take legal action in order to hold Israel accountable; when Israel last conducted a major offensive against Gaza in 2008 and 2009, the EU released emergency funds to repair harm inflicted by Israel, with the help of American and European weapons and components.

Why is the EU so eager to court Israel's war machine? One clue can be found in the "action plan" for a "competitive security industry" that Antonio Tajani, the EU's enterprise commissioner, published in July. It noted that the "global security market" was worth €100 billion per year in 2011 -- a tenfold increase on its value in 2001.

Brussels officials know that Israel is the world's sixth largest exporter of "security" goods. Cooperating with Israel is necessary, they say, in order to develop Europe's own "security" industry. By sucking up to Benjamin Netanyahu's government, they can help win lucrative contracts for European firms. Italy's Finmeccanica, for example, bagged a $1 billion deal to supply training jets to Israel earlier this year.

And when Europe lacks weapons it calls on Israel. Frontex, the EU's border agency, has been toying with the idea of buying Israeli drones to monitor asylum-seekers. Denmark is reported to have bought Israeli bombs as its own stockpile became depleted while taking part in NATO's war against Libya.

Next month the EU will be formally awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. We will be told of the Union's commitment to human rights and other "values". The spectacle will surely be nauseating. The EU's unerring support for Israel proves that the "values" that are truly cherished can be quantified in monetary terms. Why else would the Union court those who stand to gain from putting Haneen, Omar and Ibrahim in tiny graves?

•First published by New Europe, 25 November 2012 - 2 December 2012.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Tobacco lobbying: the sleazy path to success

There was something marvellously sleazy about the controversy that led John Dalli to resign as the EU's health commissioner. Combining hints of secret payments and improper access and a proven burglary, the whole affair demolished the myth that Brussels is boring.

It was especially satisfying to see solid evidence - some produced by Dalli himself - that the tobacco industry is willing to grease the palms of those lobbyists who can provide it with one-on-one contact with the powerful.

The most proper response to this scandal would be for the EU institutions to collectively decide that all representatives of cigarette and snus companies are personae non gratae. Corporations that make and sell weapons of mass destruction should have no role in determining public policy.

By definition, every cent that lobbyists receive from the tobacco industry is dirty money. So why are some of these grubby guns for hire treated as respectable "experts" on European politics?

Ireland's self-proclaimed leading "think tank" on EU policy - the Institute of European Affairs - is chaired by Brendan Halligan. A former grandee in the Irish Labour Party, Halligan regularly hobnobs with the political and business elite in both Dublin and Brussels. The institute's glossy brochures are crammed with photographs of him dining with presidents and EU commissioners.

Halligan's history as a flunky can be found in a treasure trove of documents released because of litigation against cigarette makers. A 1983 memo from the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers' Advisory Committee details how Halligan, then a recent addition to the European Parliament, undertook to "definitely push" a proposal that the cigarette industry had made on saving duty free shops within the European Community. The lobby group was pleased with Halligan's commitment as it distinguished him from others in the assembly's Socialist group, "which tends to be ill-disposed to duty free facilities", the memo added.

Right to kill?

After Halligan stepped away from frontline politics, he was rewarded for his loyalty to Big Tobacco with lucrative contracts. His firm, Consultants in Public Affairs (CIPA), advised the Confederation of European Community Cigarette Manufacturers (CECCM), over how to court the Brussels institutions. During the 1990s, he spent a great deal of time trying to prevent the harmonisation of taxes on cigarettes and the introduction of a ban on tobacco advertising. In a discussion paper that he wrote for cigarette makers in 1995, he expressed concern about how public unease with smoking by children could lead to revulsion against the whole industry. "The antis are taking advantage of these trends and are using the children issue to attack the industry across a broad front," he wrote. "Measures are proposed under the guise of protecting children but the real objective is to leverage limitations on the adult market. This latest piece of social engineering has a high potential for success. It gives the antis an emotional fire power, which is difficult to counter."

A letter to the European Commission that Halligan drafted for the trade association in 1998 stated: "as manufacturers of a legal product with nearly 100 million consumers, we believe that we have a right, as well as a duty, to be part of the policy-making process and to be consulted whenever our interests are at stake".

The European Policy Centre (EPC) - one of the best known "think tanks" in Brussels - helped further that agenda by setting up a "risk forum" financed by British American Tobacco (BAT). In 2003, the Commission accepted the risk forum's chief recommendation: that cigarette makers would be consulted about activities affecting them. Today, the EPC regularly organises debates on health policy. I recently put it to Annika Ahtonen, who runs the centre's health programme, that it was ironic for the EPC to pose as a champion of public health, when it had been funded by the cigarette industry. "That was a long time ago," she said. Ahtonen might like to peruse the EPC's latest annual report. On page 19, it lists BAT and Philip Morris as two of its current funders.


Seven pages later, Pavel Telicka is named as one of the EPC's "senior advisers". Telicka was appointed the Czech Republic's first EU commissioner in 2004 and was given partial responsibility for health policy. He wasn't long in that job, however, before he was hired by the aforementioned BAT. According to that firm's website, he is still heading its "social reporting process" - an initiative designed to ensure that a firm's "ethical and environmental performance" is accounted for "in a similar way" to its financial performance.

Telicka does not appear to have been chastised in any way for embracing an industry he was tasked with regulating. On the contrary, he remains an official adviser to the Commission as part of its "high level group" on the "reduction of administrative burdens".

Meanwhile, the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue (TABD) was asked by the European Commission in 1995 to facilitate contacts between chief executives and politicians in both the EU and US. Its Brussels office was until recently run by Jeffries Briginshaw, who campaigned hard against moves by Australia to require that cigarettes are sold in plain packages. In his letters to the Canberra authorities, Briginshaw has neglected to mention a salient fact: he used to work directly for BAT and that company is one of the most active participants in the TABD.

Far from being shunned, Big Tobacco is embraced by leading EU policy-makers. This is the real scandal.

•First published by New Europe, 18-24 November 2012.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Gender equality means more than stilettos in the boardroom

At least twice over the past few years, the Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli has created a stir simply by bringing her young daughter to work. The resulting media coverage has filled me with an unpleasant sense of déjà vu.

Back in the 1990s, I was an assistant to an Irish politician, Patricia McKenna, who had a child during her first term in the European Parliament. Once, McKenna was shown on the main evening news bulletin minding her baby and participating in a committee meeting at the same time. For days afterwards, a popular radio talk show in Dublin received numerous calls from irate men (and, if I remember correctly, a few women). Most callers argued that nobody could do a job properly, while simultaneously attending to an infant's needs. Behind their attempts to sound reasonable lurked sexist mindsets. The subtext of the argument was that parliaments are clubs for boys; any girls wishing to join would have to play by rules that the boys had written.

As a bearded bloke, I feel slightly ill-at-ease addressing issues of gender. Yet I'm convinced that feminism is an ideology that merits support from men. Every positive change is incomplete unless the discrimination faced by our sisters and wives is eliminated.

So why am I less than excited about efforts by Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner, to place more women in corporate boardrooms?


