Thursday, December 19, 2013

Merry Christmas (war isn't over)

This morning I took part in some direct action against Europe's support for the arms industry.

Wearing a royal blue tie with images of machine guns, tanks and warplanes in bright yellow, I pretended to be a weapons dealer. Money rained down on me -- thrown by a man in a José Manuel Barroso mask. Two guys braver and more agile than me climbed flagpoles outside the European Commission's enterprise department to hoist a banner, thanking the officials inside for aiding the makers of drones.

It was deliberately farcical but it emphasised a very serious point. During their summit in Brussels today, EU leaders are discussing how to increase corporate welfare for the merchants of death, while social welfare payments are being slashed in many countries.

The reason why our protest took place outside the enterprise department is that it has overseen the expenditure of €1.4 billion on a "security research" programme between 2007 and 2013. This programme has involved examining how drones can be used for such purposes as maritime surveillance -- a euphemism for blocking asylum-seekers from reaching Europe's shores. Some of the world's biggest weapons companies have benefited directly from these subsidies.

Nothing to worry about?

The powerful tell us that there is nothing to worry about here. Philip Hammond, Britain's defence secretary, has written an opinion piece for The Guardian claiming that drones -- or "remotely piloted air systems" as he prefers to call them -- save more lives than they end.

Hammond enthused about Watchkeeper drones that the British Army wants to deploy in Afghanistan soon. Yet he neglected to mention a salient fact: the Watchkeeper was largely developed by the Israeli company Elbit.

As a new study by the campaign group War on Want explains, the Watchkeeper system is based on Elbit's Hermes 450, a drone that the Israeli military has used to attack civilians in Gaza. To say the least, it is baffling that Hammond would boast of the British Army's intention to avail of this technology, when it is has facilitated crimes against humanity.

Moral void

Or maybe it isn't baffling. Both arms dealers and senior politicians operate in a moral void. They are happy to overlook the human rights abuses which they abet, provided that they can gain a "healthy slice" of the world's weapons market, to quote Hammond's predecessor, Liam Fox.

The police did not seem too perturbed by our direct action this morning (at least, not by the time I had left for another appointment). Fourteen others were arrested, however, in a related protest, which involved blocking the entrance to the European Defence Agency's headquarters.

It is deeply ironic that these protesters were apprehended, when it is the EDA itself that is trying to upend the law.

Rules pertaining to aviation forbid the flying of warplanes in civilian airspace. With the full approval of the Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the EDA is seeking to overturn that ban so that drones can be flown alongside passenger jets.

The EDA, too, has been less than frank about what it is up to. Earlier this year, it held an experiment on flying drones in Spain. A "fact-sheet" that it prepared stated that the drone tested out then was a Heron. The agency failed to spell out that the Heron is manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries. Like the Hermes, it has dropped bombs on children in Gaza.

Good people throughout the world mark the festive season by taking care of those less fortunate than themselves. The European Union's leaders, by contrast, are plotting ways of boosting an industry that thrives on destruction.

Merry Christmas. War isn't over.

•First published by EUobserver, 19 December 2013.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Don't buy Israeli toys this Christmas

My 11-month-old daughter has an impeccable taste in music. When I played the Motown Christmas album on Spotify, she starting bobbing her head to some vintage Stevie Wonder.

I was delighted, then, that she received a bag of small instruments as an early Christmas present. That was before I picked up one of them and saw the dreaded words "made in Israel."

Halilit, the manufacturer of this "baby band", is headquartered in Or-Yehuda in the Tel Aviv district. Or-Yehuda was built on land belonging to Saqiya, a Palestinian village forcibly depopulated during the Nakba, the vicious ethnic cleansing that led to Israel's foundation in 1948.

I'm sure there are many shoppers who have bought Halilit goods without being aware they are Israeli. It would be easy to do so: I checked the entries for some Halilit products on the Amazon website and didn't see any information about where they were made.


So I'm writing this post as an appeal for vigilance. The Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel has made tremendous progress since it was first launched in 2005. The decision by the American Studies Association to support the academic boycott of Israel is the latest in an ever-expanding list of victories notched up by BDS campaigners.

Now that the pressure is piling on Israel, let's not undermine our efforts by inadvertently putting Israeli goods in our shopping baskets. Reading the small print is vital.

I recall a speech given by Nelson Mandela to a concert held in London not long after his release. Business leaders were evidently eager for the West to lift the sanctions its governments had imposed (reluctantly) on South Africa. But Mandela insisted that it was not yet the right time for the pressure to be eased.

Israel has not even began the small steps that the white minority government in Pretoria had taken towards dismantling aspects of the apartheid regime in the early 1990s. On the contrary, Israeli racism is becoming increasingly entrenched. A raft of discriminatory bills is being processed by the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, that was elected earlier this year.

By, among other things, according special privileges to those who have served in the Israeli military, these emphasize that Israeli Jews are considered more important by the state than Palestinian citizens of Israel. And it's important to underscore that the Prawer Plan -- a blueprint for the mass displacement of Palestinian Bedouins in present-day Israel -- has not been entirely abandoned, even if the legislation that would have put into effect has been withdrawn.

For tactical reasons, some human rights campaigners have concentrated on advocating a boycott of goods produced on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. That approach is understandable. Yet it overlooks how Palestinian citizens of Israel also live under an apartheid system.

Don't hesitate

That's why we should not hesitate to urge a boycott of companies like Halilit that are based inside Israel. To the best of my knowledge, the movement against apartheid South Africa did not draw distinctions between goods based on what part of the country they were produced in; it sought a boycott of all South African goods. The same should apply to Israel.

Predictably, Halilit's promotional material is replete with photographs of smiling infants. The images tell us nothing about how Israel treats Palestinian children.

We do not learn that pupils in Gaza have to do their homework in the dark because the besieged Strip is encountering severe power cuts. We do not learn either that an estimated 30 percent of Gaza's children are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because Israel subjected them to eight consecutive days of bombing in November 2012.


And we do not learn about Wajih Wajdi al-Ramahi, a 15-year-old boy murdered by Israeli forces near the West Bank city of Ramallah last Saturday.

No doubt, there are Zionists with a ready-made response to my plea for a boycott of Israeli toys. The most likely argument they will use is that Israel has higher labor standards than some Asian countries where so many of the items in the West's shopping malls are made.

I accept that, with the exception of some fair trade products, the range of "ethical" toys available is limited. So long as capitalism reigns supreme, the captains of industry will put profit maximization ahead of all other concerns.

We should not be distracted, though, by any crocodile tears that Zionists may shed for sweatshop workers. The fact remains that Palestinians have asked people of conscience to boycott Israel. It is a call that should be heeded this Christmas -- and at every other time of the year.

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

Monday, December 2, 2013

Facebook isn't our friend

A few days ago, I was told by the organisers of a "social media" festival that the hashtag was my "new best friend". As I've never hugged a hashtag or cried on the shoulders of one, I felt it was important to question this "wisdom".

Like millions of others, I'm addicted to Facebook and, to a lesser degree, Twitter. I check these websites so frequently that I often forget they are owned by vast corporations.

Some of these firms' activities are inherently anti-democratic.

Facebook's Brussels office is headed by Erika Mann, a former German member of the European Parliament. She has long fought to enable the interests of big business triumph over those of ordinary people.

During her 15 years as an MEP, Mann continuously advocated that the European Union should liberalise its trade with the United States.

