Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cuddling up to apartheid Israel

Every time I hear the phrase “honest broker” I am reminded of a joke about my native Ireland in the 1980s. It was said at the time that no country could be more honest. And no country could be broker.

For many years senior representatives of the European Union have been presenting themselves as an honest broker in the Israel-Palestine conflict. But in fact they have been extremely dishonest.

They have been dishonest because they have tried to give an impression of impartiality, while displaying favouritism towards the principal aggressor in the Middle East: the state of Israel.

It is no exaggeration to say that Israel has been mollycoddled by the European Union like no other state outside the EU’s borders. This is not just my observation. Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief for most of the past decade, stated last year that Israel is a member of the European Union, without being a member of its institutions.

Nor is it an exaggeration to say that the EU has been aiding the occupation of Palestine.

Evidence of this aid can be seen every time you step into a supermarket.

Under a recent agreement on agricultural trade, almost all of Israel’s food exports – both fresh and processed – can enter the EU without paying customs duties. In theory, these trade preferences only apply to food grown inside Israel’s internationally recognised borders and not on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. In practice, we know that Israel’s main food exporter Agrexco mixes up goods from the settlements with goods grown in Israel “proper” and labels the whole lot as “made in Israel”.

Business publications in Israel have helpfully given advice to agri-business firms based in the settlements about how they can masquerade as bona fide Israeli firms. The EU’s officials are perfectly aware that these abuses occur and that a significant proportion of the groceries on our supermarket shelves was grown on Israeli settlements. And yet these officials have willingly extended the scope of the trade preferences to Israel.

It should never be forgotten that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention from 1949 expressly forbids an occupying power from transferring its own civilian population into the territory that it occupies. By opening the door to higher quantities of exports from these settlements, the European Union is – regardless of its official rhetoric – conniving in the expansion of Israeli settlements and the suffocation of Palestine.

Most of my book was completed nearly a year ago. And anyone who writes a book on current affairs knows that you run the risk of being overtaken by events.

It gives me no pleasure to see that my basic thesis has been reinforced throughout 2010.

In January, Mossad, the Israeli secret service used counterfeit passports so that its agents could pose as European citizens when assassinating a leading Hamas figure in Dubai. In response, we saw some tokenistic protests from Britain and Ireland, yet no EU country was prepared to actually sanction Israel. Instead, all of them gave their blessing to Israel’s membership of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in May, a step that was seen as a diplomatic and political victory by the Israeli government.

Later that month, Israel attacked a ship run by a humanitarian organisation from Turkey, a country hoping to join the EU. Nine peace activists were brutally murdered in international waters. Millions of decent people were outraged by this act of piracy. Yet the best Catherine Ashton, the EU’s relatively new foreign policy chief, could do was to say she regretted the incident.

Ashton has made some strong statements about Israel’s ongoing theft of East Jerusalem and over the imprisonment of Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, one of the courageous leaders of the weekly protests against Israel’s apartheid wall in the West Bank. Though welcome in themselves, these statements do not negate the fact that Ashton is beavering away to bring Israel even closer to the Union than it already is. During the autumn, she recommended that Israel should be designated a “strategic partner” for the Union. That would place Israel on a similar ranking to major global economies like the US and China in terms of how it is prioritised by EU officialdom.

During November, the European Commission announced it was giving 7 million euros to a new Holocaust research project, with which Israel will be intimately involved. Now in principle, I have no problem with the concept of Holocaust research. My book makes it clear that I consider the Holocaust to have left an indelible stain on Europe’s history. Educating present and future generations about the evils of the Holocaust is essential to ensure that nothing comparable ever happens again.

I do have a problem, though, with how Israel and its most zealous supporters deliberately misuse the Holocaust in their propaganda war. During the attacks on Gaza in 2008 and 2009, some pro-Israel lobbyists argued that Israel’s military prowess showed how it had learned lessons from the Holocaust.

I ask those lobbyists tonight: when did two wrongs start making a right? When did the millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis give Israel permission to drop bombs on schools and ambulances in Gaza?