Lest I be misunderstood, I think it is disgraceful that over one-third of large companies in the EU have no women on their boards of directors and that 97% of all large firms are chaired by a man. The culture engendered by these male-dominated groups is likely to be despicable. Since the eruption of the economic crisis, a number of books have documented how sexual harassment was rife on Wall Street and - worse - how little, if any, action was taken against male bankers who sexually abused female colleagues. There is no reason to surmise that the behaviour of high-flying businessmen is more exemplary this side of the Atlantic.

The data I have cited comes from a survey that the European Commission conducted of almost 600 firms. Reding wishes to have quotas introduced whereby there would be a minimum of four women on each board of ten. Assuming the quotas are respected, this means that a total of 2,400 women would be promoted by the 600 or so top corporations.

At most, then, Reding's initiative will benefit a few thousand women but make no difference to the other 250 million women in the Union. Is this something to celebrate?

It's a safe bet that Viviane Reding, personally knows some of the women who would be promoted if her initiative is implemented (at this stage, it is unclear if it will be because a number of Reding's fellow commissioners are opposed). As a wealthy Sorbonne-educated Christian Democrat, Reding appears more eager to help advance women of status, than to help advance the status of women.

Reding's desire to promote women who are already in privileged positions cannot distract from how the institution she represents is causing immense harm to ordinary women through its slash-and-burn economic policies.

Women are frequently the first victims of the austerity agenda that the European Commission is overseeing. In Spain, the ministry for gender equality has been abolished altogether. Spending on child care - a vital service for women working outside the home - has been reduced drastically in Estonia and Bulgaria. In Ireland, the reduction in special needs assistants is placing an extra burden on the mothers of children with learning difficulties. The closure of schools in Greece puts extra strain on women. The gap between women's and men's pay has reportedly widened in Lithuania and the Czech Republic. Studies in Britain have shown how benefit reductions affect young women far more than men. This is particularly the case with cuts to allowances for single mothers as over 90% of lone parents in the UK are women.

A better way

Germaine Greer seems to have attracted more attention lately for her comments about the Australian prime minister's dress sense than anything else. This is a pity as many of Greer's teachings remain as relevant today as they ever were. "If women can see no future apart from joining the masculine elite on its own terms, our civilisation will become more destructive than ever," she has written. "There has to be a better way."

This better way cannot be achieved simply by striving for some kind of equilibrium between the levels of testosterone and oestrogen in the headquarters of corporations. Nor can it be achieved by trying to make capitalism a bit more maternal. It can only be achieved by replacing the rotten system we have at the moment with something more humane.

Feminism is not about women being as tough as men. It is not about Margaret Thatcher declaring war on the Falkland Islands or Angela Merkel wrecking Europe's welfare states. The equality it aims for is an inclusive one, not an equality confined to 600 or so corporations. Feminism is the antithesis of competitiveness, that inequality-widening doctrine enshrined in EU law. By weakening labour rights, competitiveness makes it easier for bosses to exploit women.

It's worth recalling that the feminist movement used to be synonymous with the battle cry "women's liberation". Surely, liberation means more than having a few more skirts and stilettos in the boardroom.

•First published by New Europe, 11-17 November 2012.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Are Ashton's friends using white phosphorous in Libya?

Freedom now reigns in Libya - or so Catherine Ashton would have us believe.

On 23 October, the EU's foreign policy chief issued a statement congratulating the Libyan people "on the first anniversary of the historic declaration of liberation". While Ashton did profess concern about ongoing violence, the general tone of her comments was triumphant.

Four days later, the television channel RT broadcast horrific images from Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli. The RT report included allegations made by a local lawyer that the militia attacking the city was using white phosphorous munitions.

RT is financed by Russia - like the BBC is financed by the British state - but does that mean its report should be dismissed? Organisations viewed as credible in this part of the world have previously documented the presence of chemical weapons in Libya. A journalist with The New York Times found white phosphorous in a Libyan weapons depot during 2011. According to the journal of record, the depot had belonged to Muammar Gaddafi's regime but had fallen into rebel hands. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, came across white phosphorous at "multiple sites" in Libya earlier this year.

The fact that the white phosphorous allegations from Bani Walid have been ignored by most media outlets does not make them untrue. The mainstream press failed to probe claims that the US bombarded the Iraqi city of Fallujah with white phosphorous in 2004. Fortunately, a number of bloggers kept digging until they had produced proof that the substance had indeed been used. After a year of obfuscation, the Pentagon finally owned up in 2005.

Grievous injuries

White phosphorous can cause grievous injuries. Once it comes in contact with human skin, it can burn deeply through the muscle and into the bone. America's best buddy Israel made extensive use of this substance during its all-out offensive on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. Just as there have been international campaigns, culminating in agreements to ban landmines and cluster bombs, there ought to be a mass mobilisation against white phosphorous.

The militia attacking Bani Walid appear to be on "our" side. Last year Ashton told rebels fighting Gaddafi that "we will be here to support you all the way". Some of those rebels apparently want to teach Bani Walid a lesson because it was a pro-Gaddafi stronghold. The attack was sparked by the death in September of Omran Shaaban, a rebel suspected of capturing and helping to kill Gaddafi. Shaaban had been kidnapped in Bani Walid.

Are the women and children in this city now being exposed to white phosphorous as part of an act of vengeance? I don't have the answer to that question. But surely it requires investigation.

Of course, our governments have a history of only getting upset about Libya when it suits them? Having been told repeatedly that Gaddafi was a "mad dog", I was astonished to pick up a newspaper one day in 2003 and learn of how his rapprochement with the West. Gaddafi bought so much European weaponry over the next few years that he must have amassed a huge collection of loyalty cards from our arms dealers. He even delivered a lecture in the European Commission's press room, encircled by his troupe of female bodyguards. But then he started making awkward queries about how Libya's oil resources were benefiting some corporations more than others. And so he became a "mad dog" again.

Incapable of wrongdoing?

We, on the other hand, are incapable of wrongdoing. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary-general, expressed pride recently about how the alliance "prevented a massacre and helped protect civilians from attack" in Libya last year. How did NATO achieve that feat? By dropping a total of 7,642 "surface-to-air weapons", according to NATO's own data.

Every so often NATO's legal adviser Peter Olson is invited to speak at prestigious conferences on respecting international humanitarian law in modern warfare. Strangely, the same Peter Olson is less enthusiastic about opening up NATO's own record on respecting international humanitarian law to scrutiny. Earlier this year, he wrote to the UN's International Commission of Enquiry on Libya, expressing concern that incidents involving NATO could be treated in the commission's report as being "on a par" with those that "did violate law or constitute crimes". Olson urged that the report "clearly state that NATO did not deliberately target civilians and did not commit war crimes in Libya."

There was something arrogant about how Olson tried to dictate what the findings of an independent enquiry should be. As it happened, the International Commission did express concern about a number of airstrikes carried out by NATO. Its report stated that the enquiry was "unable to conclude, barring additional explanation, whether these strikes are consistent with NATO's objective to avoid civilian casualties entirely, or whether NATO took all necessary precautions to that effect". Amnesty International has cited "credible reports" that some of NATO's attacks killed "at least tens of civilians". And the aforementioned Human Rights Watch declared in May this year that NATO has "failed to acknowledge dozens of civilian casualties" resulting from its 2011 war and has "not investigate possible unlawful attacks".

