Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Israeli army donations enjoy tax perks

Organisations raising funds to benefit the Israeli army and illegal settlements in the West Bank enjoy tax-exempt status in Europe, an investigation has shown.

The Sar-El Foundation is one of several groups working in the Netherlands dedicated to supporting the Israel Defence Forces. It organises regular visits to Israel, where Dutch volunteers spend three week periods training with the IDF.

Max Arpels Lezer, the foundation’s Amsterdam-based chairman, said that he tries to encourage volunteers to work in Israeli hospitals but if “that is not possible they can do civilian work on military bases.” He has previously stated that while the volunteers do not become soldiers, “they help in the battle against the Palestinians”. But he would not comment when asked why he wishes to assist the Israeli army, given that a United Nations inquiry led by retired South African judge Richard Goldstone found that its troops committed war crimes during a three-week offensive against Gaza in 2008 and 2009.

“I don’t wish to answer the question,” he said. “We don’t talk about politics. Our organisation is a non-political organisation.”

Under Dutch law, foundations such as Sar-El are exempt from tax and individuals giving money to them can deduct the donations from their income tax.

A similar group Collectieve Israël Action (Collective Action Israel) collects about 8 million euros (11 million dollars) per year, according to its website. Among the projects it assists are training for Israeli soldiers, particularly on the applications of advanced technology. The CIA’s board of advisers includes Doron Livnat, director of Riwal, a supplier of cranes used in the construction of the massive wall that Israel has built in the West Bank. That wall was found to be illegal in a 2004 opinion issued by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The Nachamoe Foundation, meanwhile, raises money for the upkeep of Israeli families. The foundation has admitted that some of the families live on Israeli settlements between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. These settlements violate international law; the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention forbids an occupying power from transferring part of its own civilian population into the land it is occupying.

Some groups in the Netherlands have categorised support for the IDF as “humanitarian aid”. Visie voor Israël (Vision for Israel) encourages its sympathisers to give donations that will be used to buy gifts such as backpacks for Israeli soldiers. A newsletter from the organisation says that the quantity of gifts provided has increased substantially since the Israeli army’s offensive against Gaza over the past two years.

Shuva is one of several Christian Zionist organisations working in the Netherlands viewing the foundation of Israel and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as the fulfilment of a Biblical prophecy. According to one of its 2009 newsletters, it has financed a school in Nofei Nechemia, an extension (frequently termed an “illegal outpost” by Israeli newspapers) of the Israeli settlement of Ariel the West Bank. Shuva has stated too that it helps hundreds of settlers to establish themselves in four Israeli communities in the West Bank every year.

A spokesman for the Dutch inland revenue service said that the country’s tax rules do not contain any clauses relating to breaches of international law. He said that Dutch legislation allows non-profit organisations to apply for tax exemptions based on their stated goals. “At any given moment, the Dutch tax authorities may decide to revoke this favoured status” after examining the activities of those benefiting from it, he added. But the spokesman said he was unable to speak about the status enjoyed by any particular organisation.

Ghada Zeidan from United Civilians for Peace, a Palestinian solidarity group in the Netherlands, said it is “very difficult” to convince the authorities that they should take action against fundraising by pro-Israel organisations. “The problem is that there is a kind of culture of acceptance of it,” she added.

Earlier this year a campaign was launched in Britain to have the Jewish National Fund (JNF) stripped of its status as a charity. While the JNF presents itself as an ecologically-minded body that plants trees in Israel, it has actively supported violence against Palestinians for many decades. One of its leading figures Yosef Weitz explicitly advocated in 1940 – eight years before the state of Israel was founded - that Palestinians should be forced out of Palestine. More recently, the JNF has concentrated much of its energies on settling Jews in the Negev, a process that has involved the uprooting of indigenous Bedouins, often by the destruction of their homes.

The latest accounts made public by the JNF in London say that its total income for 2008 amounted to 7.7 million pounds (12.2 million dollars). Another priority for the fund has been to help the Benji Hillman Foundation; set up in memory of a soldier killed when Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, it offers accommodation to young people who travel from abroad to join the Israeli army.

A spokesman for the British revenue authority would not say if any investigations have been undertaken into the JNF’s activities.

The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) – one of the organisations monitoring the JNF’s work – is seeking a probe into whether fund-raisers for foreign armies can be considered charities under British law. Matthew Richardson, an ISM activist, noted that the JNF has powerful allies – David Cameron, the current British prime minister, has agreed to be one of its patrons; so too did his predecessors Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Richardson added: “The JNF is very embedded within the (pro-Israel) lobby and the political elite as a whole.”

•First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net), 28 September 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

Workers of the world unite: there is no alternative

Every so often the Plain English Campaign in Britain accuses the main EU institutions of butchering Her Majesty’s tongue. As an Irishman, the campaign leaves me ambivalent. I have no desire to defend the purity of a language forced on much of the world by a brutish imperialism. But I loathe how the elite in Brussels deliberately uses words that mislead.

Despite not being typical Euro-jargon, the term “social partners” is especially horrid. It gives the impression that employers and trade unions both act altruistically and that they have equal access to the corridors of power.