What I also object to is that precisely the same funds that are being used to finance Holocaust research are being drawn down by Israeli arms companies that have manufactured the pilotless drones and other cutting-edge killing machines that inflicted terror on the people of Gaza in 2008 and 2009. The EU is now the second largest provider of scientific research grants to Israel and we know that Israeli weapons manufacturers are among the beneficiaries of this funding. As a taxpayer, I object to how my hard-earned euros are subsidising the Israeli war industry.

The very first political demonstration I attended as an idealistic adolescent was against apartheid in South Africa. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians may not be identical to the treatment of the black majority in South Africa during the apartheid era but it bears many similarities. Indeed, some ANC activists have argued that what Palestinians have to endure is worse than what blacks had to endure in South Africa. Nelson Mandela himself has described Palestine as the moral issue of our age.

Israel’s apartheid system is becoming more draconian all the time. In recent months, a whole series of laws have been placed before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, aimed at depriving Palestinians living within Israel of their rights. Racist discourse is commonplace among Israeli politicians.

The European Union is nominally a strong supporter of the Rome Statute, under which the International Criminal Court was established. That statute lists apartheid as one of several crimes against humanity. Signatories of the Rome Statute, therefore, have an obligation to take action against this crime. Yet the European Union will not take any decisive action against Israeli apartheid.

For many years a bizarre debate has been taking place about whether or not Israel has the right to exist. Israel clearly does exist and nobody can deny that.

But Israel does not have the right to exist as an apartheid state. And Israel does not have the right to exist as a state which is occupying the land of another people. If Israel wants to assert its right to exist, then it is about time it started taking some responsibilities. It is about time that it ceased treating the Palestinians as subhuman.

If our politicians and civil servants will not take action against Israel, then it falls to ordinary people to do so. We must treat Israel as a pariah state until it starts respecting the elementary rights of the Palestinian people. This should be done by using the tactics that proved effective during the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa, namely boycott, divestment and sanctions.

The occupation of Palestine is brutal and inhuman. But there is no reason why it has to continue like that indefinitely. If enough people of conscience speak out, a fair solution will eventually be found.

I want this evening to be relaxed and informal. But I also hope that you will leave this room angry. Angry because no people on earth should have to go through what the Palestinians have been experiencing for more than 60 years.

My appeal is that you channel this anger constructively, that you get involved in the Palestine solidarity movement and that you keep taking action until justice triumphs over apartheid.

·This is the text of a presentation given during a tour of Belgium, Britain and Ireland in November and December 2010. The tour, to promote my book Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation, was hosted by the Quaker Council for European Affairs (Brussels), War on Want (London) and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (Limerick, Cork and Dublin).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

America pulls Europe's strings

Commenting on the state of trans-Atlantic relations in 2008, former American president Jimmy Carter argued that European Union governments are “not our vassals” but “occupy an equal position with the U.S.”. Documents released over the past month appear to offer a different view.

In a report finalised earlier in December, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton signalled that the EU’s main purpose internationally is to “help” Washington “achieve its global objectives”. By coincidence, a series of secret cables from U.S. embassies around the world – made public by the website WikiLeaks - indicates that America expects Europe to constantly act as its subordinate.

A memo approved by William Leach, then U.S. ambassador to Paris, in 2005 deals with French opposition to the war declared against Iraq two years previously. Leach takes comfort in learning that the anti-war stance of President Jacques Chirac was not supported by some prominent members of Chirac’s own party, the Union for a Popular Majority (known by its French acronym UMP).

The memo summarises a visit which Leach received from Hervé de Charette, a former foreign minister and then head of international relations for the UMP. De Charette, according to the memo, called Chirac’s position on the war “embarrassing”. Giving the impression that he was speaking on behalf of Nicolas Sarkozy, now France’s president and the UMP leader at the time, de Charette identified a sturdy relationship with the U.S. as “the basis for French foreign relations”. De Charette also described the Israel-Palestine conflict as “the key issue” for both the EU and U.S. and suggested that he wished to counter the perception that France was more sympathetic to the Palestinians than to Israel.