Leaving aside NATO's direct responsibility, there is a general consensus among human rights monitors that both rebel and pro-Gaddafi fighters carried out indiscriminate attacks. Shouldn't Catherine Ashton, therefore, admit that some of the rebels she supported "all the way" were war criminals? Of course, she should. But I'm not holding my breath.

•First published by New Europe, 4-10 November 2012.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Merkel's real agenda: mugging the poor

Why has Angela Merkel cast herself as the empress of austerity?

The consensus among pundits seems to be that she is focused solely on her political career. To have any real hope of being re-elected next year, the pundits say, she cannot show mercy towards Greece.

Undoubtedly, there is some truth in the argument. But I'm not convinced it encapsulates the full story.

A clue to Merkel's real agenda can be found in a speech she gave to the College of Europe in Bruges during 2010. Opening the academic year at this elite institution, Merkel bragged of how she had persuaded German politicians to take "unusual and previously unimagined routes in order to help Greece and thus to ensure the stability of the eurozone as a whole". It was vital, she added, that the "rescue package" for Greece was accompanied by "ambitious reforms" in order to "insist that countries which caused such a crisis will have to take action themselves in the future".

Those few short lines are riddled with fallacies. The predatory lending of German banks was a far bigger cause of the crisis than public spending in Greece, Spain or Ireland. And Merkel has some chutzpah in claiming to "help" Greece, when she is destroying it.

Weakening welfare

Perhaps, though, it is her reference to "unusual and previously unimagined routes" that is most telling. Merkel contended that these steps were necessary to realise "the vision of a union that enjoys enduring success through a way of life and social model which unite competitive strength with social responsibility".

During the campaign leading to her election as chancellor in 2005, Merkel's economic advisor was Paul Kirchhof. An advocate of radical tax cuts, Kirchhof has been actively involved in the INSM, the initiative for a new social market economy. Financed by trade associations representing the metal and electronics industries, the INSM was set up in 2005 to push for a weakening of the welfare state.

Merkel's scope for implementing the policies favoured by the INSM was limited in her first term in office. She led a coalition with the Social Democrats, who were averse to Kirchhof's recommendations.

Circumstances were to change dramatically after she was re-elected in 2009. Not only was Merkel able to form a government with the right-wing Free Democrats, the troubles besetting the eurozone presented her with the chance to go down "unusual and previously unimagined routes".

As it happened, the routes had been "imagined" before then by the INSM and its kindred spirits at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), a "foundation" affiliated to Merkel's Christian Democrats. In November 2009, the KAS organised a conference with the grandiose title "60 years of social market economy: formation, development and perspectives of a peacemaking formula". The daunting 272-page report on the event's proceedings attributes the term "social market economy" to a 1946 paper by the economist and anthropologist Alfred-Müller Armack.

Pushing an open door

An attempt to achieve "seemingly conflicting objectives, namely economic freedom and social security", the concept has been described by KAS as a "new variant of neo-liberalism", an ideology which holds that the most important purpose of the state is to defend private property rights. A simpler way of summarising this thinking is: governments should hold back and let the rich get richer.

What is particularly striking about the KAS paper is that it presented the current economic crisis as an opportunity to "renew" the "principles and fundamental ideas" behind the social market economy. Far from confining this debate to Germany, it urged that the concept be applied globally to "reinvigorate the philosophical and economic standing of liberalism in general".

The KAS evidently feels like it is pushing an open door. Its publications emphasise that the Lisbon treaty commits the EU to develop a "competitive social market economy". As part of its proselytising, the KAS has produced a video where three good-looking flatmates explain the core ideas using fridge magnets. "Basic provisions, fair play, everybody is happy," one of them concludes.

The use of the word "social" is a form of sugar-coating for what amounts to a full frontal assault on hard-won rights. The INSM fulminates regularly against minimum wages and demands that health insurance be opened up to greater competition. This can only be interpreted as an attempt to make life more difficult for the poor and unemployed. In a decent society, every individual should be entitled to the same level of health care. The INSM wants to base the quality of medical service we receive on our ability to pay for it.

Merkel has also been reported to have obtained informal advice from Jeffrey Gedmin. A former big-wig of the American Enterprise Institute, Gedmin has spent much time trying to convince Europe to become more like the US. In a 2005 opinion piece for The Financial Times, he wrote about the "employed and unemployed alike happily indulging themselves" by sipping "over-priced café lattes". He mused about whether a changing economic situation might give "people the swift kick they apparently need".

If it's true that he was counselling Merkel, then she appears to have paid attention. Like a schoolyard bully, the chancellor has taken delight in kicking the weakest. The jobless and the elderly in Greece definitely did not cause the crisis she has blamed on their nation. Yet she keeps mugging them to put in place an extreme plan long in the making and dusted down when the time looked right.

•First published by New Europe, 28 October - 3 November 2012.

Monday, October 22, 2012

America's meaningless election

It was a moment to savour when a helicopter whisked George W Bush away from Washington in early 2009. On the ground beneath him, Barack and Michelle Obama waved gracefully. Millions of us felt that some of the world's problems would disappear into that serene sky.

We were wrong.

Over the past four years, Obama has extended the war against Afghanistan, started another one in Libya, and threatened to attack Iran. He has ordered drone strikes against Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. He has increased military aid to Israel. He has kept Guantanamo Bay open. He has incarcerated Bradley Manning for spreading the truth about America's crimes. He has supported a coup in Honduras and a dictatorship in Egypt. He has approved weapons sales to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. He has refused to act decisively against global warming or the power of Goldman Sachs.

Has he done anything positive? Apart from supporting the right to gay marriage and ushering in minor improvements to the health insurance system, I am struggling to think of examples. His withdrawal of troops from Iraq is hardly praiseworthy, considering the devastation inflicted on that country. And please don't ask me to endorse the execution of Osama bin Laden. It is never excusable to kill an unarmed suspect, who could have been apprehended and put on trial.

Worse than Bush

Obama has in some respects been worse than his predecessor. Bush lied about Saddam's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. But there was a general honesty to Bush's aggression. Bush never purported to be anything other than a vulgar oil merchant, who referred to the captains of industry as "my base" and patently didn't care about black folk left homeless in New Orleans. Obama had worked with deprived communities in Chicago and befriended the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. Even if he was no radical, he still offered the prospect of change - or so we believed.

We were wrong.

Every time I hear Europeans talk about how important it is that Obama gets re-elected, I want to scream.

The question of whether the Democrats or the Republicans are in power matters to some Americans. Democrats tend to be marginally smarter and less inclined to say offensive things about rape victims than Republicans. Democrats do not tend to give as many tax breaks to the super-rich as Republicans do. In that sense, it might be preferable to have Obama running the show, instead of Mitt Romney.

Little difference for Europe

On this side of the Atlantic - and in most of the world - it makes little difference who sits in the Oval Office. Both of the main candidates are beholden to corporate donors. Both think that the US may intervene in other nations' affairs whenever it sees fit. Both are believers in American supremacy, an ideology as toxic as any that deems one group of people to be more important than another.