This week the concept behind the “partnership” – one that is explicitly referred to in the EU’s treaties – will be exposed as fraudulent. On Wednesday (29 September) trade unionists from across Europe will protest at the cutbacks in public expenditure that our political masters tell us we have to swallow to have any chance of recovery from the economic crisis. Will the bosses of this continent be displaying solidarity with their “partners” on this day of action? You must be joking.

My hope is that there will be a massive turn-out of angry workers and that this will encourage trade union leaders to be more combative towards the EU’s institutions than they have been in recent years. The protesters’ key demands can be found in a policy paper titled “Towards A New Social Deal” published last year by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). While its diagnosis is correct – “the dominance of the neo-liberal economic model over the past 30 years has caused the economic catastrophe that Europe and the rest of the world are now experiencing” – it fails to grapple with ETUC’s own culpability in propping up the aforementioned model.

John Monks, ETUC’s general-secretary, made a strategic blunder over the past few years by campaigning in favour of the Lisbon treaty, which legally obliges the Union to follow neo-liberal precepts. The treaty, for example, commits the Union to fight all barriers to international trade – these include social or environmental standards that irritate multinational firms.

During 2009, Monks’ contention that the treaty benefited workers was regularly quoted by dodgy politicians and other establishment figures who bludgeoned Irish voters into accepting the treaty in a referendum – having rejected the same document a year earlier. The truth was that those politicians hadn’t the slightest interest in defending workers rights and that the treaty merely threw a few crumbs to workers.

Monks now has an opportunity to atone for his poor judgement by strenuously opposing the agenda of the EU’s predominantly right-leaning governments and institutions. Far from having no other option than imposing austerity measures on their populations, these myopic ideologues relish how they can ram through decisions that would have proven unpalatable during a boom.

Mark Weisbrot from the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington has demolished the myth that there is no alternative to cutting social spending and raising the retirement age. He has suggested too that Europe’s policy-makers have presented a false picture of the woes besetting euro-zone economies. Whereas conventional “wisdom” has it that the Spanish had been profligate, the reality is that the ratio between the country’s debt and its gross domestic product fell from 59% to 36% from 2000 to 2007.

“What is really going on is that powerful interests within these countries – including Spain, Greece, Ireland and Portugal – are taking advantage of the situation to make the changes that they want,” Weisbrot wrote in July. “Perhaps even more importantly, the European authorities – including the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF – who are holding the purse strings of any bail-out funds, are even more committed than the national governments to right-wing policy changes. And they are further removed from any accountability to any electorate.”

Unfortunately, we lack economic commentators of Weisbrot’s calibre in Brussels. Instead, the researchers in corporate-funded think tanks that masquerade as independent “experts” have acted as cheerleaders for cutbacks. Ann Mettler, director of the Lisbon Council – a group dedicated to making Europe “competitive” – contradicts herself in her latest “e-brief” (a term that the Plain English Campaign must decry). After arguing that Europe needs more investment in education, she then proceeds to applaud cuts that affect vital services like education. Describing the upheaval in the Greek economy as a “healthy wake-up call” she writes that “in reality, what is today called ‘austerity’ is perhaps nothing more than at last making an effort to live within our means.”

It is instructive that another new Lisbon Council pamphlet was penned by Alessandro Leipold, a former senior official with the International Monetary Fund. Leipold has recommended that joint assistance from the EU and IMF “should become the norm” for economies in difficulty.

His blueprint is frightening. Over the summer, the IMF illustrated that it remains wedded to capitalist extremism when it attempted to bulldoze Hungary into abandoning a planned tax on banks. The Hungarian government was able to resist the fund’s pressure; poorer countries outside Europe have been unable to. Under the conditions of a $1.2 billion IMF loan to Jamaica, no new schools can be built for the island’s children.

The measures being taken in the name of economic recovery in Europe and around the world are manifestly unjust. Calling for workers of the world to unite against them might sound old-fashioned but in this respect at least, there is no alternative.

•First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 26 September – 2 October, 2010

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

MEPs respond to Pakistan floods - by expelling Pakistanis

Less than two months after Pakistan was devastated by one of the worst disasters in recent history, the European Union’s law-makers have decided that Pakistanis living in the 27-country bloc without permission should be returned home.

In a Sep 21 vote, the European Parliament approved a “readmission agreement” with Pakistan under which the country will be required to take back any of its nationals deemed to be “illegal immigrants” by the EU’s member states.

Negotiated over an eight-year period, the accord will give the Pakistani authorities 60 days to respond to requests to accept back their nationals from the EU. If no response is forthcoming during that period, the Union will be allowed assume that Pakistan has no objection to receiving the migrants in question. If, however, Pakistan wishes to turn down a request, it will have to present a written “justification” of its reasons for doing so.

Amnesty International has argued that the timing of the agreement is inappropriate at a time when Pakistan is struggling to cope with severe flooding and while the human rights situation in the country remains hugely problematic.