At one point, it seemed that her calls were being ignored by political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. All that changed in February this year, when Barack Obama expressed his support for such an agreement during his State of the Union address. Talks aimed at reaching a very broad trade and investment deal were formally launched in July.

Now wearing her Facebook hat, Erika Mann is still extolling the apparent virtues of "free" trade at every available opportunity.

In April, she spoke at a conference in Dublin, where Facebook's international headquarters are located. Mann argued that it would be "extremely important" for an eventual deal to make the standards faced by internet companies in the EU and US "more coherent".


While Mann claimed that she did not wish to see standards becoming "identical", it is highly improbable that she will be pushing for more robust rules. Facebook recently submitted detailed recommendations to MEPs about how to weaken a new data protection law.

Information leaked by the courageous whistleblower Edward Snowden demonstrated that Facebook has been helping the National Security Agency to undertake espionage on a massive scale.

Before those revelations were made, Erika Mann claimed that Facebook was "leading the way" both in protecting privacy and in helping the digital sector to flourish. Her assurances now appear risible.

Facebook isn't alone in hoping that the trade agreement will lead to "regulatory convergence" on different sides of the Atlantic. The European Commission has drawn up a paper for the talks, which indicates its willingness to copy and paste demands made by the car industry. The paper suggests that whenever either the EU or the US feels the need to have new rules on the amount of pollution vehicles may cause, they will consult each other with a view to finding a common approach.

In practice, this is a recipe for preventing Europe from having tougher emissions standards than the US.

Few qualms

Mann has few, if any, qualms about lobbying her former colleagues. She has spoken at events within the European Parliament's buildings on a number of dossiers.

Last year, she addressed a conference on data protection organised by one of the assembly's committees. She also spoke at a reception sponsored by the beer industry, during which she voiced support for "voluntary initiatives" undertaken by those behemoths of booze eager to portray themselves as responsible.

That wasn't simply a case of Mann meeting some old pals for a knees-up. Facebook had clinched a huge advertising contract with Diageo - owner of Guinness and Smirnoff - a few months earlier.

Her participation in the beer-fuelled reception involved sending a signal to law-makers that they should abandon any plans they may have to ban or restrict the marketing of alcohol. The idea that the drinks industry can be expected to behave responsibly is, of course, daft. The only objective of corporations is to amass as much money as they can.

Breaking the rules

Following a scandal in 2011 in which a few MEPs were recorded stating they would be happy to receive bribes from journalists posing as lobbyists, the European Parliament drew up a code of conduct. In theory, the code applies to both sitting and former MEPs.

And yet a Parliament spokeswoman told me: "from what I gather of your description of Mrs Mann's activities, it doesn't seem that she has breached the code of conduct".

The code states that former MEPs should not benefit from the Parliament's "facilities" if they wish to engage in lobbying "directly linked" to EU law-making. According to the spokeswoman, this clause did not relate merely to accessing the Parliament's buildings but to such perks as use of its car-parks and libraries.

If Mann is undertaking lobbying on the Parliament's premises, there is strong prima facie evidence that she is not playing by the rules. But it seems that the Parliament's administration is happy to overlook how former MEPs are usurping democracy by cajoling their old colleagues into tweaking laws to placate certain vested interests.

A leaked internal paper from the European Commission indicated that it plans to make extensive use of Twitter and Facebook to sell the so-called benefits of a trans-Atlantic trade deal.

Fortunately, the Commission's officials aren't the only people who know to tweet, share and "like".

Given that Facebook's Brussels office wants a trade deal to be concluded, it behoves those of us opposing the deal to flood the pages of Facebook with the unvarnished truth. We should spare no effort in calling out the lobbyists seeking to destroy the last vestiges of our democracy.

•First published by EUobserver, 2 December 2013.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

EU rekindles love affair with Livni

A short memory can be an asset in politics.

Around this time five years ago, Tzipi Livni was being fêted as a paragon of moderation by EU insiders as she won a commitment to "upgrade" Israel's relations with the Union. The love turned a little sour soon afterwards when Livni marked the end of her stint as foreign minister by approving a brutal three-week offensive against Gaza.

The human suffering caused by this monstrous crime seemed to upset European diplomats far less than how Livni hadn't given them advance notice of the plans to attack; it all came as a "nasty shock," one senior Brussels official told me.

It didn't take long for Livni to be forgiven for springing that surprise. This week, she reached an agreement with Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, to end an unseemly squabble over guidelines aimed at preventing firms and institutions active in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank from receiving EU subsidies.

Apartheid's "sensitivities"

A joint statement by the duo says that the agreement respects both the EU's "financial requirements" and Israel's "political sensitivities." Precise details on how the guidelines will be implemented were not contained in the statement but it appears that a bureaucratic formula has been found which will allow firms profiting from the occupation (as most Israeli firms do) to continue benefiting from EU subsidies.

I had a vomiting bug last week. Having read that statement, I feel like throwing up again.

If the European Community (the EU's precursor) had promised to respect the "political sensitivities" of South Africa when it was under white rule, you can be sure it would have been excoriated by progressives the world over. Why should Israel be treated any differently?

Tasking Livni with sorting out the "guidelines" row was an admittedly shrewd move by Benjamin Netanyahu's government. She enjoys a much better rapport with the EU elite than Avigdor Lieberman, lately re-appointed as foreign minister.

Blood on their hands

The stylistic differences between Livni and Lieberman notwithstanding, both have blood on their hands. Both have authorized military operations against Gaza, in which the main victims were innocent civilians. Both represent an apartheid state.

Livni has never repented for -- in her own words -- encouraging the Israeli military to go "wild" when it bombed Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. Until she displays genuine remorse -- or, better still, is punished for her war crimes -- there can be no reason to forgive her.

The involvement of Livni was the only thing I found surprising about how the "guidelines" issue was resolved. (Settling diplomatic disputes of this nature is not normally the job of a justice minister).

Tips for settlers

Ever since the guidelines were leaked to the Israeli press during the summer, EU representatives have been eager to downplay their significance.

The Union's embassy in Tel Aviv swiftly published advice on its website about how the recommendations could be circumvented. One helpful tip was that Israeli banks active in the occupied West Bank could continue applying for EU loans, provided the end recipients of the money were based within present-day Israel.

The questions involved here are, of course, bigger than a simple bilateral spat.

Next month, the prime ministers and presidents of the EU's 28 countries will gather in Brussels for a summit devoted to building a stronger weapons industry.

More than likely, the communiqué they will issue following this confab won't mention Israel explicitly. But anyone who has followed the EU's "defense" debate closely -- as I've had the misfortune of doing -- knows that European weapons-makers are being encouraged to foster close relations with their Israeli counterparts.


It was by no means accidental that François Hollande, the French president, was accompanied by representatives of the arms-maker Thales or that Antonio Tajani, the EU's enterprise commissioner, brought along salesmen from its Italian equivalent Finmeccanica when the two men visited Israel recently.

The agreement between Ashton and Livni paves the way for Israeli arms makers to receive grants from Horizon 2020, as the EU's new scientific research program is called. Allocating a greater share of the Union's science budget to the weapons industry will almost certainly be one of the topics discussed at the aforementioned summit in December.