Another cable from 2005 pinpoints Britain and the Netherlands as America’s most trusted allies in western Europe. Drafted by Clifford Sobel, who was about to step down as the U.S. envoy to The Hague, it labels the Dutch as “go-to guys” when disagreements arise between the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Sobel says that the Dutch helped “push back” plans by France and Germany to develop a European military capability that could act independently of NATO, a US-dominated alliance. He applauds the Dutch, too, for providing “early logistic support” for the war in Iraq by allowing the U.S. military pass through Rotterdam, when it was unable to use other European ports for that purpose.

Furthermore, the cable celebrates the willingness of Dutch diplomats to act as “eyes and ears” for America. It recommends that – because the Netherlands has a history as a coloniser in the Caribbean- the Dutch should be given a role in countering the rise of left-wing politicians in Latin America. According to Sobel, the Dutch are “deeply concerned” about “meddling” by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez in the Caribbean. “As a Caribbean power, the Dutch have good reasons to lead an effort to balance traditional Spanish dominance on Latin American issues in the EU, but the U.S. and others will need to push them to take this role,” the cable adds.

Eva Golinger, a New York lawyer who has written several books on Chavez, said that the cables published by WikiLeaks underscore Washington’s “obsession” with relations between Cuba and Venezuela. Claims that Cubans have penetrated every aspect of Venezuelan government and economy are redolent of Cold War warnings about “communist expansion” in the Southern hemisphere, Golinger wrote on her internet publication Postcards from the Revolution. She also accused US diplomats of painting a false picture of Venezuela. Whereas one cable alleges that the quality of hospitals has declined under Chavez, his administration has pumped billions into a public healthcare system which guarantees free treatment to all citizens.

Two decades after the Cold War was widely assumed to have ended, the cables show that at least 200 American nuclear weapons remain on European soil. Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Turkey are named as some of the countries hosting these weapons.

In addition, the cables appear to offer proof that NATO is planning for a confrontation with Russia. A document from January 2010 shows that the alliance approved a plan during that month to expand an operation known as Eagle Guardian, under which preparations would be made for fighting with Russia in Poland and the three Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia).

The decision follows NATO’s encroachment into countries surrounding Russia over the past decade. This enlargement occurred despite promises made to Moscow by James Baker, the U.S. secretary of state from 1989 to 1992, that NATO would not expand eastwards. As members of NATO since 2004, the Baltic states have accommodated both military bases for the U.S. and operations training soldiers preparing attacks on Afghanistan.

Writing in September, Rick Rozoff, a blogger with the campaigning website Stop NATO, noted that the warplanes from a variety of NATO members fly “round-the-clock” over the three Baltic countries, all of which adjoin Russia. Rozoff intimated that these operations are bound to increase friction between Russia and the alliance.

“NATO’s new members on the Baltic Sea are delivering on the demands imposed upon them by accession to the alliance,” he added. “They host NATO – particularly U.S. – troops, bases, warplanes, warships and missiles. They provide troops for wars far abroad. They supply training opportunities on the ground and in the air for the war in Afghanistan and for future conflicts with none of the restrictions that exist in North America and Western Europe. And they render those multiple services near Russia’s western border.”

·First published by Inter Press Service (, 22 December 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

I ain't no Nazi copycat

Sometimes the best comedy is made by people who are not trying to be funny. At least, that’s what I discovered when I was accused of emulating the Nazis.

During a recent tour of Britain and Ireland to promote my book Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation, I heard that the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a Zionist lobby group, had filed a complaint about me with the Dublin government. The centre had asked Brian Cowen, the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister), to publicly condemn me and my hosts, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Daring to criticise Israel at a time when Ireland’s own economy was collapsing was “sadly reminiscent of financial scapegoating” in 1930s Germany, Shimon Samuels, the centre’s director for international relations, alleged.