Anneliese Baldaccini, an analyst on asylum and immigration policy in Amnesty’s Brussels office, noted too that conflict in the surrounding region has caused major upheaval in Pakistan. “There are more than 1 million internally displaced people in Pakistan and many hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in Pakistan,” she said. “Pakistan is dealing with a situation that is already quite difficult. If the readmission agreement leads to a considerable number of returns (of Pakistani nationals) from the EU, then this would raise concerns. If there is no prospect of reintegrating nationals into Pakistani society, then we don’t see the merit in sending people back.”

The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention forbids expulsions of people to countries where their lives are likely to be put at risk. According to Amnesty’s latest annual report, dozens of detainees were tortured to death or killed in custody in Pakistan last year, the fate of hundreds of disappeared people in the country remains unknown and members of religious minorities are subject to rising levels of violence and intimidation. A separate Amnesty study published in June dubbed north-west Pakistan a “human rights free zone”. Almost four million people in the north-west are effectively living under the Taliban, without the rule of law and without any protection from the Pakistani government, the report concluded.

The accord with Pakistan is the latest in a series of readmission agreements negotiated between the EU and foreign countries over the past decade. Some eighteen such agreements have either been finalised or are under discussion. Previous signatories of the agreements include Hong Kong, Bosnia, Serbia, Ukraine and Russia, while negotiations are ongoing with China, Morocco, Algeria and Turkey.

Amnesty’s Baldaccini complained that there is a paucity of data available on the impact of these agreements. It is frequently unclear, she said, whether migrants have been sent back to their countries of origin under EU agreements or those signed on a bilateral basis between individual states from the Union and governments outside it.

Michele Cercone, spokesman on home affairs with the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, said that it is vital that readmission agreements are negotiated by the entire Union. If individual EU governments continued to reach bilateral agreements “then we would have a very fragmented situation,” he added, where “there would be much less figures and much less evidence” about the number of people affected. The Commission has estimated that 13,000 Pakistanis were arrested in the EU during 2008 because their status was considered “irregular” or “illegal”.

The new accord was approved by 382 members of the European Parliament (MEPs), with 250 voting against.

French Green MEP Hélène Flautre said it is “seriously regrettable” that the accord had been approved. Pakistan already receives more refugees than any other country in the world, she said, even though it has not ratified key international law on the humane treatment of refugees. According to the UN data, authorities in Pakistan registered 1.7 million refugees in 2009.

Flautre lamented how the Parliament had failed in this case to exercise its recently acquired powers – granted under the EU’s Lisbon treaty – to reject readmission agreements. “This agreement with Pakistan adds to the growing list of EU readmission agreements which focus solely on deporting third country nationals from the EU, without concern as to whether the receiving country can guarantee the safety of or basic rights for those returned,” she said.

Dutch left-wing MEP Dennis de Jong described the agreement as “the wrong instrument at the wrong time”.

“Millions of people are fleeing the floods that have caused so much destruction,” he said. “At a time like this, the EU should be helping Pakistan, but instead it is seeking to send back asylum seekers whose applications have failed, ignoring the values we pride ourselves on in Europe.”
•First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net), 22 September 2010

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pentagon pulls Europe's strings

One little known fact about Brussels is that it a sliver of the city has a US address. American staff working in NATO headquarters can send letters to mom and pop or take deliveries from on-line retailers like Amazon, paying the same postage and shipping fees as they would within their home country. Under the “Air Post Office” zip code applying to this mail, the Belgian capital is considered part of New York City.

This may seem trivial but it is symptomatic of how the Pentagon regards most of Europe as its puppet. Worse again, senior officials working for our governments promote the subservience as desirable. “What is the point of the Belgian army today?” Robert Cooper, one of the EU’s top politico-military strategists and a former adviser to Tony Blair, has written. “It is not to defend Belgium, since no one is going to attack it. Rather, it is to demonstrate a sufficient commitment to the ‘West’ that friends and allies, above all the USA, will be there if ever Belgium should need help.”

During their summit last week, the EU’s presidents and prime ministers tasked foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton with drawing up a blueprint for developing closer ties between the Union and NATO. No doubt, Ashton will do her best to present the military alliance as a benevolent one, intent on preventing nascent conflicts from escalating. Gamblers could not expect high odds on terms such as “we wish to exploit the synergies between the two organisations” appearing in her blueprint.

Yet no amount of turgid phrasing can mask how NATO and the EU have already become deeply enmeshed. Officially, six of the EU’s 27 countries are not full members of NATO: Austria, Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus. Stealthily, however, the entire Union is being drawn into the US-dominated alliance. Sweden and Finland both have troops serving under NATO in Afghanistan, eroding their pretence to be neutral. Cyprus is the only EU country to have so far remained outside NATO’s misnamed Partnership for Peace.

In the past, the “Partnership” has often proven to be a waiting room for NATO accession. There is one exception to this general trend: Russia. Despite joining the Partnership in 1994, Russia has seen its relations with NATO deteriorate over the past decade. A military doctrine approved by Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, in February identified NATO’s continuous expansion into eastern Europe as one of the “main external threats of war”.

