Friday, June 28, 2013

The high priests of austerity

Jean-Claude Trichet could have enjoyed a comfortable retirement after stepping down as president of the European Central Bank in 2011. Commanding an annual salary of €370,000 in his old job, the Frenchman is now paid a pension of up to 70% that amount.

Instead, Trichet has been kept busy playing a game of musical chairs with Mario Monti. In one of his final acts as ECB chief, Trichet spearheaded the downfall of Silvio Berlusconi by insisting that the lascivious rogue introduce unpalatable economic "reforms" in Italy as a condition of emergency "assistance".

The diktat helped Monti replace Berlusconi as prime minister (without an election). It also allowed Trichet to fill two posts that Monti had to vacate: those of European chairman with the Trilateral Commission, that secretive club for political and business leaders, and chairman of Bruegel, a "think tank" in Brussels. Trichet combines these responsibilities with overseeing the Group of 30, a Washington-based institution dominated by bankers.

Muddled messages

All this hyper-activity might explain why Trichet has been sending out some muddled messages. During an interview on French television earlier this month, he blamed mass unemployment for the killing of a far-left activist by skinheads before advocating deep cuts to public expenditure: a recipe for mass unemployment.

Suave and confident, Trichet probably didn't realise he was contradicting himself. So I'd recommend that he reads a paper published by his minions at Bruegel in May. An assessment of measures taken in embattled euro-zone economies, it stated that austerity has caused "very high unemployment" in Greece and "record unemployment levels" in Portugal.

This was a rare admission from Bruegel that its preferred prescriptions are counterproductive.

Funded by Goldman Sachs (another one-time Monti employer), Deutsche Bank, Pfizer and Microsoft, the think tank has helped cloak the crude politics of austerity with intellectual gravitas. It is treated with reverence among the elite in Brussels and beyond. Top-ranking EU officials regularly attend its events, while opinion pieces by its staff grace such newspapers as Le Monde and The Financial Times.

"Hard choices"

Bruegel was established by Jean Pisani-Ferry, who was hired as an economics adviser by François Hollande, the French president, in April. The appointment indicates that Hollande, nominally a socialist, is lurching increasingly to the right. In a syndicated column from December 2012, Pisani-Ferry parroted Margaret Thatcher's argument that "there is no alternative" to eviscerating the welfare state. "Rather than flirting with illusions, governments should confront the hard choices ahead of them," he stated.

Pisani-Ferry's new responsibilities have not caused him to be more reticent. When flaws were recently pinpointed in a by now infamous paper from the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, he claimed it was "never a celebrated piece of economic research". The shortcomings did not undermine the case for austerity, he suggested.

One common misperception is that the EU's most powerful figures have made up their response to the economic crisis as it went along. The truth is that they have exploited the situation to dust down plans hatched earlier but which would have been difficult to implement under less straitened circumstances.

André Sapir, a senior fellow at Bruegel, was tasked with drawing up a series of recommendations for the European Commission nearly a decade ago. The 2004 Sapir report advocated that the Brussels authorities be given greater powers to monitor the budgets of EU countries.

Mushrooming network

Known to policy wonks as the "European semester", his proposal urged meddling in areas of responsibility that national governments guarded jealously. The concept has been turned into reality over the past few years, leading to a situation where details of Ireland's budgets are sent to other European capitals before law-makers in Dublin get to see them.

Bruegel is part of a mushrooming network of corporate-financed think tanks dedicated to keeping debate within narrow parameters. A video posted on Bruegel's website about Latvia's bid to join the euro illustrates this point. It tells the viewer that there is "wide consensus" that signing up to the single currency would be "the right move for the country".

That must be news to the people of Latvia, most of whom don't want the euro, according to opinion polls. Such inconvenient details can, of course, be glossed over. More than likely, the Riga government won't be calling a referendum on this matter.

Democracy does not gatecrash the cheese and wine receptions that happen almost nightly in the world of think tanks. Without scrutiny, their "experts" can mould the outside world in the way that the wealthy and influential want.

•First published by New Statesman, 28 June 2012.

Europe kowtows to Kerry on "peace process"

John Kerry used to baffle me.

When he was running for president in 2004, Kerry had to keep quiet about how he could speak French. Being brainy enough to have a good command of a second language was something of a liability in US politics, it seemed.

As most of my American friends were smart and witty, I couldn't accept this caricature of the general US population scorning education. I still can't.

