Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Trade chief misleads on GM foods

Who is really in charge of the European Union's food safety policies?

Over the past few weeks, two EU commissioners have been sounding markedly different notes about genetically modified (GM) crops.

First, the trade chief Karel de Gucht insisted that the Union was not going to "abandon" its biotechnology policy as part of a deal with the US. Eager to put a positive spin on the planned trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP), de Gucht said that any "regulatory cooperation" stemming from the accord would be undertaken "without lowering the protection" to food and the environment.

De Gucht's comments implied that the Brussels bureaucracy is either opposed to GM foods or has serious reservations about them. That must be news to his colleague Tonio Borg. As the EU's health commissioner, Borg is busy trying to force these unwanted items onto our supermarket shelves.

Even though 19 of the Union's 28 governments last week registered their opposition to a GM maize manufactured by the American firm DuPont Pioneer, Borg appears determined to approve it. The only "justification" for his patently anti-democratic behaviour is that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has deemed the crop to be safe.

EFSA relies on "studies" undertaken by the biotech industry (hence biased) when assessing new products. Independent research calling into question the safety of GM foods - such as that conducted by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini - has been rejected by the authority.


De Gucht's attempt to assuage public concerns was misleading. He knows very well that Monsanto, Syngenta and other firms determined to play a dangerous game with nature are frustrated with how a majority of EU countries have establish a de facto moratorium on planting GM crops.

EuropaBio, an umbrella group for makers of GM seeds, has a wish-list for the trans-Atlantic trade talks. It wants the EU to adopt the same kind of system for assessing GM foods as the American one.

The US approach is preferable, the association believes, because fewer questions are asked and less data has to be submitted when firms want to have their bids for new products rubber-stamped by officialdom.

De Gucht has been using different terminology depending on who his targeted audience is. Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York last year, he claimed that the "level of ambition" for the trans-Atlantic trade talks needed to be high "because the more regulatory convergence we can achieve between us, the more scope there is for this model to influence other countries around the world."

More feminine?

European citizens are far less likely than guests of a corporate-funded "think tank" like the CFR to applaud such blatant pleas to turn this continent into America's copy-cat. So instead of "convergence", de Gucht is now speaking of "cooperation", a softer, more feminine word.

Strip away the semantics and we find that the agenda has not changed.

Both the EU and the US remain committed to establishing a specialised court, in which corporations would be able to sue and demand "compensation" from governments over laws or policies that put public welfare before the interests of capital. In trade jargon, this idea is known as "investor-to-state dispute settlement".

De Gucht has announced that he will invite ordinary people to express their opinion on this matter. A three-month "public consultation exercise" on this topic is scheduled to begin in March.

If de Gucht was more honest, he would rename the whole thing a "public relations" exercise. Despite boasting that the trans-Atlantic talks have involved an "unprecedented level of openness", his door has been mainly open to corporate lobbyists. Ninety-three per cent of all preparatory meetings which the European Commission's trade department held before the negotiations were launched last summer involved representatives of big business.

Minor issues?

Restrictions on planting GM foods in Europe are exactly the kind of things that are likely to be challenged in "dispute resolution" courts, run by pro-corporate arbitrators.

A separate - though not unrelated - trade deal which the EU has signed with Canada also provides for the establishment of such courts. CropLife Canada, a biotech alliance, wasted no time in expressing its delight after that deal was clinched in October last.

In April 2013, Karel de Gucht dismissed as "all-in-all minor issues" the demands by Kentucky Fried Chicken that the EU lift its ban on washing poultry meat in chlorine. Less than a year later, he now wants us to believe that he is a valiant defender of food safety.

Who does he think he is fooling?

•First published by EUobserver, 17 February 2014.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

How Europe funds the occupation of Palestine

Has the European Union finally confessed that it is footing the bill for the occupation of Palestine?

In a roundabout way, one of its envoys may have done just that. Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the EU's ambassador in Tel Aviv, recently warned about the consequences of the Union deciding to cut its assistance to the Palestinian Authority should the current "peace" talks prove fruitless.

"I think it is realized in Israel that this money is key to the stability of the West Bank and in Gaza," the Dane said. "If we don't provide the money, I think there is a great likelihood that Israel would have to provide far more."

Faaborg-Andersen's choice of words are instructive. He appears to believe that the EU is doing Israel a favor by providing "stability" in the territories seized in 1967.

As far as I can see, he did not elaborate on his comments. Had he done so, he could have explained that international law obliges an occupying power to meet the basic needs of a people under occupation. By stumping up around €460 million ($622 million) to Palestine each year, the EU is relieving Israel of its legal responsibilities.


The spin constantly being put on this aid is that it improves the living conditions of the Palestinians. The statements and "fact sheets" cranked out by Brussels bureaucrats don't explain that some of it directly finances the infrastructure of occupation.

In 2012, for example, the Union boasted about how it was giving €13 million ($17.5 million) to upgrade equipment such as X-ray machines and computer technology used at Karem Abu Salem, the crossing for goods between Gaza and present-day Israel.

There was a major omission in the announcement of this "generous" gift. Karem Abu Salem -- known in Hebrew as Kerem Shalom -- is controlled by Israel, which has placed severe restrictions on the flow of goods into the Strip. By lending Israel a hand, the EU was accommodating the illegal siege of Gaza.

It wasn't the first time that the Union had facilitated such illegality. If you understand French, I'd urge you to read Palestine, la trahison européenne (Palestine, the European betrayal). Written by Véronique De Keyser, a member of the European Parliament, and the late human rights champion Stéphane Hessel, this book documents how aid ostensibly earmarked for the Palestinians actually benefits Israel.

After Hamas won a democratic election in 2006, the EU refused to channel aid through an administration headed by that party. In March 2006, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, then the Union's external affairs commissioner, decided that €40 million ($54 million) would be paid directly to Israel so that Israeli firms could deliver fuel to Gaza.

Don't trick us

I have never argued that the EU should cease giving money to Palestine. Doing so would deprive too many people of education, healthcare and energy.

Instead, what I have demanded is honesty and accountability. The taxpayers of Europe should not be tricked into thinking that our money is always being spent in a benign fashion. We should be told straight out that it is aiding an occupation.

If Israel refuses to accept its legal responsibilities, then it behoves the EU to send its aid bills to Israel and insist on reimbursement. And when Israel destroys EU-financed projects -- as it has done on numerous occasions -- the Union must take Israel to court.

To their shame, the Union's representatives have always been too cowardly to sue Israel.


Fresh data contained in an official EU report on the arms trade reveals something even more sinister. It indicates that the value of export licenses for weapons issued by the Union's governments jumped by 290 percent between 2011 and 2012: from €157 million ($212 million) to €630 million ($851.5 million).

These statistics probably don't give a full picture of the cooperation involved. Britain (a long-standing EU member) released figures last year indicating that the sale of military items to Israel can be measured in billions, rather than millions.

Still, they indicate that the Union is blithely ignoring its own law on the weapons trade. It forbids arms exports if they are likely to be used for repression or to exacerbate regional tensions.

There is, of course, a pattern forming here. Israel is treated as if it is above the law.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 5 February 2014.