Despite feeling a little despondent upon hearing about the EU's latest act of capitulation towards Israel, I'm not entirely disheartened. The decision by EU diplomats to draft these guidelines was a small victory for those Palestine solidarity activities who have exposed how taxpayers' money was going to Ahava, a firm making cosmetics in an Israeli settlement.

These guidelines would never have been drawn up if the Union hadn't been shamed and embarrassed into doing so. The challenges we face now are to keep on drawing attention to the EU's embrace of Israel and to demand genuine action against that apartheid state.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 27 November 2013.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Peter Mandelson: a battering ram for big business

Is it still possible to be shocked by the arrogance of New Labour's architects? I didn't think it was. Then I started investigating Peter Mandelson's stint as the EU's trade commissioner.

In 2007, Mandelson sent a threatening letter to several ministers in the Thai government after it overruled patents on medicines for AIDS and high blood pressure. Taking such steps to reduce the costs of prescription drugs could make Thailand lose foreign investment, Mandelson warned, employing a tried and tested bullying tactic.

Briefing notes prepared for Mandelson by Brussels officials acknowledged that the Bangkok authorities were legally entitled to circumvent the intellectual property "rights" of major pharmaceutical firms on public health grounds. The officials nonetheless advised Mandelson to instruct the Thais that any patent-busting in which they engaged must be restricted to medicines for AIDS. Extending it to treatments for heart disease and other ailments would set a "dangerous precedent", the officials argued.

Those documents indicate that Mandelson's willingness to act as a battering ram for Western multinationals knew few bounds. The idea that a relatively poor Asian country could put the interests of its own citizens before those of the world's top pharmaceutical companies was anathema to his mindset. His attempts to make Thais recovering from heart attacks foot higher medical bills constituted a far more greater affront to humanity than those misdemeanours which prompted him to resign (twice) from the British cabinet.

New extremes

During his four years in Brussels, Mandelson pushed the EU's agenda to new extremes.

In the past, trade negotiators had traditionally focused on cutting or removing taxes levied on imports and exports. A 2006 policy paper called Global Europe - drawn up at Mandelson's behest - pushed for that scope to be enlarged.

It committed the EU to strive towards dismantling a range of "barriers" encountered by firms doing business abroad. Workers' rights and environmental standards across the world would be vigorously challenged if they harmed corporate profits, the paper inferred.

Sadly, this agenda has gained more momentum than Mandelson could have dreamed. I remember quizzing one of Mandelson's team about whether or not the EU wished to sign a free trade agreement with the US. The reply was simple: it wouldn't be realistic to expect a trans-Atlantic deal any time soon.

That was about seven years ago. As I write these words today, an American delegation is visiting Brussels for formal talks aimed at reaching such an accord.

The trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) - as the eventual accord will probably be known - looks set to be a full-frontal assault on democracy. Corporate lobbyists have quite literally set the agenda for the talks - the Trans-Atlantic Business Council, a coalition of British American Tobacco, Deutsche Bank, Microsoft and Pfizer, has been given that task by both the EU and the US authorities.

Among the lobbyists' core demands are that a "dispute resolution" tribunal be formed, in which private corporations can sue governments over laws and policies that hamper the maximisation of profit. Having such a clause would confer greater rights on the denizens of company boardrooms than on every one else: the rest of us mere mortals would have no access to this exclusive court.

It would not be fanciful to predict that part of the deal will be influenced by Kentucky Fried Chicken and similar purveyors of "junk food". Yum!, the owner of the KFC brand, wants to overturn an EU ban on washing chickens with chlorine. Food safety standards of that nature would be suppressed if the trans-Atlantic partnership leads to "regulatory convergence", as many firms have demanded.

Cloaking their intentions

Preachers of the "regulatory convergence" gospel are cloaking their real intentions in technical terms. Ultimately, they wish to destroy a central tenet of EU policy on health and the environment.

Under the so-called "precautionary principle", the Union's authorities and governments can stop substances being used if there are sound reasons to suspect they are hazardous. Earlier this year, for example, the European Commission invoked this principle to introduce temporary bans on a few pesticides linked to the rapid decline in bee numbers.

Banning bee-killers may not be possible in the future. Pesticides manufacturers like Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and Bayer are pressing for the trans-Atlantic trade pact to severely curtail the EU's powers to take precautionary measures.

The bans were put in place after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy, found that certain pesticides posed environmental risks. EFSA, incidentally, does not have a deep aversion to pesticides. Rather, it has a long track record of accommodating agri-food giants.

Not only is it guided primarily by industry-financed research - the impartiality of which is questionable by definition - EFSA's decisions on whether to approve ingredients or products is based on "experts" with strong links to Big Food. A recent study by the organisation Corporate Europe Observatory found that over 58 percent of EFSA's "experts" had a conflict of interests.


I came across a particularly comical - and tragic - case of a lobbyist masquerading as an "independent" scientist. Ettore Capri, a professor at the Catholic University in Piacenza, Italy, sits on EFSA's panel of "experts" on pesticides. He also runs a "think tank" called OPERA, which has been compiling reports on "bee health" that suggest factors other than pesticides could be imperilling Europe's bees. The reports state that they were prepared in close contact with Syngenta, BASF, Dow and Bayer, all of which have a vested interest in downplaying the dangers of the pesticides they sell.

OPERA also jointly hosted a 2012 conference with Syngenta on biodiversity - a subject that is meaningless unless bees and other insects are taken into consideration. Yet when I contacted him during the summer, Capri insisted that his work on bees is not financed by the private sector.

Of course, one could contend that EFSA's acknowledgement of how certain pesticides may be harmful indicates it is not beholden to industry. It is important to emphasise, however, that the aforementioned bans are of a fixed duration. EFSA and other EU bodies will almost certainly face pressure to ensure they are not renewed.

Furthermore, EFSA's policy on the alleged bee-killers (neonicotinoids, as they are known) is slightly atypical. On numerous occasions, the authority has rubber-stamped applications from food giants based on superficial scrutiny. By its own admission, EFSA has only ever delivered favourable assessments of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Secret talks

EFSA has been taking part, too, in a series of secret discussions with biotechnology firms like Monsanto about trying to accelerate the approvals process for GM foods.

Despite EFSA's bias towards biotech, the stance of some EU governments has led to a de facto moratorium on placing GM foods on the market. Monsanto is so frustrated with Europe that it has effectively given up on this continent, if media reports are to be believed.

There is still hope for the Missouri marauder. Monsanto would be given new ammunition to challenge the obstacles it's encountering if the kind of EU-US trade deal now being envisaged comes into effect.

Having set in motion a process aimed at allowing corporations play dangerous games with nature and human health, it is perhaps only logical that Mandelson is now a grubby lobbyist himself. In his current capacity as chairman of two consultancies, Mandelson habitually attends the annual conferences of the Bilderberg Group and other gatherings for the world's political and business elite.

To use his own words, Mandelson always appears "intensely relaxed" when surrounded by the "filthy rich". It is not hard to understand why. He has worked tirelessly to allow Europe be captured by his corporate chums.

•First published by Spinwatch, 14 November 2013.

Arms dealers sniff opportunities as French president visits Israel

François Hollande will give his blessing to closer military cooperation between France and Israel when he visits the Middle East next week.

The French president will be the "guest of honor" at the "France-Israel innovation day" in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. Ubifrance, an enterprise promotion agency sponsoring the event, has arranged for French entrepreneurs to meet sales representatives from the arms-makers Elbit and Israel Aerospace Industries.