Despite the confusion he has caused, I have grasped one thing about Kerry. Regardless of what language he speaks as secretary of state, the European Union will do what he says.

This week, the EU's foreign ministers declared their full support for Kerry's efforts to revive the moribund Middle East "peace process." Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues were delighted by the terse statement which the ministers issued. A more detailed communiqué upbraiding Israel for its ongoing construction of illegal settlements was reportedly binned.

Sacred flame?

Why is Europe voicing confidence in a US-led initiative? By providing $3 billion in military aid to Israel each year, no nation is less qualified to bring peace than America. But speaking the truth about "our friends in Washington" -- a term used habitually by Brussels-based diplomats -- is taboo.

A recent quote from an unnamed diplomat in European Voice, a weekly paper published in Brussels, indicates that EU officials are seriously deluded. According to this diplomat, the Union was "the only actor keeping alight the sacred flame of the two-state solution" last year (when the US was preoccupied with re-electing Obama).

What is sacred about the "two-state solution"? The idea of building a Palestinian nation on a fraction of historic Palestine amounted to a sordid compromise, to begin with. With Israel ploughing ahead with a massive expansion of its colonization program -- by, for example, seizing the area between Jerusalem and the West Bank known as E-1 -- there is no longer any prospect of having any kind of viable Palestinian state.

The unholy flame of the two-state solution has, therefore, been extinguished. So why are EU diplomats patting themselves on the back for keeping it alight?

Dithering on labels

The EU has also dithered on introducing mandatory labeling for produce emanating from Israeli settlements. This idea could have been approved by the foreign ministers this week if they weren't so busy kowtowing to Kerry. Instead, it has been delayed once again.

Andrew Standley, head of the EU's embassy in Tel Aviv, has insisted that the plan nonetheless remains on the agenda.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Standley presented the move as purely a "consumer protection" issue. “It is important to emphasize that, indeed, it is not a boycott,” he said. “At no time, at no stage, has anyone called for settlement products to be prohibited from entering the EU.”

Standley was speaking about the European elite. Ordinary folk who believe in standing with the Palestinians are calling for a complete ban on settlement products, as well as a complete boycott of Israeli goods (not just those from settlements).

Ducking the issue

Correctly stating where goods originate from would certainly be useful as an awareness-raising exercise. Yet it would duck the central issue that these settlements are illegal under international law. By allowing exports from the settlements to continue, the EU is facilitating violations of international law -- something it should regard as far more "sacred" than the futile quest for a two-state solution.

While Standley has hinted that labeling should only be a matter of time, I wouldn't be surprised if the EU finds further excuses to procrastinate. Israel and the lobby network which supports it are exerting pressure on the Union to drop the labeling move altogether.

Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, has written to senior EU figures in the past few days. According to him, the "timing of the labeling move is inauspicious as it is diverting energies that could be better placed supporting positive moves towards restarting direct negotiations between the parties."

The argument that you shouldn't do anything to jeopardize the peace process is an old one. Sadly, it's also an effective one.

The EU's governments and institutions are willing to play along with this absurd charade, in which warmongers masquerade as peacemakers. Everything must be done to avoid upsetting their puppet-masters in Washington. What Kerry says goes.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 28 June 2013.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Revealed: Van Rompuy plots corporate conquest of Europe

A golden staircase greets guests to De Warande, an exclusive club in central Brussels. Built in the late eighteenth century, this mansion was acquired in 1907 by François Empain, a banker who helped his royal chum Leopold II loot the Congo. With its historical association to imperial conquest, it is surely an apt venue for furtive talks on how to reorder Europe.

On 8 March 2010, Herman Van Rompuy, the EU's "president", dined here with 10 business leader. The select grouping mulled over how they could exploit the ongoing economic crisis to the benefit of the ultra-rich. Among those invited were board members of Volvo, Nokia, Nestlé and Philips. Fittingly, Umicore - a firm set up to exploit Congo's mines (which it still does) - was represented, too.

I have obtained Van Rompuy's speaking notes for the occasion. He began by likening his role to that of a chairman of a holding company, who doesn't have shares in the individual firms belonging to it. After that apparent witticism, he claimed that all EU governments agree on a "familiar" list of priorities for raising productivity: "innovation, higher quality of human capital through education, pension reform".

"Genuine pressure"

To achieve these objectives, Van Rompuy briefly presented a vision for greater economic coordination. It would consist of reducing the number of targets set for EU governments and turning "peer pressure into genuine pressure".