Whichever man wins, he will hear the same advice from the CIA and the State Department. The Pentagon will still see NATO as a vehicle for projecting US power. The International Monetary Fund - an institution largely controlled by the US - will continue to demand that Ireland scraps its minimum wage and Greece robs its pensioners.

The European Union will still be expected to act as a lapdog for an imperial leviathan. Belgium will continue to store some of America's nuclear weapons. The US Air Force will still operate in Italy. Germany will retain the dubious honour of hosting the US command for Africa.

The granting of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU doesn't alter reality. Some of us thought that Barack Obama might behave slightly less belligerently after he picked up that same award.

We were wrong.

Change does not come from the top. It comes from gatherings in town halls and city squares. It comes from the Occupy! movement. It comes from the protests against the Keystone XL pipeline and the tar sands that neighbouring Canada hopes to use in accelerating climate change. It comes from Codepink and Students for Justice in Palestine. It comes from the nuns who fought the poverty-increasing budget championed by Paul Ryan. It comes from trade union activists in Wisconsin and Illinois.

Dissent works

Sure, you can quibble with the list I have just compiled. You can point to how those hardy souls who camped out near Wall Street this time last year are now tucked up in warm beds. You can argue that DIY placards are worthless when confronted with the tasers and pepper spray of the police.

But dissent is seldom futile. Declassified papers show that Lyndon Johnson ruled out a nuclear strike on Vietnam because he was petrified of the public outrage it would engender. Why has Obama tried to keep reams of information about today's wars secret? The only plausible explanation is that he is too cowardly to incur the wrath of his people.

Rather than trying to decide the outcome of the election on Facebook, the best thing us Europeans can do is to build alliances with the decent Americans struggling for real change. Regardless of what happens on polling day, America will be the world's only superpower for some time to come. If you think handing the White House to the guy you like better makes the US any less dangerous, then please reflect on something all of us should have been learned over the past four years. We were wrong.

•First published by New Europe, 21-27 October 2012.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Kicking the car industry out of the driving seat

Imagine a band of brigands so depraved, it steals food from the poor and gives it to the better-off. Imagine that the band has been condemned by all kinds of "respectable" organisations but waits for several years before making any amends.

The European Commission is that band of brigands. Since 2007, the EU executive has been committed to ensuring that biofuels power 10% of all road journeys in the Union by 2020. The Commission has stuck by that target, even as the World Bank and World Food Programme amassed evidence that the use of agricultural crops to fill petrol tanks was exacerbating global hunger.

It is only now that the goal is finally being revised. Over the coming days, the Commission will formally announce plans that the proportion of road journeys fuelled by food crops should be no higher than 5%. The Wall Street Journal has described this as a "radical change" of policy. That is nonsense. Far from being radical, it is a belated and inadequate gesture.

A truly radical change of policy would involve ditching the clique of advisers which advocated that the disastrous 10% objective be set in the first place. Yet a look at a related initiative - known as CARS 21 - shows that the Commission is still relying on the same clique.

CARS 21 is a "high level group" originally assembled by Günter Verheugen, then the EU's enterprise commissioner, in 2005. Dominated by corporations, it pushed for the greater use of biofuels from an early stage, arguing that they offered much potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Two years ago, the group was relaunched by Verheugen's successor Antonio Tajani. He is currently putting the final touches to an "action plan" guided by its recommendations. Almost certainly, the plan will accord a higher priority to the narrow desires of vehicle makers than to the future of the planet. The group has advocated, for example, that the EU should take a more bellicose line towards "emerging economies". Regulations perceived as hostile to Europe's vehicle-makers should be scrapped as a result of any new free trade agreements that the EU signs, the group has argued. It also wants African and Asian countries to be told that their natural resources must be placed at the disposal of major corporations. Heaven forbid that the resources could benefit anyone else.

Flexible pollution

Examining recent comments from Europe's car manufacturers, one could be forgiven for thinking they are in danger of extinction. Sergio Marchionne, head of Fiat, moaned earlier this year about "how very few companies make any money in Europe". To help out these metal bashers (his description), Marchionne urged a "flexibility pact", which would give car firms greater leeway in "meeting regulatory deadlines in troublesome times".

Just how much flexibility do these guys want? In July, the European Commission issued proposals to limit the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) pumped into the atmosphere by the average car to 95 grams per kilometre by 2020. (The average level for 2011 was 135.7g/km).

Whenever pollution threshholds have been suggested in the past, car-makers have held out against them, constantly warning that jobs will be lost if industry is pushed too hard. In early 2006, DaimlerChrysler reacted with horror when it emerged that EU officials were considering a mandatory limit of 120 g/km. Erich Klemm, then the company's boss, predicted he would have to lay off 65,000 workers in Germany as luxury cars would no longer be viable. His scarmongering worked: the Commission came forward with less ambitious targets.

Was Daimler punished for this act of sabotage? Far from it. Dieter Zetsche, Daimler's present chief executive, was invited to join the revamped CARS 21 group.

It is too late for flexibility. Unlike most other sectors of the economy, the car industry is increasing its greenhouse gas emissions, not reducing them. Overall, CO2 emissions from road transport rose by 36% between 1990 and 2007. Cars account for 14% of all the EU's emissions.

Reclaiming our cities

And exhaust pipes release a lot more than CO2. In September, the European Environment Agency published a study concluding that 81% of the EU's urban population is exposed to levels of particulate matter higher than air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organisation. Chronic exposure to particulate matter can contribute to heart and respiratory problems and lung cancer.

Instead of a plan to save the car industry, we need one to reduce its influence dramatically. Cities that have sizeable pedestrian or car-free zones are a lot more convivial than gridlocked ones. Why can't we have a plan for an EU-wide network of car-free cities? Or why can't a group of progressive mayors get together and collectively introduce congestion charges?

Cutting car use should not necessitate large-scale job losses. There is no divine law saying that BMW can't be transformed into a tram or bicycle firm. Realising that vision would require confronting powerful vested interests head-on and the likelihood of the European Commission doing so is miniscule. That's why a mass movement to reclaim our towns and cities is needed.

Darrin Nordahl's book Making Transit Fun! argues for a new approach to urban planning with the aim of putting some joy into public transport. He sings the praises of a planned San Francisco station that "drips with sex appeal". Fruit-shaped bus shelters in Japan are another fave. All these ideas could prove infectious and help to kick the car industry out of the driving seat.

●First published by New Europe, 14-20 October 2012

Monday, October 8, 2012

The euro: an inhuman project

Here we go again. The Greek government has "agreed" - at gunpoint, let's be frank - to cut another 13.5 billion euros from public spending. And it's still not enough for the tyrannical troika.

Olivier Blanchard, chief economist and clairvoyant for one of these tyrants, the International Monetary Fund, is now telling us that the difficult times will last for at least six more years. This is the latest public comment from a man who outed himself as a sadist in March, when he described the pain being inflicted on Greece as "fair".