An information note prepared by the agency applauds the Israeli aeronautics sector for record annual sales of more than $6 billion in 2009 and 2010. Although it lists drones as one of that sector's key products, it neglects to mention that they have been tested in bombing attacks against children in Gaza.

The note also says that Israel's aeronautics sector presents many opportunities for French firms. Airbus, the Toulouse-based corporation, "opened a gap" in the Israeli sky in 2009 by selling planes to the airline Israir. Until then, Israel's three commercial carriers had been exclusively supplied by Airbus' American rival, Boeing.

"Guaranteed success"

According the France-Israel Chamber of Commerce, the "innovation day" will be a "guaranteed success." IsraelValley, the chamber's technology-focused website, reports that it's "almost certain" that Hollande will discuss cooperation on drones with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.

In a recent policy paper on "defense," France made a commitment to boost the number of drones in its arsenal. While the French government announced plans to buy a consignment of Reaper drones from the US in June, it is still shopping around for other types of these pilotless warplanes. The Paris-headquartered firm Thales has already teamed up with the aforementioned Elbit to make drones known as Watchkeeper for use by the British Army in Afghanistan.

No problem with humiliation

Admittedly, this cooperation requires the French elite to gobble up a few helpings of humble pie. A few months ago, the French National Assembly was informed that Israel has now taken over France's position as the fourth largest weapons exporter in the world.

Yet France doesn't seem to have a problem being humiliated by Israel. In September, a French diplomat, Marion Castaing, was pushed to the ground by Israeli soldiers when she accompanied a convoy delivering aid to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

If a hostile nation's forces had attacked a French diplomat in this way, you can be sure that retaliatory measures would be taken. In this case, Israeli and French journalists alleged that Castaing provoked the soldiers; the diplomat herself was soon recalled to Paris.

The European Union is another sponsor of the "innovation day." That is despite how the EU supposedly caused an existential crisis for Zionists when it published guidelines during the summer declaring that firms and institutions active in the settlements built by Israel in the West Bank were ineligible for the Union's subsidies.


Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, carried a story this week indicating that the row is nearing resolution. This isn't surprising. No sooner had the guidelines been leaked than EU mouthpieces tried to downplay their importance and promise they would be implemented in a "sensitive" manner (sensitive towards Israel, that is).

Hollande is scheduled to address Israel's parliament, the Knesset, during his sojourn. We can expect him to fawn before his hosts, while celebrating Israel as a beacon to the world.

The French political elite, after all, has an ignoble history of facilitating Zionist aspirations. In 1917, Jules Cambon, then secretary-general of the French foreign ministry, assured the World Zionist Organization, of France's support for the colonization of Palestine. The French government "cannot but feel sympathy with your cause, the triumph of which is bound up with that of the allies [then fighting Germany]," Cambon wrote.

François Hollande is a modern-day Jules Cambon, determined to help Zionists continue dispossessing the indigenous Palestinians.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 15 November 2013.

Business chiefs demand more austerity

The plebs must suffer.

That's the chilling message - admittedly expressed in less cogent terms - that powerful businessmen have delivered to senior political figures in Brussels behind closed doors.

I've got hold of briefing notes prepared for a lunch discussion between a group of chief executives and José-Manuel Barroso, the European Commission's president, on 19 February this year. One of the businessmen's key demands was that the austerity cuts undertaken across the EU should be made "more enforceable".

Representing such firms as Ericsson, Fiat, Telecom Italia, the software giant SAP and the chemicals manufacturer Solvay, these high-flyers all belong to the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT). The brevity of their notes does not conceal their determination to crush ordinary people.

During that lunch, the industrialists argued that the Brussels institutions should have a bigger say in dictating how each EU government spends its taxpayers' money. The ERT knew that it would be listened to.


Before the financial crisis erupted in 2008, the likelihood that nominally sovereign nations would send their budgets to an unelected bureaucracy for prior scrutiny seemed remote. This week, however, Barroso sounded jubilant as he noted that such checking of budgets has now taken place for the first time. Echoing his dining companions in the ERT, Barroso warned against "reform fatigue". After acknowledging that "huge sacrifices" had been made, he contended that more are necessary.

It is noteworthy that Barroso hasn't offered to give up his pension or his severance pay when he steps down from heading the EU executive in October 2014. Instead, it is the little people who will be making all the sacrifices.

I got a taste of the "reforms" we can expect in the foreseeable future from an ERT paper from December 2012. Marked "confidential", the paper argues that the EU should pursue objectives at marked variance with those set by trade unions (or "some social partners," as the ERT calls them).

"Modernising labour market policies and education systems is not about a 'race to the bottom', as some social partners claim, but rather a 'race to the jobs of the future' before leadership is claimed by other regions of the world," the paper states.

A serious reading of the ERT's demands indicates that the "jobs of the future" will be precarious. It advocates, for example, that the Union's governments should "ease employment protection" by reducing payments to workers undertaking training or making a transition from one job to another. And it wants "wage evolution" to be dictated by factors like "international competitiveness" - this can only be viewed as an assault on indexation schemes such as the run by Belgium, where pay rises are guaranteed when the cost of living increases.


The ERT is adept at using code. In June, its chairman Leif Johansson (day job: running Ericsson), told EU governments that industry was "confronting a competitiveness battle that threatens the immediate and long-term ability of Europe to maintain a vibrant, innovative manufacturing base".

His prescription for fighting this "battle" is to ensure that corporations are involved in education "at all levels".

If taken literally, this means that big business should have a say in what songs the effervescent staff may sing at the créche my baby daughter attends. Though Johansson hasn't gone that far (yet), the ERT has argued that industrialists should have a role in managing and setting the curricula for schools and colleges. It has also argued for greater use of "public-private partnerships" in scientific research. That is code to giving big business a greater say in running universities.

Back in 2000, ERT bigwig Gerhard Cromme argued in favour of the "privatisation of all schools, subjecting them to market forces and thereby encouraging competition. Schools will respond better to paying customers, just like any other business."

It should go without saying that schools are not "like any other business". Teaching children to read and write, to share and articulate is quite different to churning out biscuits or assembling computer chips. In civilised countries, children with learning difficulties are not discarded on the basis that they are too slow for the rat race.

The ERT's fingerprints can be detected on several initiatives which have shaped recent European history. Indeed, the EU's fixation on "competitiveness" - a euphemism for destroying labour standards and the welfare state - largely originated with recommendations made by the roundtable in the 1990s. The ERT's intention was to transform this continent's economic policies so that they resembled the rawer version of capitalism found in the US more closely.

If you think that there is nothing particularly untoward about lunches between businessmen and politicians, then I recommend you take the following course of action: call Barroso's office and ask to meet him for a pizza. Assuming you are not super-rich, I suspect you might find it difficult to fix a date. And yet the European Roundtable of Industrialists has no such problems. So whose voices are heeded the most?

•First published by EUobserver, 15 November 2013.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

John Bruton: from prime minister to puppet

One of Dublin's quirks is that its banking district sits beside a harrowing memorial to those who perished in a nineteenth century famine.

Ireland's International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) hosts offices for banks and hedge funds whose feckless behaviour has caused not one but several crises.

The effects of one crisis remain palpable. Mass emigration is haunting Ireland again like it did at the time of the Great Hunger, as the famine of the 1840s is known. Our ability to keep in touch via Skype and Facebook doesn't make the fact that young people can't find decent jobs at home any less scandalous.