Rather than trying to assuage the Kremlin, NATO is still provocatively stretching its tentacles into Russia’s immediate neighbourhood. Ukraine failed to have its bid to join the alliance accepted at the 2008 NATO summit, but has more recently been promised a compensation prize. Within the next five or six years, Ukraine is scheduled to be the first country outside the alliance admitted to its “response force”. This carries the real risk that Kiev will sign up for participation in a conflict that Moscow opposes.

Russia has every right to be concerned, too, by the content of the “strategic concept” that will be rubber-stamped when NATO leaders assemble in Lisbon in November. This policy document will be based on the findings of a recent report indicating that competition for oil and other energy sources will be an issue of critical importance for the alliance in the decades ahead.

Drafted under the guidance of former Shell chief executive Jeroen van der Veer, the report eerily echoes a warning contained in a Russian intelligence assessment from 2007. According to that assessment, a confrontation between Russia and other nations determined to exploit the Arctic’s resources is a distinct possibility. Russia has sounded a bellicose note itself lately; for the first time in 20 years, it has resumed air patrols in a region containing 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of undiscovered oil, if estimates by American geologists are accurate. Canada, one of several NATO members asserting a claim over the Arctic, has further ratcheted up the tension with Russia by conducting a series of “sovereignty exercises” in the Arctic.

It is no secret, of course, that the US has a seemingly insatiable lust for fossil fuels. Barack Obama may be trying to convince us that America is winding down its military operations in Iraq but major corporations have no intention of quitting the country’s oil-fields. The colonial conquest of Afghanistan, meanwhile, cannot be separated from a plan that the US has had since at least the 1990s to transport natural gas from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan. In 2007, Richard Boucher, then the US assistant secretary of state, acknowledged that Washington hoped to source energy from a pipeline linking south and central Asia.

As if the spiralling costs of these wars were not high enough, the US – egged on by Israel – is preparing to attack Iran, home to about 10% of the world’s oil and gas reserves. A recent article by Michel Chossudovsky, economics professor with the University of Ottawa, contends that US wishes not only to control Iran’s energy supplies but also to challenge the influence of Russia and China in the Middle East. The reasons he cites appear far more credible than the official narrative from Washington about wishing to stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

By parroting American propaganda, its allies in NATO and the EU are trying to hoodwink the public into accepting another disastrous war.

•First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 19-25 September 2010

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Save rainforests so we can pollute more, says Europe's business elite

Extra permits to pollute the atmosphere would be given to corporations that invest in areas surrounding tropical rainforests under plans drawn up by one of Europe’s most influential pressure groups.

With deforestation accounting for 20 percent of global releases of heat-trapping gases, the future of schemes ostensibly aimed at preserving tropical ecosystems will be one of the key topics for the United Nations’ climate change negotiations in Cancún, Mexico, during November and December. Chief among these schemes is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), under which rich countries can buy “credits” that allow them avoid reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) at home by financing environmental projects in poorer parts of the world.

Since the CDM entered into effect in 2005, only a handful of forestry projects have been deemed eligible for funding by the board supervising its activities. Forestry projects have also been excluded from the European Union’s emissions trading scheme (ETS), which allows companies to buy and sell pollution licenses.

BusinessEurope, the largest confederation of private-sector firms on this confident, is now trying to convince policy-makers to view forest credits more favourably.

Folker Franz, a specialist on environmental policy for BusinessEurope, said he believed that greater use of forest credits “would be the way to go to save the world”.

A market-based approach could have environmental benefits, he contended. “If we’ll see people profit from this, then let them profit, so long as it stops deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil,” he said.

But green campaigners argue that the concept of using forest projects in South America or Asia to “offset” emissions in Europe or the U.S. is fundamentally flawed. The UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change – which bands together scientists advising the world’s governments – has calculated that emissions from burning oil and other fossil fuels needs to be reduced by 80-95 percent by 2050 if a catastrophic increase in the earth’s temperatures is to be averted. Green activists maintain, therefore, that there is an onus on wealthier countries to ensure genuine reductions domestically, rather than simply investing in “clean” projects abroad.

“Including forest credits in the ETS would be a very bad idea,” said Jutta Kill from the forest conservation group Fern. “The main reason why it would be a bad idea is that carbon offsetting is a big distraction from tackling climate change.”

Whereas trees can absorb carbon dioxide and have a useful role in halting its release into the atmosphere, a recent Fern report indicates it would be entirely wrong to base global climate change policy on forestry projects. Titled “Trading Carbon”, the study says that trees should not be considered as permanent carbon sinks. Carbon can easily be released into the environment if trees are burnt, diseased, suffer natural decay or variations in weather.

Furthermore, measuring carbon in forests is known to be an inexact science. Research conducted in Canada has found that estimates of the carbon balance in north American forests can vary by 1,000 percent once factors such as increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are taken into account.

Environmentalists also argue that the experience with emissions trading and “offsetting” schemes so far does not inspire confidence in such market-oriented approaches. Earlier this month, the green campaign group Sandbag published a new evaluation of the ETS. Titled “Cap or Trap?”, the evaluation found that although representatives of energy-intensive industries such as steel and cement-making had lobbied aggressively to weaken the ambitions of the ETS, they have benefited enormously from it. Concessions granted to these sectors by the EU should enable them to reap profits ranging from 1.8 billion euros (2.3 billion dollars) for steel to 2.3 billion euros for cement over the 2008-12 period. Yet emissions for the Union’s cement sector fell less than 1 percent below the rate of a slump in production caused by the recession over the past few years, according to Sandbag. The relative reduction in emissions from the steel sector has been even lower still.