Blanchard maintained that "shared sacrifices" are being made between Greece and its lenders. It would take someone with a twisted sense of humour to contend that German banks are suffering as much as the elderly or jobless in Athens and Thessaloniki.

I don't buy the explanation from EU and IMF officials that the economic situation leaves them with no alternative than to demand austerity measures with devastating consequences. The reason why I don't buy the explanation is that I have been studying the history of the euro and discovered that plans now being implemented have been under discussion by the currency's "architects" for some time.

The most important thing I have learned is that the euro always was an inhuman project. Looking at who laid the foundations for the euro, it could not have been anything else.

Sniffing an opportunity

In 1987, the Association for the Monetary Union of Europe (AMUE) was officially formed. According to the official narrative, it was the brainchild of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president, and Helmut Schmidt, the former German chancellor. Only a moist-eyed federalist could believe that version of events. A document held by the French national archives indicates that the steering committee for the association was set up in 1986. Far from being a response to a polite request from two statesmen, the AMUE was comprised of corporations that sniffed an opportunity to fight and ultimately win a class war.

The membership of the AMUE hailed exclusively from the owners of industry. Headquartered in the eight arrondissement of Paris, the association was composed of 400 private firms or trade associations. They included Goldman Sachs (of course), Deutsche Bank, Total, Siemens, Volkswagen and British American Tobacco. The employers' confederation UNICE (now called BusinessEurope) was there, too.

In 1988 the association came forward with an action plan for monetary union. Many of its points were recycled by Jacques Delors, then the European Commission, when he presented his "vision" on this topic the following year. Delors' call for the complete liberalisation of capital movements read like an answer to a banker's prayer. And that is exactly what it was.

Right until it eventually decided that its mission had been accomplished and to dissolve itself in October 2001 - a few months before euro notes and coins started filling cash registers - the AMUE engaged in a process of what the propagandist Walter Lippman called "manufacturing consent". On average, it organised 250 conferences per year at which the advantages of a single currency were accentuated and the pitfalls - as far as I can gather - ignored. A significant amount of this "public relations" (a more polite term for propaganda) was funded by grants from the European Commission - in order words, by the taxpayer.

Spawning a monster

Several of the association's staff members continue to dispense their "wisdom" at various forums. As its director of research, Stefan Collignon appears to have been the most prolific analyst in the AMUE. A few years after leaving that post, he wrote a 2002 paper for Harvard University in the US. In it, he advocated giving the European Commission the power to instruct national governments what their budgets should contain.

Collignon does not deserve any kudos for prescience or for individual thought. He was proposing ways of ensuring that the euro project helped the people it was always supposed to help: the bankers. And the fact he was talking about these ideas a decade ago illustrates that Herman van Rompuy, the EU's unelected president, was less than candid when he claimed earlier this year that responding to the euro crisis was like "building a life-boat at sea". The more plausible truth is that it involved embarking on a voyage that had long been pre-planned.

Collignon has lately been hired to advise the European Parliament on "competitiveness" (another concept originating with corporate lobbyists). His 2012 study for the Parliament concludes that there should be a "much more aggressive debate" about economic governance. The focus of this debate should be on wage restraint, he adds. Despite the turgid nature of his prose, the essence of his argument is clear: economic policy must primarily serve the interests of capital, not of workers. Class war is being waged, with the euro's architects stoutly defending the class we have come to know as the 1%.

Etienne Davignon, the Belgian politician turned banker, served as the AMUE's chairman at one stage. Last year Davignon stated that George Papandreou, then the Greek prime minister, had responded sensibly to the economic crisis but "ended that course of action by calling a referendum".

Those few words reveal everything. The euro was conceived by an unaccountable elite. The elite spawned a monster that stomps around Europe, robbing pensioners, workers and welfare recipients wherever it goes. "Sensible" politicians are told to keep mum as the monster devours the last vestiges of democracy.

•First published by New Europe, 7-13 October 2012.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Racial profiling firm gets slice of EU "terrorism" scheme

Why is a company involved in racial profiling part of a European Union team dedicated to monitoring “terrorist content” on the internet?

Amsterdam-based Euvision Technologies says that it specialises in “concept detection software”. This sounds innocuous: until you examine how the firm is using this equipment.

According to its website, Euvision has the “exclusive right” to sublicense the Impala video search engine, which was pioneered by researchers in the Netherlands. The company gives an “impressive list” of concepts that Impala can “detect” in digital media. I clicked on the heading “faces” and was intrigued to learn that the technology can help distinguish people based on their skin pigmentation. Impala can be used for “ranking Caucasians”, it says, showing a variety of photographs and screen grabs, including one of Silvio Berlusconi. Although it’s not stated plainly, the underlying message is unmistakable: Impala can just as readily “detect” or “rank” Arabs and Africans.

A similarly implicit message features in the example of “people with beards”. Among the head shots displayed are several brown-hued men, one clearly a Muslim. What’s going on here? Computer-savvy Islamophobia?

Euvision is participating in Clean IT [information technology], an EU-funded project which began last year. Essentially a “partnership” between industry and government, the declared objective of this project is to develop a set of guidelines for “countering illegal use of the internet” from a “counter-terrorism perspective”.

Conflict of interests

The involvement of Euvision raises serious ethical questions. The firm stands to gain by talking up the potential that its products offer to law enforcement authorities. New (or repackaged) thinking about “illegal use of the internet” presents it with commercial opportunities. So surely there is a conflict of interests if it is advising policy-makers about how to snoop on those who frequent internet chat rooms.

Nor can its apparently trail-blazing work on racial profiling be brushed aside. Harassment based on colour or ethnicity is a daily occurrence in the real world. The Equality and Human Rights Commission in Britain recently published data indicating that black people are 28 times more likely to be stopped and searched by that country’s police than white people. Targeting a community in this bigoted way is not acceptable on the streets. Why should it be any more acceptable online?

The organisation European Digital Rights has got hold of a confidential document setting out the key recommendations being assessed by the Clean IT team. Many of these proposals for discussion are an affront to freedom of expression and other basic civil rights. “Knowingly providing hyperlinks on websites to terrorist content must be defined by law as illegal,” the paper says. If implemented, academics and journalists could conceivably be prosecuted for referring to things they have learned about “terrorism” on the internet.

I have deliberately put the word “terrorism” in quotation marks. The starting point of any study on “terrorism” should surely be to outline the problem. As the Clean IT project doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of the problem it is fighting, I looked up the European Commission’s latest thinking. The Commission’s home affairs department has a helpful glossary of the topics in its purview. To my surprise, this glossary also puts “terrorism” in quotation marks.

“In the absence of a generally accepted definition under international law, ‘terrorism’ can be defined as the intentional and systematic use of actions designed to provoke terror in the public as a means to certain ends,” it says. “Terrorism can be the act of an individual or a group of individuals acting in their individual capacity or with the support of a state. It may also be the act of a state, whether against the population (human rights violations such as forced labour, deportation, genocide, etc), or in the context of an international armed conflict against the civil population of the enemy state.”

By favouring this definition, the Commission seems to be signalling an abhorrence of state violence. The reference to genocide is significant. A UN convention on genocide describes it as “a crime designed to destroy a national, ethnic, religious or racial group in whole or in part by, among other things, causing serious physical or psychological harm to members of that group or imposing intolerable conditions of life on them”.