But there is another crisis with which we are less familiar. JP Morgan and HSBC are both present in the IFSC. These two banks have been involved in a frenzy of speculation on basic foodstuffs. The consequent increase in grocery prices has exacerbated the problem of global hunger. It is partly because of this speculation that the extreme poverty we, Irish, associate with the time of the great hunger is a daily reality for 1 billion people worldwide.

Revolving door

John Bruton, the IFSC's president, epitomises the phenomenon of the revolving door between big business and politics.

Bruton is a former taoiseach (Ireland's prime minister), who went on to become the European Union's ambassador in Washington. Since stepping down from the latter post in 2009, Bruton has not been short of job offers. He has signed contracts to work for the Brussels-based consultancy Cabinet DN and for several other firms.

Cabinet DN has a number of large companies on its roster. They include the New York Stock Exchange and Rupert Murdoch's Sky Broadcasting Group.

When Bruton writes opinion pieces for newspapers or takes part in TV and radio broadcasts, he gives the impression that he is now an independent thinker. Yet the arguments he makes generally chime with the interests of those captains of industry for whom he has become a puppet.

Bruton, for example, is a staunch supporter of the proposed trade and investment agreement which is under negotiation between the European Union and the United States.

According to Bruton's website, such a deal is necessary to "remove barriers and inefficiencies that prevent Americans and Europeans from realising their full economic potential."

Bruton has not bothered to explain that the "barriers and inefficiencies" he wants to remove can be essential to protect human health and the environment.

The trade negotiators from both sides of the Atlantic scheduled to meet for a new round of talks on the planned agreement next week are pursuing an agenda drawn up for them by major corporations. A core objective of that agenda is to achieve "regulatory convergence".

Regulatory convergence is a fancy term for destroying the things that distinguish Europe from America.

For example, we have stronger food safety standards on this side of the Atlantic than they have in the United States.

This year the EU authorities have issued temporary bans on several pesticides that have been linked to the rapid decline in bee numbers.

Some of the world's largest chemical and biotechnology firms, including Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow, have recently complained that the EU is more willing to take precautionary measures against pesticides than the US. These companies want the EU's scope for taking such measures to be restricted as a result of a new agreement on trans-Atlantic trade.

Recipe for conquest

The argument these companies constantly use is that policy-making should be guided by scientific proof. At first glance, that may sound sensible. In reality, it is a recipe for corporate conquest.

Nearly all substances that Monsanto manufactures would be allowed on the market, if this argument was stretched to its logical conclusion. Monsanto, let us remember, manufactured the key ingredients to Agent Orange, a toxic cocktail that caused devastation in Vietnam. Fifty years later, the Missouri firm still insists that the links between this weapon and certain diseases has not been "conclusively demonstrated".

There has been some speculation lately that the revelations of US snooping on Angela Merkel's phone conversations would have adverse consequences for the trade talks. Unfortunately, I do not think this is likely.

The Federation of German Industries (BDI) is pushing for an agreement to be reached. Merkel may be genuinely irked that her mobile is being monitored. But I doubt she is irked enough to disobey the diktats of her country's most influential business group.

One thing that could derail the trade talks is mass resistance. It is by no means fanciful to predict that a huge international campaign could upset the carefully prepared plans of the world's most powerful corporations. Such opposition has thwarted other pernicious economic accords, notably the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in the 1990s and, more recently, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).

We, Irish, often take pride in our bonds to the US. We seem to take pride even when it leads to nauseating spectacles of subordination - such as when the taoiseach visits the White House with a bowl of shamrock each Saint Patrick's Day.

John Bruton has built a career around that subordination. He has benefited handsomely. The rest of us have not.

•First published by EUobserver, 6 November 2013.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Tory MEPs cosy up to lobbyists

David Cameron probably rues the day he declared that lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen".

Uttered in 2010 when he was still leader of the opposition, Cameron's words have proven to be prescient. Last year the Conservative Party hired Lynton Crosby as an election strategist. The appointment was hugely problematic as Crosby's "public relations" firms was handed a lucrative contract to help the tobacco giant Philip Morris not long afterwards.

Cameron's government has subsequently scrapped plans to require that cigarettes be sold in plain packets. Regardless of whether Crosby personally urged that the proposal be buried, there is a heady stench of cronyism about the whole affair.

The whiff from the "transparency" records kept by the Conservative members of the European Parliament is only a slightly bit less potent. For sure, the Tories' decision to publish periodical lists of which lobbyists they meet is in itself a positive move. The behaviour that the lists reveal is, on the other hand, quite sordid.

The appointments diary for Welsh MEP Kay Swinburne offers a case in point. Back in 2000, she won a £1 million pay-out after suing her former employers Deutsche Bank over sexual harassment. The preceding court case drew attention to how machismo and capitalism are joined at the hip.

Her experience of sexism in the City of London notwithstanding, Swinburne has been an unflagging defender of its hedge funds and derivatives traders. She has stridently opposed attempts to introduce a small tax on financial transactions, citing fears (no doubt exaggerated) that it would harm the City.

The latest available records indicate that during the first half of this year, Swinburne had a total of 57 meetings with "lobbyists". Some 53 of those discussions were either directly with banks -- including Barclays, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and HSBC -- or with firms and organizations involved in or funded by the financial services industry. One of her few declared contacts with the everyday people of Wales involved a meeting with a charity providing guide dogs for blind people.

Open door policy?

When I asked Swinburne why she spent so much time listening to just one side in the debate on financial regulation, she claimed that the six month period in question had been "unusual" as she had been partly absent for medical reasons.

"I do not accept your accusation that I only listen to financial services companies as it is apparent from prior contact reports over an extended period of time that I have an open-door policy for all these interested in contributing to the legislative process," she added.

While I wish Swinburne every good health, I don't buy her explanation that there was something atypical about the narrow interests of her contacts. In the last six months of 2010, for example, she held over 90 meetings with lobbyists. All of them were from the private sector.

Geoffrey Van Orden, an MEP for the East of England, has put an intriguing disclaimer at the end of his latest available list of appointments. "These meetings are often not 'lobbying' and are frequently at my initiative to explore and understand aspects of policy and encourage British interests," it says.

With a lengthy career as a soldier behind him, Van Orden is especially close to the arms industry. Among the several discussions with weapons producers which he has admitted having between January and June was a dinner with Bill Giles, the Brussels point-man for BAE Systems.

I asked Van Orden if he had ever invited the Campaign Against the Arms Trade or a group similarly critical of the war industry to a meal. "I have supported a global arms trade treaty but do not support CAAT's wider agenda and I am not aware that they have ever asked for a meeting," he replied. "Those concerned about irresponsible arms sales and arming terrorists and authoritarian regimes should focus their attention on countries like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran instead of harassing the democracies."

Van Orden noted that BAE is "a major British manufacturer and one of our biggest exporters" but omitted a few other salient facts. BAE's top client, Saudi Arabia, is such a beacon for democracy that it has finally decided to grant women the vote. Alas, this giant leap towards gender equality won't actually be taken until 2015.

And, according to its 2012 annual report, BAE employs more people in the US than in Van Orden's beloved Britain.

War against workers

In his aforementioned "next big scandal" speech, Cameron decried the "far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money".