Magda Stoczkiewicz, Brussels director with Friends of the Earth, said that the experience of carbon trading is that “very often projects don’t reduce CO2 but in reality just become trading and marketing tools.”

Proposals from BusinessEurope should be treated with caution, she argued, because it has been trying to block the EU from setting more ambitious targets for greenhouse gas emissions. Whereas the Union’s officials have been studying the possibility of cutting emissions by 30 percent by 2020 – instead of the 20 percent target previously set – BusinessEurope has opposed such moves.

“BusinessEurope’s main aim is turning the projects into a money machine,” Stoczkiewicz added. “What we are afraid of is that forest credits will go the same way as other projects that have been set up for cashing money, not for CO2 reductions.”

•First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net), 16 September 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

On the margins, then expelled: how France treats Roma

Lille, France

Broken bicycles and old suitcases mark the entrance to the makeshift camp. Ankle-deep in mud that is newly wet from a rain-shower, the visitor is taken by the hand by lively children to meet their parents. “Papers?”, a woman named Elena asks, proffering her identity card. It shows she is from Romania, a member state of the European Union, just like France. In four years time, Romanian citizens will be allowed to work and live wherever they wish in the EU; for now, Elena, her family and all Roma gypsies in France face the risk that they could be expelled from the country at any moment.

In the centre of Villeneuve d’Ascq, an economically depressed suburb of Lille, transparent panels display excerpts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Everyone has the right to a decent standard of living, one panel proclaims. No-one shall be arbitrarily deprived of property, says another.

It does not take long to find evidence of how these rights – officially regarded as fundamental by the United Nations – are being denied a short distance away. Lacking proper toilet facilities and running water, the children have to urinate on the edges of a car park. Meanwhile, the threat that the camp with its six caravans could be dismantled appears very real; bulldozers have been used to deprive other Romas of refuge nearby in recent weeks.

“We have many problems with the police,” a man called Vasir says, clearing out the boot of his car. “The police come here many times. We have no work, no money, nothing.”

The Lille region in northern France has been at the centre of efforts by the French government to drive Roma out of the country.

In July, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy gave an inflammatory speech, in which he blamed crime on foreigners and announced that Roma camps would not be “tolerated”. The first police operation against a Roma camp following that speech occurred in Lesquin, also near Lille. Forty-eight people and 14 caravans were “evacuated” – in the words of officialdom - during that move, kicking off a process that saw 1,000 Roma expelled from France in the month of August.

In another operation, nine adults and 12 children were forced out of their mobile homes one morning in the last week of August. The official reason given was that they were occupying private land.

The expulsions have not gone unchallenged. A Lille court has ruled twice recently against the national government’s policy that Roma camps can be considered a threat to public order. And some locals have taken to the streets of Lille, alleging that Sarkozy’s policy on Roma – coupled with his controversial efforts to cut the country’s social welfare system - are bringing shame to France.

The plight of the estimated 1,200 Roma in and around Lille has become the subject of squabbling between rival political parties, too. After Martine Aubry, leader of the opposition Socialist Party, spoke out about the expulsions, Sarkozy’s centre-right allies responded with claims of double standards. Aubry had requested that Roma be uprooted from camps earlier in the summer, when she was mayor of Lille, her rivals revealed.

Although a 2004 EU law forbids collective deportations from one of the Union’s member states to another, the Brussels authorities have been reluctant to take any action against France. José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission’s president, made no reference to the French policy of expelling Roma – and similar practices in some other EU countries – when he made his first ever “State of the Union” speech Sep. 7. Barroso’s reticence came despite how he had met Sarkozy the previous day and despite how the treatment of the Roma had been discussed extensively between France and the European Commission over the previous few weeks.

Viviane Reding, Europe’s justice commissioner, has similarly declined to publicly say that France has contravened EU law, even though internal papers prepared by officials working under her direction suggest that it has. One such paper refutes French assertions that the deportations were voluntary and says that the granting of small sums of money to Roma deportees was not sufficient to ensure that France complied with EU rules on the free movement of people.

Because the European Parliament – the EU’s only directly-elected body – was on holidays in August, it was also silent about the deportations. Yet once it resumed business, the assembly approved a resolution against the French policy. Supported by 337 members of Parliament – with 245 against – the resolution rejected “any statements which link minorities and immigration with criminality and create discriminatory stereotypes”.

•First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net), 13 September 2010

Casino capitalism unthreatened by new EU rules

Imagine an amoral world, where parents encourage children to steal. On the way to school each morning, the richer kids would pilfer sandwiches or sweets from their poorer classmates. At playtime, the loot would be sold, the proceeds pocketed by the thieves.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Well, it is no crazier than the financial system that Michel Barnier, the EU’s single market commissioner, is in charge of regulating. This Wednesday (September 15) the Frenchman will propose a new law on short-selling, that abstruse practice where a blackberry-hooked whizz-kid borrows shares and sells them based on the prediction that their value will drop, then buys them back once that fall has materialised, making a tidy profit.