The dinner was hosted by the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT), which brings together about 50 powerful entrepreneurs. It was one of several such confabs between Van Rompuy and the ERT in his current role. Though he is supposed to be a public servant - not the chairman of a holding company - Van Rompuy and his team have not published any details of these meetings.

Fancying himself as a philosopher and a poet, Van Rompuy was not crude enough to say that he wanted the pursuit of profit to trump all other goals. But that is the effect of his argument - particularly on pension "reform".

Van Rompuy conceded in his comments that politicians who propose raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 will have a tough job being re-elected. So he and others in the Brussels bureaucracy are discussing how this can be done without voters obstructing their plans.

Reversing gains

And this isn't purely a matter of addressing what policy wonks call the demographic "time-bomb" (surely an ageist phrase) caused by rising life expectancy. Pensions are one of many advances won through workers' relentless struggle that the ERT - one of the most influential lobby groups in Europe - wants to reverse. The ERT's push for pension reform didn't begin with the current crisis: it first described the pension entitlements that are integral to the entire concept of the welfare state as an "economic threat" in 2000.

One month before the 2010 soirée in De Warande, Van Rompuy received a letter from the ERT stating that "urgent transformation is necessary". It was signed by Leif Johansson, then of Volvo, and Gerard Kleisterlee, then of Philips.

The kind of "transformation" desired has been elaborated on in a series of ERT briefing papers. One key recommendation was that all legislation viewed as incompatible with the bosses' agenda should be "reviewed" - a coded way of saying "gutted". The impact of new laws on business would have to be "screened". An impact assessment procedure "must send back" laws that hamper profit maximisation, the ERT argued.

The ERT's repeated calls for greater investment in education should be treated sceptically. In 2011, Johansson - now representing Ericsson - sent a detailed list of demands to Van Rompuy. Johansson insisted that the EU "mainstream competitiveness" into all its policies. "Competiveness" is a synonym for corporate dominance.

Bonfire of laws

Special emphasis was placed on opening up services to the private sector. Reading between the lines, it was clear that Johansson wished such services to include health, education, water and public transport. All of these are essential to social justice; Johansson is pushing for them to be handed over to corporations.

In a reply to Johansson, one of Van Rompuy's advisers stated the president "agrees to a great extent with your recommendations". Bolstered by that response, the ERT went even further last year by urging an "immediate halt" to new regulation "which has no proven immediate effect on economic growth".

The call is not being made in a vacuum. Under the watchful eye of Edmund Stoiber, a bigwig in Bavarian politics, an EU group of "experts" is already preparing a bonfire of laws that the captains of industry don't like. Everything from commitments on climate change to the rights of people with disabilities is being attacked by these "experts".

The "competiveness" that the ERT espouses habitually should not be confused with competition. In its discussions with Van Rompuy and other "important" figures, the ERT has been urging that the EU become more relaxed about controlling mergers between large companies. It is clear what the result of this hands-off approach would be: power would be concentrated in fewer corporate hands than is now the case. This is a recipe for oligopoly, not for dynamism.

What is going on here? Democracy is being eroded by a dozen or so individuals who meet in private clubs. They are all rich, white and male. They have nothing in common with 99% of the world's population. They are our enemies: so let's start fighting them.

•First published by New Europe, 23-2 9 June 2013.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Bono love-bombs mass murderer Shimon Peres

Bono is almost equally well known as a charity worker as a singer. The latest beneficiaries of his generosity are war criminals and their wives.

On Tuesday, the U2 frontman gave up his lunch-time to keep Michelle Obama company on her trip to Dublin. Poor Michelle sees little of her husband on that day of the week: Barack spends it compiling a list of people he wants to have killed by drone strikes. The president was extra busy this particular Tuesday, attending a G8 summit in the north of Ireland and assuring other world leaders that he wouldn't dream of reading their emails.

Having dined for Ireland, the ubiquitous Bono was spotted in Jerusalem that evening, wishing a happy 90th birthday to Shimon Peres. Admittedly, Bono's message was delivered on a video screen. But he seems to have been there in spirit as he declared Peres "a great gift not only to Israel but to the entire world."

Ever the diplomat, Bono did not dwell on the track record of this "great gift": how Peres helped build up Israel's arms industry, including its nuclear weapons capability; how he ordered the bombardment of Lebanon in 1996 (including the massacre of 102 civilians in Qana); how he has supported Israel's recent attacks on Gaza; how he has honored soldiers who helped to kill Turkish peace activists in 2010.