The cosiness has continued since he became prime minister. Last week, the Confederation of British Industry - which brags of being the country's top lobbying organisation - called on EU governments to "identify where the burden of regulation can be reduced" for corporations.

Addressing the House of Commons yesterday, Cameron noted that he helped facilitate a discussion between a "business taskforce" and leaders of several EU countries - including Germany, Poland and Italy - in Brussels a few days earlier. Cameron rejoiced at how "deregulation is now part of the EU agenda in a way that it simply hasn't been before".

The "taskforce" Cameron has been championing features key figures from the alcohol company Diageo and the retailer Marks and Spencer. The manifesto it has produced is tantamount to a declaration of war against workers.

A proposal to guarantee female employees 20 weeks of maternity leave on full pay would have to be binned in the name of "competitiveness". Bosses would be given more flexibility to pressurise employees into working longer hours. And a raft of anti-pollution rules would be weakened or abandoned.

Cameron and his acolytes present these demands as essential for economic rejuvenation. In reality, they represent a throwback to an era when factory owners had not yet made some concessions to organised labour. We can read about that era in the novels of Charles Dickens. It doesn't have to be recreated in the twenty-first century.

•First published by EUobserver, 29 October 2013.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Is EU stepping up police cooperation with Israel?

Is the European Union flouting international law by stepping up its police cooperation with Israel?

Officers from Israel are known to have taken part in a number of activities coordinated by Europol, the EU's police agency, over the past few years.

This frequent contact comes despite how Israel's police headquarters are located in occupied East Jerusalem. The EU has consistently stated that it regards Israel's occupation and subsequent annexation of East Jerusalem as illegal. And a 2004 ruling from the International Court of Justice stipulated that governments and institutions throughout the world have an obligation not to abet Israel's illegal conduct in any way.

As recently as week, Israel took part in a conference on "economic crimes" in Europol's ultra-modern HQ in The Hague. The previous month, a high-ranking officer from Israel was among those who attended Europol's annual "police chiefs convention." Israel was similarly represented at the same event in 2012.

"Valuable assistance"

Meanwhile, Europol has commended Israel for providing it with "valuable assistance" during an operation against cocaine smuggling, which led to a court case that opened in Sweden last year. Israel has been granted "observer status" in an "informal network" managed by Europol focused on recovering the proceeds of organized crime. And when a separate network on money laundering -- it, too, managed by Europol -- was launched last year, Israel also sent a delegation.

The EU liaison with Israel doesn't appear to have been stymied by the fact that the two sides don't yet have a formal intelligence sharing agreement. Europol was given the go-ahead by the EU's governments to negotiate such an agreement with Israel in 2005. Four years later, the Union named Israel as a priority state for cooperation with Europol. Yet a deal to allow sensitive information be shared has still not been approved by the EU's governments.

For the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to get a simple answer from Europol about the scope of its work with Israel. Eventually, I got a response over the weekend -- it was not very enlightening. "Europol does not cooperate with Israel directly and we don't exchange data with Israel," a spokesperson told me.

I asked the spokesperson if Europol had studied the documents leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, which show that the US has been handing over "raw intelligence" to Israel, without taking steps to protect personal data. The spokesperson said that Europol would only be able to cooperate with Israel once a formal agreement between the two sides comes into effect.

Europol was "not in a position to comment" on whether these revelations would have "any potential impact on a currently not existing agreement."


Responding to a query from a member of the European Parliament in July, the EU's home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström said that "information obtained in obvious violation of human rights shall not be processed" once the policing agreement with Israel enters into force.

My curious little mind is wondering why she used the word "obvious." The Israeli "security" forces are known to regularly torture Palestinian prisoners. Yet because such abuse takes place away from scrutiny it may not be "obvious" to Malmström that it has occurred.

It should be pointed out, too, that Europol hasn't balked at cooperating with other "partners" with a less than pristine record on human rights. In 2010, Europol signed a formal accord with Colombia. Rob Wainwright, Europol's director, said at the time it would allow information to be exchanged on "known and suspected criminals."

The Bogota authorities have a broad interpretation of the phrase "suspected criminals." The 2010 agreement was signed not long after Alvaro Uribe stepped down as Colombia's president. He had branded human rights workers as "rent-a-mobs at terrorism's service."

Human rights abuses have continued since Uribe's departure. Protests by Colombian workers against ruinous free trade agreements with the EU and the US over have been violently attacked by the state forces recently, often resulting in the loss of life.

Has Europol severed its ties with Colombian police as a result? Not, as far as I can see. Rather, Colombian officers have -- like their Israeli counterparts -- been helping Europol's work on drugs.

Colombia and Israel are, of course, both regarded as important commercial partners for the EU. So it's hardly surprising that human rights abuses -- "obvious" or otherwise -- don't stand in the way of business. Or, it would seem, police cooperation.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 22 October 2013.

Friday, October 18, 2013

EU-Canada trade deal: bad news for democracy

Extremists have notched up a significant victory today.

The new trade deal between the European Union and Canada appears to go further than any previous commercial agreement that the EU has clinched.

Its most worrying provision is what the European Commission calls "a modern and effective investor-to-state dispute settlement mechanism". This will allow major corporations to formally challenge any social or environmental law that hurts their bottom line.

Monsanto and others who play dangerous games with nature will be undoubtedly delighted with the deal. Canada is one of the top 10 countries in the world for planting genetically modified (GM) crops. The biotechnology industry, on the other hand, has long been frustrated by the difficulties it encounters in placing Frankenstein foods on the European market.

Invited to sue

If the new agreement comes into effect, then Monsanto will be invited to sue the European Union over the "barriers" that have been erected to force-feeding us with things we don't anywhere near our - or our children's - mouths.

We cannot even be certain that items containing GM ingredients will come with clear information. An explanatory note published by the Commission indicates that both the EU and Canada wish to reduce the cost of complying with each other's labelling requirements.

It is telling that the agreement was announced by two right-wing politicians: the Canadian premier Stephen Harper and the European Commission's unelected chief José Manuel Barroso. The dodgy duo have both registered their contempt for democracy.

Some key elements of the new deal amount to a repackaging of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) - a hideous proposal by a number of Western governments that was defeated thanks to relentless campaigning by ordinary people in the 1990s.

While the full text of the EU-Canada deal hasn't yet been made available - and, of course, it was negotiated in secret - there are reasons to fear that its clauses on intellectual property bear strong similarities to those in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).

ACTA was also defeated by a mass mobilisation of conscientious individuals. But the elite has a habit of resurrecting things that engender public opposition. Wasn't the EU's own constitution rejected by Dutch and French voters in 2005, only to be repackaged and renamed the Lisbon treaty?

We should not forget, either, that the EU and the US are eyeing a similar trade and investment agreement. The deal with Canada is likely to give a boost to those negotiations.

Fortunately, the battle is not over.

The new agreement will have to get the nod from the European Parliament before it can enter into effect. Should there be a left-leaning majority in this assembly following next year's elections, then it's conceivable that deals of this nature will become gridlocked. That's why it is vital for voters to grill candidates on their views about international trade.

Nobody should delude themselves, however, into thinking that the 2014 elections will be the end of the matter. The super-rich will keep on looking for ways to crush dissent. That's why they must be fought all day and every day.

•First published by EUobserver, 18 October 2013.