The harmful effects of short-selling have long been apparent. Many Asian governments blamed the crisis that beset them in the 1990s on speculators who used the tactic to drive down the rates of local currencies far below their real economic values. A decade later, it was singled out as the major cause of the rapid fall in the prices of shares in Lehman Brothers and other massive banks. And more recently, it has been a contributory factor to Greece’s woes and the wider tremors in the euro-zone. Originally working in cahoots with the Athens government (before last year’s election), Goldman Sachs helped present a misleading picture of public accounts to make Greece attractive to lenders, then bet on the risk of the country defaulting. As Wall Street rogues reaped their winnings, Greece was forced to borrow at higher rates.

Earlier this year, Germany introduced a temporary ban on that even more extreme – and absurd – activity called naked short-selling, where a speculator gambles with shares he or she neither owns nor has borrowed. Barnier intimated that he was upset by the unilateral ban, yet expressed understanding for Berlin’s stance. His new proposal will offer national regulators greater leeway in restricting the practice but there is no prospect that it will be forbidden outright. And so a golden opportunity to heed the lessons of the financial crisis is being wasted.

Open Europe - the right-wing think tank that is a principal source on EU affairs for several British newspapers – regularly issues warnings about Barnier wanting to ruin the City of London. These warnings have now proven fanciful; the truth is that Barnier lacks sufficient guts to introduce stringent rules for the casino of European capitalism.

His cowardice is easily explained. While he may appear to be the antithesis of Charlie McCreevy, his predecessor as single market chief, both are essentially cut from the same ideological cloth. Barnier has not tested positive to the same allergy to regulation as McCreevy, yet is similarly willing to serve the interests of an unaccountable elite.

Gillian Tett, normally one of the most incisive commentators with The Financial Times, was wrong last month to say that the main lobby group for short-sellers, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA), had become “distinctly toxic” in Brussels’ political circles. The truth is that it and other bands of speculators dominated the working group assembled by the European Commission to lay the groundwork for Barnier’s new proposals.

Evidently, the speculators held greater sway, too, during a sham “public consultation” that Barnier called on short-selling than the few more radical contributors to that exercise. John Chapman, a British diplomat-turned-journalist, has neatly summarised the flaws in Barnier’s thinking. By refusing to contemplate a ban on short-selling, Chapman’s submission to the exercise noted, the Commission is failing to land “a significant blow on the hedge fund industry, whose activities are the single most pernicious development of the past 30 years”.

Chapman traces the flourishing of hedge funds back to an initiative taken by Ronald Reagan in 1982. By modifying a US law then almost five decades old, Reagan ensured that funds for the use of millionaires did not have to be regulated. The greatest advantage of hedge funds may be their ability to short sell, says Chapman, who argues that the privileges granted to them by American and subsequently by Europe are largely unparalleled. “Millionaires are not allowed to be driven in super-charged limousines along public highways without limits or any constraints on knocking other cars out of the way,” he says.

In a related dossier, Barnier will also this week recommend new rules for the derivatives market. Estimated to be worth €427 trillion globally, the derivatives market is one that thrives on human misery. Derivatives were the main instruments of speculation on basic foodstuffs that caused prices of wheat and maize to jump by up to 90% in developing countries between 2007 and 2008, forcing the poor to eat less.

In January this year, Barnier described speculation on essential food in a world where one billion people suffer from hunger as “a scandal”. Yet his proposals on derivatives will not go far enough. The idea of insisting that as many derivatives as possible are traded through a regulated exchange has, for example, been ruled out. This omission is despite widespread recognition of how over-the-counter derivatives – those traded off-exchange – played “a key role in transforming a financial downturn into a global economic calamity,” according to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

Loopholes of this nature are readily exploited by the market fundamentalists determined to maintain a free-for-all approach to global finance. For millions of others, they can mean the difference between sustenance and starvation.

•First published by New Europe, 12-18 September 2010 (www.neurope.eu)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Plight of Roma low priority for EU

Roma gypsies are routinely described as Europe’s largest ethnic minority. Numbering between 10 and 16 million, their combined population exceeds that of many European Union countries. Yet their numerical strength offers no compensation for the poverty, persecution and scapegoating that the Roma have to endure – or for how their welfare is accorded a low priority by the EU’s institutions.

That few Brussels officials pay much attention to the situation facing Roma has been exemplified in recent weeks as Nicolas Sarkozy’s government in France effectively declared a war against gypsies. When the Paris authorities announced in late July that it had authorised the systematic destruction of Roma camps and the large-scale expulsion of Roma to Bulgaria and Romania, the European Commission initially insisted that the surrounding matters concerned national EU governments only.

Following the deportation of about 1,000 Roma by France during the month of August, the Commission has finally questioned the legality of these measures. In an unpublished paper, the EU’s executive arm cast doubts on assurances by Paris that all of the deportations were voluntary and therefore did not breach a 2004 law – known as the “free movement directive” – that forbids group deportations from one of the Union’s states to another.