Genocide “made in USA”

The US-led invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya appear to have caused “serious physical or psychological harm” to whole communities. White phosphorous shells dropped on Fallujah in 2004 are continuing to bring misery, according to evidence amassed by Iraqi doctors. Fifteen percent of all new-born babies in Fallujah have congenital defects, by some estimates.

If the US has resorted to genocide more than once in the past decade, then its government can legitimately be described as one of the deadliest terrorist outfits in the modern world. Assuming that the Clean IT folk take the Commission’s glossary seriously, they are obliged to treat anything that the Washington authorities place on the internet as “terrorist content”. Linking to that content would be illegal, if the project’s recommendations are stretched to their logical conclusion.

Sadly, I rate the likelihood of this happening at zero. The financial value of the “global security industry” grew almost tenfold over the past 10 years. As it’s now worth 100 billion euros per annum, fighting the symptoms of “terrorism” – while allowing their causes to fester - has become a massive business. It is a business that embraces odious practices like racial profiling without a second’s thought.

●First published by New Europe, 30 September – 7 October 2012.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Boycotter Israël : un devoir moral

La quête de justice menée par les Palestiniens pour la justice et la liberté pourrait se résumer en un seul et joli mot : sumoud. La traduction communément admise en anglais est ‘‘steadfastness’’ (persévérance, indéfectible, en français) mais je ne suis pas sûr que le terme anglais rende bien l’état d’esprit qui a habité le peuple au cours de ces décennies de dépossession.

Alors que la situation en Palestine continue d’être intolérable, un certain nombre de signes récents attestent que la persévérance porte ses fruits. Cela n’a rien à voir avec les ‘’leaders’’ tels que Mahmoud Abbas ou Salam Fayyad dont l’indulgence à l’égard de l’agression israélienne leur a valu les louanges de l’Occident. Non, les victoires ont été obtenues grâce à la campagne pour le boycott, le désinvestissement et les sanctions (BDS), lancée en 2005 contre Israël.

En mettant à l’index les entreprises qui apportent leur concours au non-respect des Droits de l’Homme, l’initiative lancée par des Palestiniens ordinaires a permis de rendre les plus voraces d’entre elles vulnérables face à l’indignation populaire. Ainsi, Veolia, le géant français du transport et des ‘services environnementaux’, a perdu de nombreux contrats à travers le monde en raison de son rôle dans la construction d’une ligne de tramway reliant entre elles deux colonies juives illégales situées à l’Est de Jérusalem. Agrexco, le principal exportateur de produits alimentaires, a déposé le bilan l’an dernier, en grande partie car des consommateurs européens avisés refusaient d’acheter les fruits et légumes que la firme commercialisait.

La campagne BDS est-elle sur le point d’inciter l’Union Européenne à passer à l’action ?

Eamon Gilmore, le Ministre Irlandais des Affaires Etrangères, a annoncé le souhait que soit considérée la question d’une possible interdiction des produits en provenance des colonies israéliennes de Cisjordanie lorsque l’Irlande prendra la présidence tournante de l’UE en 2013. Sa volonté affichée d’inscrire la question à l’ordre du jour est certes louable. Les produits en provenance de ces colonies –illégales au regard du droit international- auraient dû être interdits depuis longtemps.

Mais en refusant de considérer un boycott plus large d’Israël, Gilmore passe à côté de points importants (délibérément peut-être). Les tomates et autres avocats qui se verraient ainsi interdits si cette suggestion rencontrait un soutien large auprès des gouvernements de l’UE ne sauraient être accusés d’incitation aux crimes de guerre. Il est dès lors essentiel de cibler les entreprises et les hommes politiques responsables de l’oppression des Palestiniens – ou qui réalisent des profits sur le dos de cette oppression.

L’exemple des vins israéliens est très éloquent. Afin de dissimuler la manière dont le raisin qui a poussé sur les terres colonisées est fréquemment utilisé dans la production des différents vins, l’Institut Israélien pour l’Exportation (Israeli Export Institute) a opté pour une approche pour le moins originale de la géographie. La région de Shimson (ou Samson) a été établie entre les Monts de Jérusalem et la côte Méditerranéenne ; une partie se situe sur le territoire israélien reconnu officiellement au niveau international, une autre partie se trouve en Cisjordanie occupée. Comme cette région a été pensée dans le seul but de commercialiser du vin, il n’est pas difficile pour les vignerons de déclarer les fruits récoltés dans les colonies illégales comme provenant des vignes plantées en Israël. La meilleure chose à faire reste donc de refuser de consommer n’importe quel vin israélien. Des recherches menées par la coalition de femmes pour la paix (Coalition of Women for Peace, un groupe de militantes Israéliennes et Palestiniennes) ont démontré que l’industrie vinicole était intimement liée à l’occupation. De nombreux exportateurs Israéliens de vins sont ainsi impliqués dans la colonisation.

Ceux qui arguent qu’une interdiction complète des produits israéliens serait trop drastique seraient bien inspirés de lire le rapport publié par Al Haq, une organisation pour les droits de l’homme basée dans la ville de Ramallah en Cisjordanie. Le rapport établit que chaque fois qu’un Etat assiste un autre Etat ayant commis un acte illégal, il ‘adopte’ cet acte et devra à son tour en répondre. L’analyse d’Al Haq a été confirmée par d’éminents spécialistes de la question, dont John Dugard, ancien rapporteur spécial des Nations Unies pour les Droits de l’Homme en Palestine.

En 2004, la Cour Internationale de Justice a jugé illégal le mur de séparation érigé par Israël en Cisjordanie. L’arrêt a également mis l’accent sur le fait que d’autres gouvernements ne devaient pas apporter assistance à l’édification de ce mur.

La Commission Européenne a honteusement ignoré l’arrêt. Des entreprises qui ont fourni du matériel de surveillance –Elbit notamment- ont également bénéficié de substantiels crédits de recherche approuvés par la Commission. Certains gouvernements sont allés plus loin dans la reconnaissance : la firme d’armement conduit un programme de 1 milliard de Dollars afin de développer de nouveaux avions de guerre sans pilote pour le compte de l’armée britannique.

La lecture des rapports officiels émis par l’UE sur Israël a de quoi rendre perplexe. D’un côté les agissements d’Israël en Cisjordanie et à Gaza sont qualifiés d’aberration. De l’autre Israël est présenté comme un modèle de démocratie.

En réalité, il n’y a qu’un seul Etat d’Israël. Cet Etat discrimine aussi bien les Palestiniens qui composent un cinquième de la population israélienne que les Palestiniens vivant sous occupation. En Juillet, l’UE a offert de renforcer ses relations avec Israël dans environ 60 domaines. L’offre a été faite directement à Avigdor Liberman, le Ministre des Affaires Etrangères, dont le parti Yisrael Beitenu a participé à une série de mesures racistes adoptées par la Knesset (parlement Israélien).