Old pals

It is a shame that Bono wasn't able to make Peres' bash. If he was there in person, he could have caught up with his old pals, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Bono regards these statesmen as unwavering champions of Africa's poor.

Once more, the singer is prepared to overlook a few embarrassments in order to concentrate on the big picture. He doesn't remind his audiences, for example, that while Blair was pledging to make poverty history as prime minister, he was simultaneously putting pressure on Tanzania to buy British weapons. It would be impolite to observe that the money involved could have been better spent on schools or clinics.

And, of course, Bono is too gentlemanly to draw attention to how Clinton's campaign work on access to medicines has an ironic twist to it: back in 1998, Clinton destroyed a factory that manufactured medicines in Sudan. (Few of us recall that minor transgression, anyway: the mainstream media was preoccupied that year investigating what Clinton may have got up to with a White House intern).


Bono has grown up a lot since the 1980s. His mullet has been replaced by a less unruly mane. And the idealist of his youth has morphed into a more shrewd do-gooder, the sort who admires how Bill Gates can dress up tax dodging as philanthropy.

Once upon a time, Bono was an enthusiastic supporter of the campaign for a cultural boycott of South Africa. He was also a critic of Ronald Reagan's foreign policy and of the arms industry.

Today, Bono seems happy to follow the "principle" of "constructive engagement" that Reagan advocated towards apartheid states (like Israel). And Bono had no qualms about taking part in Peres' celebration, even though it was financed by Israel's weapons manufacturers.

Not all fans of his music have matured in the same way. I am one of those who learned about Martin Luther King by listening to Pride (In the Name of Love) and Latin American death squads by listening to Mothers of the Disappeared. I am appalled that Bono - an Amnesty International "ambassador of conscience" - has love-bombed a mass murderer like Shimon Peres.

Lest I be accused of being heartless, I wouldn't deprive anyone of a slice of cake or a glass of champagne on his or her 90th birthday. But in Shimon Peres' case, I think they should be served to him in a prison cell.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 20 June 2013.

The crocodile tears of Samantha Power

Finding an ancestral link to Ireland seems to be mandatory for ambitious American politicians. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama all successfully dug for genealogical gold.

Newt Gingrich -- who famously branded Palestinians an "invented people" -- has been less lucky in inventing a Hibernian past. There is a hilarious passage in Lawrence Donegan's book No News At Throat Lake about Gingrich visiting County Donegal in search of his antecedents, only to be told there was no record of them in local archives.

Samantha Power is unmistakably Irish: she was born in Dublin. If she is ever tempted to explore the full reach of her family tree, I hope to God that she doesn't claim me as a relative. Power is my mother's maiden name.


Like most Irish-Americans who have climbed the political ladder, Samantha Power is an opportunist and a hypocrite. She has built a profitable career out of posing as a human rights activist, while being happy to court human rights abusers whenever it was expedient to do so.

Back in 2002, Power apparently upset those sensitive souls in the Zionist lobby when she dared to suggest that the US should impose a "solution" in Palestine. It was an offensive remark as it inferred that America wanted peace, when it had provided Israel with many of the arms being used to butcher Palestinians. But that wasn't why the lobby got offended: it felt that she had committed the mortal sin of criticizing Israel.

Writing in The Huffington Post, Shmuley Boteach -- apparently the "most famous rabbi in America" -- recently bragged of how he convinced the Zionist lobby to trust Power. Boteach arranged for Power to meet 40 top lobbyists. During the encounter, "tears streamed down her cheeks," he wrote, as Power insisted that her comments had been misconstrued.


As if that wasn't nauseating enough, I've also read an article in the Israeli daily Haaretz about Power's recent job in the White House. In 2009, she played a "central role", the paper says, in coordinating contacts between the US and Israel on managing the political fall-out of Israel's attack on Gaza at the beginning of that year. Power helped Israel to minimize the damage caused by the Goldstone report, the findings of a UN mission that Israel had perpetrated war crimes.

This, let us remember, was the same Samantha Power who advocates "atrocity prevention" and the "responsibility to protect." Palestinians attacked by Israeli and American weapons, however, are not deemed worthy of protection.

Arguably more disgusting again is the fact that Power has edited a hagiography of Richard Holbrooke.