According to the paper, the granting of lump sums ranging from 100 euros (129 dollars) for child deportees to 300 euros for adults “was not sufficient” to exempt France from the EU’s “free movement principles”.

“The response (from Brussels) has been very slow,” Sophie Kammerer from the European Network Against Racism said. “Although the measures were announced by the French at the end of July, the first press statement from Viviane Reding (the EU’s justice commissioner) wasn’t until the end of August. So almost a month passed with no reaction. Now, at least, the Commission is looking seriously into the matter.”

Kammerer noted that under EU law, deportation orders must be given in writing one month before they take effect and must allow for the possibility that they can be appealed. “Clearly, this was not respected,” she added. “The camps were dismantled one day and people were asked to leave the next day.”

So far, however, Reding has not given any indication of whether she would be willing to start legal proceedings against France. Her spokesman Matthew Newman took issue with suggestions that the Commission had dithered in reacting to the French announcement.

“The Commission has been deeply involved in Roma issues for years,” he said. “We give large sums of money to Roma integration. It is really quite surprising to hear people say we are not on top of this issue. If anything, we have been trying to raise attention to the discrimination faced by the Roma.”

France has struck a defiant tone in the contacts it has had with the EU authorities. Eric Besson, an immigration minister, insisted during a visit to Brussels last week that there have been no “collective deportations” but that some Roma have been required to leave France over their involvement in theft and “aggressive begging”. Besson claimed that France has been subject to “needless and scandalous accusations” over the measures it has taken.

The French offensive against Roma bears some similarities to an initiative unveiled by Italy in May 2008. The Italian “security package” provided for the dismantling of Roma camps and the automatic deportation of migrants who cannot prove that they have regular employment. Since then, thousands of Roma have been pushed out of Italy.

Europe’s more recent wave of attacks against Roma kicked off in July when the mayor of Copenhagen Frank Jensen urged the Danish national authorities to ensure that “criminal Roma” were arrested and expelled. More than 20 Roma were deported from Denmark soon afterwards.

Germany, Belgium, Britain and Sweden are among the other EU countries that have either taken action against the Roma or stated their intention to do so. Meanwhile, anti-Roma sentiment and the tendency to blame Roma for crime has been vigorously exploited by far-right politicians in many parts of Europe. The Hungarian extremist party Jobbik has called for Roma to be forced to live in segregated camps from the general population. In response to its call, the Hungarian Socialist Party said it hoped that Jobbik did not wish to have “concentration camps” erected.

And racism against Roma manifested itself in a particularly violent way in Slovakia in late August when a gunmen killed six members of a Roma family and another woman in Bratislava. Some human rights campaigners have linked the murders to the negative stereotyping of Roma by powerful European politicians.

Ivan Ivanov, director of the European Roma Information Office, the main group representing Roma in Brussels, said he had warned five years ago that his community was likely to come under attack from several EU governments. He urged the European Commission both to take robust action against France for contravening EU law and to draw up a comprehensive strategy for combating discrimination against Roma. Despite the Roma’s status as Europe’s largest ethnic minority, the Commission does not have a specific unit of officials dedicated to serving their interests. The Commission’s employment department, for example, has only one official tasked with handling issues affecting the Roma.

“The European institutions should not look at this on a case-by-case basis but should come up with a proper European approach, ” Ivanov said. “Roma are European citizens, so they should benefit from the same rights as any other European citizens.”

•First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net), 6 September 2010

Friday, September 3, 2010

Europe's Alliance With Israel

Nine years after it was delivered, Tony Blair’s speech to the 2001 Labour Party conference remains a chilling piece of hubris and hypocrisy. Britain’s government, he claimed, was not only concerned with the well-being of its own people but with the entire planet. “The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountains of Afghanistan: they too are our cause.”

Blair’s protégé Catherine Ashton has evidently learned a few tricks from the war criminal who masquerades as a peace envoy. As the EU’s foreign policy chief (“high representative” in Brussels parlance), Ashton has been diligently spreading the myth that she and other senior European politicians are even-handed in dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Ashton – appointed a life peer and a minister under Blair - recently denounced the criminal conviction that an Israeli military court handed down to Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, an organiser of weekly demonstrations against the massive wall that penetrates deep into the West Bank. Read on its own, Ashton’s two-paragraph response to the conviction appears laudable, giving the impression that the EU is determined to defend the Palestinians’ right to protest against the theft of their homeland.

Yet this is the same Ashton who has generally displayed a shameful disregard for Palestinian prisoners until now. When she met Israel’s overtly racist foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman in July, the only detainee on Ashton’s mind was the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured (not “kidnapped”, as many newspaper stories would have us believe) by Hamas in 2006. Certainly, Shalit should be treated humanely and there are compelling reasons for arguing he should be released on compassionate grounds. But it was entirely wrong of Ashton to focus on a soldier who was enforcing a brutal occupation, while not uttering one word – in public, at least – about the plight of Palestinian prisoners. Had her advisers consulted the organisation Defence for Children International, she could have learnt that at the very moment she was posing for photographs with Lieberman, Israel was holding more than 280 Palestinians aged between 12 and 17. Each year Israel detains an average of 700 Palestinian children – usually for an offence no more serious than throwing stones at one of the world’s most powerful armies. Most of these children are held within Israel, in violation of international law; under the Fourth Geneva Convention, people convicted in an occupied territory may only be jailed inside that territory.