Deux semaines auparavant, José Manuel Barroso recevait un diplôme honorifique de la part de l’Université d’Haifa. Un des fondateurs de cette institution, Arnon Sofer, a participé à la conception du mur en Cisjordanie et a soutenu que les Israéliens devaient tuer les Palestiniens ‘’toute la journée et tous les jours’’.

Au lieu de saisir l’occasion de condamner une incitation à la haine aussi flagrante, Barroso a mentionné la citation suivante de Nelson Mandela : ‘’ce n’est qu’après avoir franchi une haute colline, que l’on se rend compte qu’il reste de nombreuses collines à franchir’’.

Si les personnes chargées de la rédaction des discours de Barroso s’étaient donné la peine de chercher un peu plus, ils auraient pu inclure le commentaire plus pertinent du même Mandela ‘’notre liberté sera incomplète sans la liberté des Palestiniens’’.

L’université de Haifa a interdit à des étudiants palestiniens le droit de manifester. Est-ce que Barroso a dénoncé cette liberté incomplète ? Non. Il était trop occupé à flatter ici et là.


Monday, September 24, 2012

The demolition of Spain's welfare state

My little brain always had trouble with riddles. “Is it better to be nearly drowned or nearly saved?” An age seemed to pass before I had figured out the answer to that question.

Some day soon – assuming that newspaper predictions come true – Spain will apply for a “rescue package”. The inevitability that any such “package” or “bail-out” will have onerous conditions attached has got me thinking afresh about the riddle that blighted my boyhood. If a man is drowning, is it right to stamp your foot on his head?

Spain’s working and jobless people find themselves in the position of the metaphorical drowning man. Heartless ideologues – some based in Madrid; others outside the country – have exploited their plight to introduce “reforms” that would have not been contemplated a few years ago.

The journal Clinical Medicine has just published the results of a new study into the health effects of austerity measures in a sample of European countries. It argues that the centre-right government in Spain has “fundamentally reworked the healthcare system” within less than a year. Whereas all residents had previously been entitled to free medical attention, access to care is now being linked to employment. The upshot, then, is that Spain is becoming more like the US, where medical entitlements are also connected to holding a job. In the measured words of Martin McKee, a public health professor, and the other academics behind the study, “this creates a potentially serious situation in Spain, where over half of all youth are unemployed.”

Common sense?

Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, insists that the measures being implemented reflect “common sense”. The rules of democracy have not deterred him. He has resorted to both the standard practice of reneging on election pledges and the more extraordinary step of having decisions enforced by royal decree. Why let pesky legislative procedures stand in the way of “common sense”?

Of course, the next question should be: who benefits from this “common sense”? Could it be the kind of individuals who are applauding the measures most enthusiastically?

Francisco González, chief executive of the bank BBVA, belongs in that category. In April, he travelled to Berlin, where he addressed the Spanish-German Forum. He availed of the occasion to advocate “a labour law reform that eliminates the problems of collective bargaining”.

What this really means is that he was urging the kind of war against trade unions that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher waged in the 1980s. According to his mindset, the hard-won right of workers to bargain for decent wages is a problem that must be eliminated.

Like a tabloid journalist, González does not allow the truth get in the way of his story. The truth is that Spain’s economic woes were not caused by collective bargaining. They were caused by financial speculation. As part of a property bubble, more houses were built in Spain over the past decade than in Britain, France and Germany combined. Who profited from this speculation? Could it have been some of those bankers that González regaled in Berlin?

A careful reading of González’s comments might leave one wondering what he has to whinge about. He bragged of how BBVA “had earnings of 4.6 billion euros in 2010, the worst of the crisis”. It is known that German banks were heavily involved in property speculation in Spain and Ireland, where a similar construction boom took place. And yet DeutscheBank made a cool 8 billion euros in profits last year.

Who will stand to gain from any new “rescue package” for Spain? Could it be a banking elite?

Concealing the truth

The sycophants who surround Olli Rehn like to give the impression he has an unrivalled knowledge of Europe’s economic history. Yet the EU’s monetary affairs commissioner is not above concealing important details when it suits him.

Rehn recently said that “Europe is undergoing a difficult but necessary adjustments of imbalances” in the 10 years preceding 2008. “Countries that have been running current account deficits for a long time need to achieve surpluses in order to begin to reduce their debt,” he added.

A little bit of fact-checking reveals that Spain was not running a budget deficit before the crisis erupted. On the contrary, it ran a surplus.

In his bid to refashion the European economy, Rehn has decided to mislead. The crisis we are living through now is not the result of profligacy in the public sector. It is the result of lax regulation in the financial sector.

Asbjorn Wahl’s book The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State shows how strong social protection can’t be done on the cheap. To pursue the kind of social policies found in Scandinavia, it’s necessary for half the economy to be “under direct political control”, Wahl wrote.

In 2007 - before the crisis - Spain introduced a subsidy for new-born babies, the kind of benefit associated with Sweden. It has now been scrapped.

These kind of advances are not being reversed because Spain can no longer afford them. They are being reversed because they clash with the pervading philosophy among the EU’s powerful. According to that philosophy, “competitiveness” and profit maximisation must be prioritised over everything else.

With full connivance from the EU hierarchy, Spain is destroying the welfare state. When Rajoy speaks of “common sense”, he means that his demolition derby makes sense if you want capitalism to triumph and Europe to become a carbon copy of the US.

●First published by New Europe, 23-29 September 2012.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Boycotting Israel: a moral imperative

The Palestinian quest for justice and freedom can be summarised in one beautiful word: sumoud. Usually, it is translated as “steadfastness” but I’m not sure the English term properly evokes the spirit that has sustained a people through many decades of dispossession.

While the situation in Palestine remains intolerable, there have been a number of signs recently that the perseverance is producing results. This has nothing to do with “leaders” like Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, whose pandering to Israeli aggression has won them much praise in the West. Instead, the gains have been made through the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel that was launched in 2005.

By shaming corporations who assist human rights abuses, this initiative by ordinary Palestinians has made even the greediest look vulnerable in the face of popular outrage. Veolia, the French transport and “environmental services” giant, has lost numerous municipal contracts throughout the world over its role in building a tramway linking together illegal Jewish-only settlements in East Jerusalem. Agrexco, Israel’s main food exporter, went bankrupt last year, largely because conscientious European shoppers were refusing to buy the fruit and vegetables it traded.

Is the BDS campaign about to prod the European Union into action?

Eamon Gilmore, the Irish foreign minister, has stated that he wishes to have a possible ban on goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank considered when Ireland holds the EU’s rotating presidency in 2013. His willingness to put this issue on the agenda is certainly commendable. Goods from these settlements – illegal under international law – should have been prohibited long ago.

Yet by refusing to contemplate a wider boycott of Israel, Gilmore is missing (perhaps deliberately) some key points. The tomatoes and avocadoes that would be banned if his suggestion wins enough support from other EU governments cannot be deemed guilty of abetting war crimes. It is, therefore, essential to target the companies and politicians responsible for the oppression of Palestinians – or making money from that oppression.