EU bank finances Israeli power plant as nearby Bedouins face demolitions

European Union officials approved a loan for an Israeli energy project exactly one week after Palestinian Bedouins living nearby were served with demolition orders.

A little-noticed decision made by the European Investment Bank on 17 September to rubber-stamp a €150 million ($205 million) loan for the Megalim power plant amounts to a gesture of support for Israel's ethnic cleansing in the Negev (Naqab) desert.

The plant is being built in Ashalim, an Israeli community, located beside the Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj. On 10 September, a number of orders to destroy property were distributed in Bir Hadaj by the Israeli authorities. Yet the Luxembourg-based bank -- an EU institution -- appeared to pay no attention to that brazen attempt to uproot the indigenous people of the Naqab.

As Megalim will generate solar and thermal energy, it is being promoted as an "environmentally friendly" initiative by the firms behind it. They include Alstom, a French corporation which has also invested in the controversial tramway linking up Israel's settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.

Tear gas attack

Unlike many other Bedouin villages in the Naqab, Bir Hadaj has been officially recognized by the State of Israel. That status hasn't stopped the authorities from destroying -- and threatening to destroy -- Bedouin property.
Four houses were demolished in Bir Hadaj at Israel's behest last year, according to the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, which monitors violations of the Bedouins' human rights.

Israeli police also entered Bir Hadaj en masse in November 2012, firing tear gas at schoolchildren. That was one of several occasions in the last few months of 2012, when the police stormed the village as demolition and eviction papers were circulated.

The EIB lends at low interest rates. And the energy project it is financing cannot be viewed in isolation from Israel's ongoing efforts to uproot Palestinians in the Negev.

Ashalim is located close to the Golda Meir Park, which was set up by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) on the remains of Bir Asluj, a Bedouin village seized by Zionist forces in 1948. The JNF has been tasked by Israel with expropriating Palestinian land and has been intimately involved in the destruction of Bedouin property.

Significantly, the EIB's decision follows the recent publication of EU guidelines on ending financial support for Israeli firms and institutions based in East Jerusalem and the wider West Bank.

While the plant is being built within present-day Israel, some bodies that are actively involved in the colonization of the West Bank are taking part in it. An "impact assessment" of the plant states that its owners will cooperate with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in order to conserve archeological sites in the surrounding area. As the IAA has its headquarters in East Jerusalem, such cooperation runs counter to the spirit, if not the letter, of the EU's new guidelines.

Despite repeated requests by email and telephone today, the EIB failed to provide me with an explanation for why it endorsed the loan for the energy project.


The EIB has a track record of helping Israeli firms that participate directly in the dispossession of the Palestinians. In 2011, for example, it lent €120 million ($164) to Mekorot, an Israeli state-owned company which has been stealing water from Palestinian wells and springs so that it can be used in Jewish-only settlements.

In theory, the EIB should reduce its loans to Israel once the EU's new guidelines -- which have sparked a furore among the Israeli establishment -- are implemented at the beginning of 2014. Yet it appears that there will be massive scope for flexibility.

Among the beneficiaries of the EIB's loans are Hapoalim, an Israeli bank with branches in the occupied West Bank. A "frequently asked questions" paper prepared by the EU's embassy in Tel Aviv says that notwithstanding the new guidelines, banks active in Israeli settlements may continue to apply for EU loans provided the end recipients of those loans are based inside Israel.

With all that eagerness to please Israel, it's hard to see why some Israeli politicians portray the EU as their enemy.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 17 October 2013.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Big Tobacco gets sneaky

This week last year the machinations of Big Tobacco sparked a scandal in Brussels. John Dalli was removed from his post as the European Commission's health chief over allegations - which he denies - that he solicited bribes from a Swedish manufacturer of chewable tobacco. With reports of espionage and burglary, the whole affair spiced up the often turgid world of EU politics for a while.

According to spin-doctors, Dalli was sacked because the Commission wanted to show the peddlers of addiction that they couldn't write the law. Yet the EU's governments and institutions proved just how malleable they were later in 2012, when they binned a proposal to ban outright the branding of cigarettes and require that they all be sold in plain packets.

By a combination of bullying its adversaries and schmoozing its allies, the industry has been able to weaken the plan considerably. When the dossier - known as the "tobacco products directive" - was put before the European Parliament recently, many of our elected representatives displayed greater concern about the profits of the private sector than the health of their constituents.

As well as hiring a battalion of in-house lobbyists, the tobacco industry is using a network of front groups to attain its goals. Typically, these groups have inoffensive names, leading the uninitiated to surmise that they are full of cerebral types, more interested in how things work in theory than in practice.

The late Stanley Crossick, for example, is regarded as an intellectual giant among the suits who flock to events held by his outfit, the European Policy Centre. It is uncouth to mention that the exalted "think tank" was set up with the help of British American Tobacco, which remains one if its funders to this day.


The European Justice Forum (EJF) has a particularly misleading name. Whereas it could easily be mistaken as a human rights organisation, the membership list of this select group includes cigarette-makers Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco. David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers, are represented, too, indicating that they are intent on destroying environmental and social regulations on both sides of the Atlantic.

The EJF claims that it is focused on "collective redress", the principle whereby a number of people can take legal action against a company accused of damaging their health. Tobacco firms have faced civil action lawsuits in the US; the forum is concerned that similar challenges could be mounted in other parts of the world.

The forum has been engaged in stealth lobbying against the tobacco products directive. A policy paper that it drew up earlier this month protested against a move by some members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to introduce the concept of "producer responsibility" into the tobacco products directive.

Under that tenet, the tobacco industry could be sued by those suffering from cancer or heart disease. According to the forum, this would "set a dangerous precedent that could lead to efforts to target other industries."

I contacted Arundel McDougall, the EJF's director, asking him why the paper did not spell out the forum's links to tobacco. He replied by saying that the EJF's members are listed on its website. McDougall also claimed that the paper wasn't circulated among MEPs but was simply prepared to "address a generic matter of concern to all our members".

I'm not convinced by his reply. Britain's Conservative MEPs publish periodical, albeit skimpy, records of their meetings with lobbyists . These show that the EJF has sought appointments in the Parliament on a number of issues this year. It's hard to believe that tobacco wasn't discussed at any of these encounters.

The EJF has a close relationship to Edelman, which describes itself as the world's largest public relations firm. Both have offices in the same building in Brussels.

Martin Porter, head of Edelman in this city, told me that while the EJF is among his firm's clients, Edelman did not provide any assistance "in preparing or disseminating" the forum's paper on tobacco. "Doing so on this issue is excluded from our scope of work for the European Justice Forum," Porter added.


The EJF's activities fit into a pattern described in a 2008 report by the World Health Organisation. "Recognising that the public and politicians are increasingly unsympathetic to the demands of the tobacco industry, it has sought to align itself with more socially acceptable entities," the report stated. "Such groups often appear in the news media and at legislative hearings, where they seek to reframe tobacco control policies as economic issues rather than public health initiatives."

BusinessEurope, an alliance of corporations, has been resorting to the same trickery. In a May hearing at the European Parliament, Carsten Danöhl, a senior adviser to BusinessEurope, argued that the tobacco products law would have repercussions for world trade.

Danöhl portrayed himself as a champion of industry generally, yet his script didn't specify that his organisation includes cigarette-makers and that they have been making an identical case - almost verbatim - to his.