According to Suzanne Nossel -- an understudy to Hillary Clinton who went on to head Amnesty International's office in the US -- Power and Holbrooke are kindred spirits. Nossel is probably right, albeit not for the reasons she cited in her contribution to the journal Foreign Affairs.

Just as Power has shielded Israel from criticism, Holbrooke (as an assistant secretary of state in the 1970s) helped cover up atrocities carried out by Indonesia in East Timor. Holbrooke has been fêted as a campaigner against genocide, when he actually facilitated one of the twentieth century's worst acts of genocide: about one-third of East Timor's population was wiped out.

Samantha Power is no friend of those who sincerely champion human rights: they have an obligation to call her out as a fraud. She is adept at crying tears over atrocities undertaken by America's enemies How many tears has she shed for the victims of US drone strikes or Israel's siege on Gaza? Precisely none.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 18 June 2013.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Nelson Mandela: a flawed hero

Ten years ago this summer I embarked on a road-trip dedicated to Nelson Mandela.

I went to the house in Soweto where he and Winnie lived in the 1950s; the Indian restaurant in Johannesburg where he dined as a young lawyer; the cell where he was incarcerated on Robben Island. When I heard there was a museum dedicated to him in Umtata, I hopped on a bus there, arriving at an empty station in the middle of the night. My travelling companion was a copy of his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

Over three weeks in South Africa, I encountered great warmth and humour. Staying with a family in a township, I was given a basin of water to wash with each day. "Here is your jacuzzi," the young man who delivered it would announce, chuckling.

I witnessed some efforts being made by the authorities to improve the lot of the poor: by, for example, providing shack-dwellers in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, with proper homes. But I also got depressed when I visited an uncle of mine, who then had an apartment near Durban. His friends and neighbours were exclusively white. One of them was a policeman who told jokes about killing kaffirs, a pejorative term for black people. Another was so ill-informed he didn't know that Rhodesia was now called Zimbabwe (a country right beside South Africa).

It was shocking to see how mentalities forged by racial stratification persisted. No sooner had I entered one particular taxi than the coloured driver exclaimed "This used to be a wonderful country; then the blacks took over". Was this the "rainbow nation" Mandela had celebrated so eloquently?

Deep admiration

I retain a deep admiration for Mandela; anyone who was imprisoned for taking on an odious regime merits respect from people of conscience everywhere. Yet I no longer revere him the way I used to. That is because he abandoned principles that were at the very core of the liberation struggle to which he devoted most of his life.

Mandela took part in the 1955 Congress of the People in Kliptown (part of Soweto). The Freedom Charter agreed at that gathering stated that the banks, minerals and industry of South Africa would be nationalised once apartheid was vanquished.

Both the spirit and the letter of the charter were broken by Mandela following his release. One of his worst U-turns was to embrace the owners of the mines, who had quite literally treated the indigenous population as slaves. In 1994, Mandela went so far as to submit the African National Congress' economic programme to Harry Oppenheimer for his approval. Oppenheimer had been the chairman of De Beers and Anglo-American, two mining firms that had provided crucial economic support for apartheid.

I have no doubt that Mandela was put under enormous pressure by the world's leading politicians and businessmen to behave in the way they wanted. By his own admission, the ripping up of the commitment to nationalise South Africa's mines was the result of his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Almost certainly, South Africa was threatened with losing investors if Mandela went about putting the Freedom Charter into effect.


Representatives of the European Union effectively mugged his people.

As president, Mandela oversaw the conclusion of a "free trade agreement" with the EU. It was grotesquely unjust. South Africa was required to remove taxes levied on 81% of food and other agricultural goods from the Union. As most of these goods benefit from generous subsidies, there was no way that South African farmers could be expected to compete with them.

Of course, Mandela could not be blamed for the endurance of racist attitudes. Nonetheless, he and other senior figures in the ANC helped usher in a slightly modified form of apartheid. The wealthy white were allowed hold on to their cricket clubs and other privileges, provided they allowed a few black entrepreneurs - epitomised by Mandela's one-time confidant Cyril Ramaphosa - to join their ranks. The vast majority of the population was, by contrast, condemned to poverty. Unemployment almost doubled between 1995 and 2000.

Mandela turned his back on other beliefs, too. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in 1992, he argued that "the trade in weapons of death will have to be reduced to an absolute minimum". Two years later he was asked by John Major, then Britain's prime minister, to consider buying a large consignment of weapons from the UK. Tony Blair followed up on his predecessor's overture when he visited South Africa in 1999. The pressure paid off: a multi-billion dollar deal was clinched that year; its chief beneficiaries were the arms firms BAE Systems and Saab.