Or a glance at the website run by Addameer, a prisoners support group, could have equipped Ashton with the alarming statistic that 650,000 Palestinians – one-fifth of the population in the occupied territories – have been locked up by Israel since 1967. Indeed, the Israeli government is responsible for the incarceration of an entire people – Gaza is routinely and accurately described as the world’s largest open-air prison; the West Bank has become a patchwork of checkpoints and roadblocks, where the ill and injured often die because Israeli troops stop them from travelling to see a doctor.

Ashton’s chumminess with Lieberman – a man who does not live in the state that he represents but in an illegal settlement – is at odds with how she shuns Hamas, the winners of a 2006 election. Even though the EU’s own observers deemed that election to be free and fair, the unelected Ashton has refused to meet local political leaders on the two occasions she has visited Gaza. Such a snub would be virtually unthinkable if she was travelling anywhere else.

And what can be said of her reaction to the attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla at the end of May? Nine peace activists were murdered by the state of Israel in its unprovoked raid on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, but all we got from Ashton was an inspid statement describing the incident as a “tragedy” (this implied that she did not feel that the deaths had been caused deliberately). She has subsequently been reticent about the sham investigation that Israel has called into the attack. The proverbial dogs on the street know that David Trimble, a leading foreign observer to the inquiry, cannot be considered impartial; earlier this year the former Ulster Unionist leader set up a new “friends of Israel” group. Trimble is clearly a propagandist for Israel but Ashton cannot bring herself to say so.

On the subject of propaganda, Ashton appears to have gobbled up and digested many of the lies that flow interminably from the Israeli government. In July, she welcomed the minor modifications that Israel had made to its economic blockade of Gaza as a “significant step forward”. It is instructive that her message was almost identical to that which Tony Blair had been sending over the preceding month. Despite maintaining the pretence that he is an international “peace” envoy for the Middle East, Blair had been selling the planned “easing” of the blockade as a diplomatic triumph (he has sought credit for brokering it), long before he had been appraised of just how much easing would occur. The truth, of course, is far less cheery: the imports of tomato ketchup and mayonnaise now allowed to Gazans have not halted the wider strangulation of their economy, nor the denial of their elementary rights.

Ashton’s obsequious attitude towards Israel follows many years in which the EU has become increasingly acquiescent towards Israel’s crimes against humanity. Under the terms of an EU-Israel association agreement that came into effect in 2000, Israel is required to respect fundamental human rights in order to qualify for privileged commercial access to the Union’s markets. Heaps of documentation illustrating that Israel has not complied with this provision have been accumulated over the past decade, yet not only has the EU refused to rescind Israel’s existing trade privileges, it has granted further perks. An agreement on agricultural trade concluded in November 2009, for example, lets Israel export 80 percent of its fresh produce and 95 percent of its processed foods to the EU free of customs duties. Theoretically, this only applies to goods from within Israel’s internationally recognised borders. In practice, the Israeli exporter Agrexco mixes up crops grown in Israel and those grown in Israeli settlements in the West Bank in its warehouses, then labels the whole lot as “made in Israel”.

Meanwhile, Israel has been integrated into the EU’s economic and political programmes to such a degree that it has become a member state of the Union in all but name. That is not just my observation. Speaking in Jerusalem last year, Javier Solana – Ashton’s predecessor as foreign policy chief – said that Israel is “a member of the European Union, without being a member of the institutions.”

The EU-funded programmes involving Israel range from archaeology to enterprise promotion. While their activities vary, their effect is the same: they help confer a kind of respectability on Israel that this rogue state does not merit. One especially malevolent example of this cooperation is that Israeli weapons companies – the makers of weapons used to kill and maim civilians in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza over the past two years – are busily drawing funds from the EU’s scientific research programme. Israeli firms and universities are on course to receive more than 500 million euros from this programme under its current duration (2007-13).

Diplomats say that EU-Israel relations tend to follow a simple logic. When the “peace process” is seen to be going well, the relationship improves; when it encounters difficulty, the relationship sours. Although efforts to formally “upgrade” the relationship so that Israel can be brought further into the EU’s structures have dragged somewhat lately because of widespread public revulsion at Israel’s attacks on Gaza, there is now a possibility that the momentum will be regained. The likelihood that “direct negotiations” soon to get underway between Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian “president” (his term actually expired in early 2010) will lead to a meaningful peace is almost nil, at least if we understand peace as not being the absence of war but the presence of justice. However, the talks could conceivably give the EU’s 27 governments a pretext to clasp Israel closer to their bosom.

Israel’s serial defiance of international law and the way it treats Palestinians as sub-humans should be deplored by decent people everywhere. The willingness of our governments to accommodate Israel’s transgressions is similarly despicable and worthy of similar outrage.

•First published by New Left Project (www.newleftproject.org), 3 September 2010