The example of Israeli wines is illustrative. In order to conceal how grapes grown on settlements are often used in wines, the Israeli Export Institute has taken a creative approach to geography. The region of Shimson (or Samson) has been established between the mountains of Jerusalem and the Mediterranean coast; part of it is in the internationally recognised state of Israel, part of it in the occupied West Bank. As this region has been imagined for the sole purpose of marketing wine, it’s not difficult for wineries to pass off fruit from illegal settlements as that grown inside Israel. The best thing to do, then, is to refuse to drink any Israeli wine. Research by Who Profits?, a project run by the Coalition of Women for Peace (a group of Israeli and Palestinian activists), has shown that the Israeli wine industry cannot be viewed separately from the occupation. Most Israeli wine exporters have some involvement with the settlements.

Those who argue that an outright ban on Israeli goods would be too drastic should study a new legal paper from Al Haq, a human rights organisation based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The paper says that when one state assists another state that has committed an unlawful act, the first state “adopts” that act and is fully answerable for it. Al Haq’s analysis has been endorsed by John Dugard, a former UN special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine, among other legal scholars.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice declared the massive wall being built by Israel in the West Bank to be illegal. The ruling emphasised that other governments must not render assistance to the wall.

To its shame, the European Commission has ignored the ruling. Companies that have provided surveillance equipment to the wall – notably Elbit – have benefited considerably from scientific research grants subsequently approved by the Commission. Individual governments have hugged Elbit even tighter: the weapons-maker is leading a $1 billion programme to develop new pilotless warplanes for the British Army.

Reading official EU statements on Israel can be perplexing. Taken at face value, they infer that what Israel does in the West Bank and Gaza is some kind of aberration and that Israel is otherwise a model democracy.

In truth, there is only one state of Israel. This state discriminates against both those Palestinians who comprise about one-fifth of Israel’s population and those Palestinians who live under occupation. In July, the EU offered to strengthen its relations with Israel in about 60 different policy areas. The offer was made directly to Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, whose partly Yisrael Beitenu has sponsored a series of racist measures in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament).

Two weeks earlier, José Manuel Barroso picked up an honorary degree from Haifa University. A founder that institution, Arnon Sofer, helped design Israel’s wall in the West Bank and has argued that Israelis should kill Palestinians “all day and every day”.

Rather than using the opportunity to condemn such blatant incitement to hatred, Barroso quoted Nelson Mandela’s observation: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

If Barroso’s speechwriters had searched a little harder they might have included a more apposite comment by Mandela: “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.

Haifa University has banned protests by Palestinian students. Did Barroso decry this incomplete freedom? No, he was too busy fawning.

●First published by New Europe, 16-22 September 2012.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Slaying the myths of NATO's Balkan Odyssey

Bare-chested on a hot afternoon, a young man tiptoes along the edge of the Mostar bridge. Tourists are asked to give him cash; once he has collected 25 euros, he will leap into the Neretva river beneath. By taking this frightening plunge, he will – according to local custom – prove his masculinity.

Not patient enough to wait until the magic sum has been amassed, I toddle towards a shop selling books and DVDs. A flat screen reminds us of how the milky limestone bridge – an architectural gem dating from the sixteenth century – was blown up on 9 November 1993. Croat forces were almost certainly to blame.

I haven’t been in Bosnia (strictly speaking, this is Herzegovina) since 1997. Younger and more idealistic then, I acted as an election monitor for the UN. I came away hypnotised by Bosnia’s beauty and by the myths of recent history. The salient myth went like this: Europe dithered pathetically as Yugoslavia disintegrated but good old Bill Clinton eventually came to the rescue.

Having learnt a little about international politics in the meantime, I now realise that saving lives in the Balkans was not high on America’s list of priorities. Rather, the US was determined to bring this region into its ambit. Under Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia made plain its distrust of NATO by setting up the Non-Aligned Movement. By bombing Bosnia’s Serbs and – in 1999 – Serbia, Clinton set in train a process whereby most, if not all, of the former Yugoslav federation would be integrated into a US-directed military alliance.

The praise often heaped on Clinton for his conduct of the war over Kosovo ignores how the worst acts of violence committed by Serbian forces happened after – not before - NATO intervened. Wesley Clark, NATO’s commander at the time, conceded that the Serbians were acting in response to the bombing and that their atrocities were “fully anticipated”. NATO, incidentally, perpetrated war crimes of its own – especially by spraying parts of Serbia with cluster bombs and by acting without a UN mandate – yet we are seldom reminded of these facts.

Despite the painstaking restoration of its bridge, the legacy of the 1990s war remains visible in Mostar. Buildings shelled elsewhere in the city have often gone unrepaired; many are empty and abandoned.

Across the border with Croatia, Dubrovnik was also the sight of much cultural vandalism. An exhibition of photographs opposite one of those Irish pubs I have grown to loathe depicts a fourteenth century Dominican church, its roof riddled with holes. It was one of 563 buildings within the old city’s walls hit by Serb and Montenegrin forces 20 years ago. Yet the million people who have visited Dubrovnik so far this year did not notice any destruction; everything has been fixed.

There are unsavoury sides to the tourist boom in Dubrovnik – which has just 45,000 all-year-round inhabitants. A boat trip around its port features a skipper pointing out the prices charged by hotels. Rooms in the favourite hotel of Russian billionaires cost 7,000 euro a night. “Mafia,” the captain says, lest we haven’t understood.

Marcus Tanner’s book Croatia: A Nation Forged in War kicks off by emphasising that Croatians usually see themselves as part of the West and object when their country is described as Balkan. In 2009, Croatia entered that Western – though expanding eastwards – club called NATO. When Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary-general, visited Dubrovnik in July this year he lauded Croatia for its commitment to “smart defence”. The main illustration of this commitment was how Croatians were leading a training exercise for police in Afghanistan.

In Rasmussen’s view, helping the US-led occupation of Afghanistan is the “smart” thing to do. If sucking up to the Pentagon is “smart”, he might be right. Yet Rasmussen should not be allowed think that he reflects public opinion; polls in America indicate that only 30% of its citizens now regard the war in Afghanistan as one that was worth fighting.

Once again, we have WikiLeaks to thank for shedding light on America’s meddling in Europe’s affairs. A 2009 diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Zagreb – published by Julian Assange’s crew – showed that America was adamant that Croatia be admitted into the European Union without delay. The American officials voiced frustration with Britain and The Netherlands over their insistence that Croatia cooperate fully with the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Having been led by Tony Blair for a decade, Britain is not in a strong position to lecture others on war crimes. Yet is it America’s business to dictate who should and shouldn’t be in the EU? Clearly it is. This cable refers to worries that the British and Dutch stance could “undermine the US stake” both in Croatia’s reforms and “the region’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions”.

Note that wording: Euro-Atlantic institutions. This is a definite indication that Washington sees the EU as its vassal.

As things stand, Croatia expects to enter the Union next year. I was curious to see if ordinary Croatians were enthusiastic about joining, so I consulted that universally recognised barometer of the prevailing mood: a taxi-driver. Membership would be a good thing, my cabbie said, as it would make it easier for his daughter to emigrate.

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the policies pursued by Washington and Brussels but it’s realistic. The Balkans’ problems won’t disappear by replacing one federation with another.

●First published by New Europe, 9-15 September 2012.