Rekindle the spirit

I am ashamed of the way journalists have covered Mandela's declining health, affording no privacy to his loved-ones. The focus on Mandela is symptomatic of a more profound problem. He did not topple white rule single-handedly - nor did he ever claim to. Lavishing him with praise carries the risk of ignoring the countless others who have suffered.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to Mandela is to rekindle the ideals of the Freedom Charter. Triumphing over inequality requires constant dedication; unforgivably, some of his comrades in the ANC forgot this message as soon as their fortunes grew.

The struggle did not end when Mandela was released from prison. It cannot end with his death. In one form or another, it must continue. And it will.

•First published by New Europe, 16-22 June 2013.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Ban on bee-killers doesn't end EU bias towards pesticides

For once, the European Union's scientific advisers seem to have got something right. Three pesticides have been banned for two years after the wise boffins voiced concerns after their harmful effect on honey bees. The measure is of immense importance: about one-third of the fruit and vegetables in our diets are grown with the aid of insect pollination, so threats to bees imperil food production in general.

This isn't the end of the story, however. While the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy, should be applauded for initiating the research which led to the bans, that body continues to behave as if it is joined at the hip with big business.

The bees dossier offers a case in point.

EFSA's assessments of whether pesticides are safe are conducted by a panel of "experts", several of whom also undertake research financed by the chemical and agri-food industries.

One of those "experts" - Ettore Capri from Italy - even runs a "think tank", the main purpose of which is to downplay the dangers associated with pesticides.

Shifting the focus

Known by the acronym OPERA, this outfit recently published a report titled "Bee health in Europe". The report seeks to shift the focus from pesticides by pinning the blame for dwindling bee numbers on a "wide range of factors".

Though the document may be liberally sprinkled with scientific terminology, it cannot be considered as objective or unbiased. A careful reading shows that it was prepared with the help of Bayer, Syngenta, Dow and BASF. All of those firms make pesticides; their bottom line depends on being able to persuade regulators to approve their products.

I contacted EFSA spokesman James Ramsay, asking him if he accepted that Capri was involved in a conflict of interests. "No," Ramsay replied. He told me that OPERA was viewed by the authority as a "food safety organization" as it pursues "public interest objectives".

When I got in touch directly with Capri, he insisted that he is not involved in "research projects financed by private companies on bee health" and that he had not taken part in an EFSA working group dealing with bees.

Those explanations are Jesuitical.

OPERA's entry to the register of lobbyists run by the European Commission states that it received 50,000 euros from the private sector during 2012. If that money wasn't used on its research and advocacy work, then what was it used on? Interior decorating? Bus fares?

Moreover, OPERA jointly organised a conference with Syngenta in Brussels during September 2012. The programme for the event says that one of the main topics addressed was biodiversity, a concept that is meaningless without bees and other insects. Are we really to believe that Syngenta did not pay at least some of the costs of organising this event?

Capri's effort to distance himself from EFSA's work on bees is contradicted by information on the authority's own website. A list of participants for a "symposium" hosted by EFSA last month indicates that Capri was in attendance. You'll never guess the topic of this confab. Bees.

Faced with accusations that they are setting the agenda followed by EU institutions, corporate lobbyists tend to point to decisions which didn't go the way they wanted as evidence that they are not really that influential. The ban on bee-killing pesticides looks like that kind of a decision - until you examine it a bit more closely.

Bigger than bees

Firstly, the ban is of a limited duration: we can be certain that the chemicals industry will be pressing for it not to be renewed once it expires. Secondly, it has loopholes: the three pesticides may still be sprayed on winter cereals. Such crops may not attract bees directly but the use of pesticides on them means that toxic chemicals will still be released into the environment, with potentially adverse consequences for insects.

And thirdly, there are some dangerous substances not covered by the ban. Greenpeace has identified four pesticides in addition to the three ones recently banned that have been shown to "acutely affect bees", according to the group. These pesticides are widely used throughout Europe.

EFSA, again to its credit, has issued a warning about one the four substances - fipronil - over the past few weeks. Almost definitely, it will come under pressure from the chemical industry to ease off on its work on bees. Having scientists who are favourably disposed to pesticide-makers sitting on EFSA panels undoubtedly works to that industry's advantage.