Policy-makers have a legal obligation - enshrined in a convention of the World Health Organisation - to get tough with Big Tobacco. The equally bellicose and sneaky tactics of the industry are designed to destroy that convention.

Big Tobacco is so hostile to regulation it would probably sell hand grenades to three-year-olds if it could. Because this horrid industry isn't short of friends among the super-rich, it seems vital to me that the left singles out tobacco for special opprobrium.

We should call out every outfit that receives funding from cigarette-makers as front groups for Big Tobacco. For that is exactly what they are.

•First published by EUobserver, 15 October 2013.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Greeting asylum-seekers with drones

Five years ago I had the dubious honour of interviewing a representative from the Flemish far-right party Vlaams Belang.

After listening to this woman spout some paranoid nonsense about the police being "afraid" to enter parts of Brussels "where Muslims rule", I asked if she had anything against me. As an Irish national, I am a foreigner in Belgium, I explained. That wasn't a problem, she replied, because "you are probably the same religion as us".

The disaster off the coast of Lampedusa reminded me of that bizarre and unsettling conversation.

In the mid-nineteenth century, my ancestors fled hunger and destitution in "coffin ships", frequently dying onboard. Mass emigration is haunting Ireland once again today. Yet unlike the Africans who perished before they could reach the Italian shore, we can usually travel in safety.

Adjusting to a new life abroad is never easy. But, at least, demagogues will take kindly to us because we share the same race - or, as they prefer to call it, religion.

Sometimes, though, I am not sure if the gap between extremist parties like Vlaams Belang or Golden Dawn and more "mainstream" politicians is all that great.

Nick Griffin, a British National Party thug now sitting in the European Parliament, once provoked a furore by arguing that boats carrying migrants should be fired upon. If Griffin had been a little more nuanced, then his proposal would have differed little to official EU policy.

The immediate response of Cecilia Malmström, the EU's home affairs commissioner, to the Lampedusa disaster was to tout a new border surveillance system called Eurosur. According to Malmström, the system will help the authorities rescue boats that get into difficulty after it becomes operational in December.


Contrary to what Malmström has indicated, Eurosur is not a humanitarian initiative. Rather, its primary focus is addressing what the European Commission calls "illegal immigration" - a repulsive term as travelling from one country to another in search of a better life is not a crime.

Eurosur is partly the fruit of a €15 million scientific research project launched in 2010. Though mainly funded by the EU, the project had a heavy participation from top weapons-makers like Britain's BAE, the Franco-German firm EADS and Spain's Indra.

This is one of several EU-financed schemes relating to maritime surveillance. Another one, OPARUS, examined how drones can help to detect Africans or Asians trying to enter Europe. BAE, EADS and the French companies Thales and Dassault are all taking part in it. So, too, is Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), a maker of drones used to bomb civilians in Gaza.


I've challenged Malmström a couple of times about why she wants to train warplanes on some of the world's poorest people. She has tried to fob me off by claiming the fact that drones can have violent applications is a mere coincidence.

There can be little doubt that the EU is taking an increasingly militarised approach to questions of migration and asylum.

Frontex, the EU's border management agency, will have a significant role in overseeing Eurosur. The agency is headed by Ilkka Laitenen, a Finnish brigadier-general.

Laitenen sits on the advisory board of Security and Defence Agenda, a "think tank" reliant on funding from the arms industry. He and his staff are also in regular contact with the European Defence Agency, a body established to drum up business for this continent's weapons-makers.

Frontex, too, has been shopping around for drones deemed suitable for tracking migrants. It is known to have invited Israeli and American drone manufacturers to display their deadly wares to its staff. The US Department of Commerce has advised the country's arms producers to keep a close eye on Frontex as it may provide "export opportunities".

Cecilia Malmström has rightly been critical of the Greek authorities for approving a tiny number of asylum applications and systematically refusing asylum to refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria.

It shouldn't be forgotten that Malmström supervises the work of Frontex, an agency that has helped Greece to abuse the right to asylum. In January 2011, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that Greece's detention centres for asylum-seekers were in such a dilapidated state that keeping people in them was tantamount to torture. Frontex has provided buses for transporting asylum-seekers to those centres.

It stands accused, therefore, of being a subcontractor for torture.

I couldn't fail to notice that one of the main boasts of Britain's Conservative Party at its latest annual conference was that it had brought immigration down. The boast should be seen against the backdrop of the wider ideological war being waged against the poor - both in Europe and further afield. Like any war, its main beneficiaries are those making the tools with which it is fought.

•First published by EUobserver, 8 October 2013.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The EU's obscene haste to placate Israel

Is the European Union finally getting tough with Israel?

New guidelines stating that companies or institutions active in illegal Jewish-only settlements are ineligible for EU grants and loans indicate that it may be.

The guidelines have drawn a furious response from Israeli politicians. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, predicted they could lead his compatriots to "lose confidence in the impartiality of Europe". Israel has reportedly decided to place restrictions on EU aid projects for Palestinians in retaliation.

Reacting to that fury, the Union's representatives swiftly tried to downplay the guidelines' significance. The EU's embassy in Tel Aviv noted that they essentially reconfirm the Union's view that the settlements violate international law. The embassy also published advice on how Israelis can continue receiving EU subsidies regardless of where they operate.

A "frequently asked questions" paper on the embassy's website says that firms headquartered within Israel's pre-1967 borders may apply for EU grants, even if they have offices in the occupied West Bank. The paper stresses that Israeli researchers living in the settlements can benefit from EU science funding, provided they work in a university within Israel itself. And it states that Israeli banks with branches in the settlements may apply for EU loans if the loans are destined for firms inside Israel.

Both the tone and content of this advice suggests that the Union is unlikely to depart radically from its existing practices.

Easy to circumvent?

Back in 2004, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network issued a report proving that some recipients of EU science grants were based in the West Bank. Despite this evidence, the European Commission had no difficulty with involving the cosmetics-maker Ahava in its current programme for scientific research. Ahava's main factory is located in the West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Shalem.

While the EU may baulk at such overt support for the occupation in the future, the useful pointers it is giving to Israeli firms suggest that the guidelines will not be difficult to circumvent.

Furthermore, the guidelines fail to tackle the discrimination faced by Palestinians inside present-day Israel.

Haifa University is now taking part in over 25 EU science projects. The EU took no action against this university when it banned Palestinian students from protesting against Israel's attacks on Gaza in November last year.

Worse again, the guidelines do not preclude Israeli arms companies from soaking up EU grants. Elbit and Israel Aerospace Industries - manufacturers of drones used to kill and main civilians in Gaza - participate in many EU-financed schemes. Their ability to do so fits into the wider militarisation of the EU's research activities. This trend is likely to continue under the Union's next research programme, which has been allocated around 70 billion euros between 2014 and 2020.

None of this is to argue that the new guidelines are worthless. The very fact that they have been drafted is a sign that the EU is feeling the heat from the Palestine solidarity movement. Campaigners can now cite these guidelines whenever they come across cases of projects linked to Israeli settlements availing of the EU's largesse.

But the haste with which the EU has tried to placate Israel shows that this isn't the end of the story. The challenge for all of us is to ensure that the guidelines lead to something concrete. So far the EU's representatives have been allergic to the idea of boycotts and sanctions against Israel. Their allergy will only be overcome if people of conscience put them under enough pressure.

•First published by Palestine News, Summer 2013.