There are bigger issues than honey bees at stake here. As I argue in my new book Corporate Europe, EFSA is in denial about how many of the "experts" it turns to for counsel are lackeys of big business. The authority has been admonished by the EU's internal watchdogs, the Court of Auditors and the Ombudsman, on some of these matters; yet the underlying problems persist.

In 2008, EFSA suffered some embarrassment when it emerged that Suzy Renckens, who coordinated its activities on genetically modified (GM) foods, was hired by Syngenta, a maker of GM seeds (as well as pesticides). The "revolving door" case begged the question: how can regulators be expected to put manners on firms they regard as future employers?

Syngenta supports Capri's activities but EFSA doesn't see this as in any way problematic. Syngenta has also lobbied strenuously against the ban on bee-killers.

There's only way of pretending there's nothing wrong here: burying your head in the sand.

•First published by New Europe, 9-15 June 2013.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"Bone-breaker" Rabin lauded in new book by veteran lobbyist

For a few hours last night, I read the newly-published autobiography of Robert Lifton, former president of the American Jewish Congress. It is a book that I could only recommend to masochists.

Admittedly, I didn't struggle my way through the entire 430 pages of An Entrepreneur's Journey, as the tome is titled. But I did check out the sections dealing with Lifton's work as a pro-Israel lobbyist. They made me feel unwell.

Lifton appears to be under the illusion that he is more reasonable than many other Zionist leaders in the US. He harps on, for example, about how he is a long-time advocate of a two-state solution, claiming that he assumed a "heretical position" on this issue in the 1980s.

An important detail in his business activities -- that he mentions casually, like a mere aside -- exposes him as a hypocrite.

One of the major shareholders in Lifton's company Medis Technologies was Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). As a manufacturer of warplanes and surveillance technology, IAI has benefited directly from the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. So while Lifton the political activist purports to want an end to that occupation, Lifton the businessman had a vested interest in perpetuating it. (The closest Lifton comes to recognizing that point is an allusion to how IAI was "engaged in Israel's most advanced military programs").

Hobnobbing with war criminals

Lifton recalls how he had the "pleasure" to host Yair Shamir at a dinner in New York City, when Shamir became chairman of IAI.

Yair's father Yitzhak Shamir was one of many Israeli prime ministers with whom Lifton hobnobbed. Of all the distinguished war criminals he met, he identified most closely with Yitzhak Rabin. Lifton portrays Rabin as a down-to-earth guy, who turned up at black-tie dinners without a tie and who solicited his advice on what type of tennis racket to use.

Unless I missed something, Lifton neglects to mention that the avuncular Rabin ordered Israeli troops to "break the bones" of Palestinians when he was defense minister during the first intifada -- an order that was taken literally. Lifton publicly supported Israel's frequently murderous tactics against that uprising. When Benjamin Netanyahu, then an Israeli diplomat, told Lifton he was pleasantly surprised that the American Jewish Congress didn't express disapproval of those tactics, Lifton replied: "We don't piss on our friends when they are down."


If Lifton's book serves a useful purpose, it is to remind us how the US has become increasingly hawkish in defending Israel.

When Ronald Reagan was president, his administration claimed that "both sides" bore responsibility for the violence of the first intifada. Lifton privately rebuked senior US officials for this "unfortunate attempt to be even-handed."

The language of "both sides" used by the Reagan administration was fallacious: heavily-armed forces of occupation cannot seriously be compared with stone-throwing Palestinians. It is nonetheless instructive that Washington (with the occasional exception) no longer feels obliged to sound "balanced" -- as exemplified by its enthusiastic backing of Israel's attacks on Gaza and the refusal to criticize Israel's recent bombing of Syria.

Lifton has strong connections with Israel's arms industry, as well as the Zionist lobby. Yet he downplays the influence of this lobby. Scholars such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who have documented that the Zionist lobby pushed the US to invade Iraq, are "unsophisticated," in his view.

Over the past few years, Lifton has tried to counter the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. He has opposed moves by church groups to sever their ties with firms complicit in the occupation on the grounds that divestment would be "clearly detrimental to Israel's commercial activities in this country."

That says it all, really. For all his "flexibility," Lifton is unwavering in defending the economic interests that enable Israel to continue behaving as a rogue state.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 4 June 2013.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Locking Latvia into austerity

Over the next few days Europe will become a little more undemocratic than it already is.

Latvia's application to join the euro is about to be formally approved by the Brussels bureaucracy. Most people in that Baltic state are opposed to the move, according to opinion polls. Yet they are not being given any say in the matter. More than likely, Latvia will be ushered into the single currency in 2014 without a referendum being called.

Don't expect this virtual coup to elicit much reaction in the mainstream press. We, journalists, are supposed to be in awe of how Latvia has undergone a rapid recovery.

The New York Times has hailed Valdis Dombrovskis, the country's prime minister, as "something of a star pupil." Riga has won similar praise from the International Monetary Fund. Christine Lagarde, the IMF's chief, regards Latvia as a "success story." The fund's top economist Olivier Blanchard has argued that "Latvians could take the pain" of austerity and that they enjoyed "ownership" of an "adjustment" programme.

Blanchard was not the first IMF representative to adopt a patronising tone towards people who were suffering. Nor was he the first to spread a falsehood.

In December 2008, Latvia accepted a loan of 7.5 billion euros, most of it from the EU and IMF, because of a crisis in its banking sector (not profligacy in public spending, as Blanchard wants us to believe). Far from granting Latvia "ownership" of this money, the creditors released it with sadistic conditions attached.

Brutal transformation

Latvia's government was ordered to make savings that amounted to 17% of gross domestic product within a short period. More than half of the savings were to come from slashing expenditure on the public sector, especially health and education. Pension cutbacks were found to violate the right to social security by the country's constitutional court.

The latest statistics from the European Commission indicate that Latvia dramatically reduced its budget deficit between 2009 and 2012. This "progress" apparently makes Latvia eligible for euro membership.

But the deficit data does not capture the brutal transformation that has occurred. Mass unemployment pushed one-tenth of Latvia's workforce to emigrate over the same few years. Latvia's population today is at the same level it was in 1957. Latvia has the second lowest rate of life expectancy and the second highest rate of income inequality in the EU.

The lack of consultation with ordinary Latvians over their fate fits into a broader picture.

To date, only two referendums have been held in which EU voters have been directly asked if they wished to join the single currency. Those polls were conducted in Denmark and Sweden. In both cases, a majority rejected the euro. History has shown they were right to do so.

"Like a dictator"

In April, the transcript of an interview that Helmut Kohl gave in 2002 was finally published. Kohl admitted that he had behaved "like a dictator" when the single currency was being introduced. As German chancellor, he deliberately didn't call a referendum on the euro because he knew it would be lost. The same rationale was employed by his acolyte Angela Merkel in 2011 when she forced George Papandreou, then the Greek prime minister, to scrap a planned vote on the terms of a "bail-out."

Kohl tried to justify his drift towards authoritarianism by claiming that a common currency would prevent another war in Europe. If that was really his game-plan, then he has failed dismally. The entire euro project has exacerbated tensions between the countries and peoples on this continent. Far-right parties - most notably Golden Dawn in Greece - are exploiting the opportunities presented by the crisis to advance their hate-filled agenda.

Racist demagogues are a visible threat. But there is another threat to social harmony that comes from men who crave respectability. Look carefully and you will see these men shuttling between "think tank" receptions and the headquarters of government ministries.

The Brussels-based "research" outfit Bruegel typifies this "revolving door" phenomenon. Bruegel's current chairman, Jean-Claude Trichet, has also behaved like a dictator. As European Central Bank chief, Trichet insisted that a number of countries demolish their welfare states and privatize their state-own industries. His diktats can be found in a letter he sent to Silvio Berlusconi two years ago.

It is no accident that the post Trichet holds at Bruegel used to be occupied by Mario Monti, the man who replaced Berlusconi as Italy's prime minister (without an election). Monti arguably did more harm to labour laws during his 18 months in office than his lecherous predecessor did during his three terms.

Until recently, the director of Bruegel was Jean Pisani-Ferry. He has now been hired as an adviser to François Hollande.

Working for a supposedly centre-left president hasn't deterred Pisani-Ferry from continuing to advocate that the poor be punished for the crimes of the rich. In one of his latest opinion pieces, he warned of the "danger" in "discrediting hasty austerity." His case rested on the fear of how financial markets could react if economic policies change.

Grudgingly, I will give him credit for reminding us about some other dictators: the alchemists of modern finance. Governments must not do anything to incur the wrath of the mighty markets, he maintains. The whims of stock brokers and hedge fund managers must be indulged.

Such intellectual chicanery fills quite a few column inches in our newspapers. That doesn't mean we should swallow it.

•First published by New Europe, 2-9 June 2013.