With equal absurdity, Samuels claimed that the cover of my book carried a “subliminal message” because it depicted a map of Europe beside a Star of David. Although Samuels did not spell out what subliminal message the cover sought to convey, he intimated that the artwork fitted the EU’s own definition of anti-Semitism.

I didn’t design the cover in question but I did authorise it. Had I thought for one second that it was intended to incite hostility towards Jews, I would have exercised my author’s prerogative by rejecting it.

If the Simon Wiesenthal Centre actually bothered to read my book, it would know that I don’t have an anti-Semitic bone in my body. The book is focused on the EU’s complicity in crimes perpetrated by the state of Israel against the Palestinians (who also happen to be Semites) and does not contain a single word directed against Jews as a people. As well as making it clear that I despise all forms of discrimination based on religion, race, gender or sexual orientation, the book stresses my admiration for the significant number of Jews brave enough to tell Israel that it does not act in their name. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre would probably categorise those Jews as “self-hating”; I regard them as humane and heroic.

It would be comforting if all missives by the centre and other pro-Israel zealots could be written off as being of no consequence. Yet the truth is that our politicians and civil servants are usually too puny to stand up to their bullying.

Perhaps the clearest manifestation of the centre’s influence came after the results of a 2003 survey conducted by the EU’s polling unit Eurobarometer became public knowledge. When a sample of 7,500 Europeans were asked which country posed the biggest threat to world peace, a majority – 59% - chose Israel. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre responded by urging that the EU be excluded from the so-called peace process in the Middle East and by claiming it was a “racist flight of fancy” to deem Israel as more bellicose than North Korea or Iran.

Instead of commending their citizens for being perceptive enough to realise that a country with a nuclear arsenal and an addiction to war (Israel) is more destabilising than does not yet possess nuclear weapons (Iran), senior EU representatives allowed themselves be persuaded that being a critic of Israel automatically made one a Jew-hater.

Over the following two years, the EU’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in Vienna – subsequently renamed the Fundamental Rights Agency – drew up the aforementioned definition of anti-Semitism. This was in no way a scientific exercise; rather than trying to examine the surrounding issues impartially, the EUMC allowed the definition to be dictated by lobby groups that consistently defend Israel no matter what cruelty it metes out to the Palestinians. An EUMC paper indicated plainly that the work was guided by the American Jewish Committee and the European Jewish Congress. The definition that they successfully advocated was worded in such a way that anyone who called out the true nature of Israel’s crimes could be smeared with accusations of anti-Semitism. Describing the establishment of Israel as a “racist endeavour” or drawing parallels between the Israeli state and the Nazis were among the examples given for what should be considered as anti-Semitism. (That Israel was founded on racism – and remains so – is simply a statement of fact; this was confirmed once again lately when 50 of Israel’s leading rabbis, many of them state-employed, instructed Jews not to rent property to Arabs).

The Fundamental Rights Agency continues to view partisan lobbyists as sober analysts. In its latest report on anti-Semitism in Europe – published in April - the agency copies and pastes the findings of such organisations as the Information and Documentation Centre Israel (CIDI) in the Netherlands and the Anti-Defamation League in New York. The “study” also suggests that Europe’s far-left and many Muslims have tested positive for the “new anti-Semitism” since the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began in 2000. The absence of supporting evidence for that suggestion displays how much the agency’s views continue to be shaped by a pro-Israel lobby that seeks to muzzle condemnations of Israel’s crimes against humanity by accusing activists of hating Jews in a “new” way. When I asked a spokeswoman for the agency why it lent so much credence to the statements of one-sided lobbyists, she said that her colleagues “don’t voice any political position”.

One of the many troubling aspects of this state of affairs is that Israel’s most ardent supporters appear to have no interest in tackling genuine anti-Semitism. Research undertaken by the Community Security Trust found that 2009 was the worst year for anti-Semitic incidents in Britain since it began keeping records in 1984. It is no coincidence that 2009 kicked off with Israel’s murderous attacks on Gaza. This offers no excuse to anyone who vented their frustration with those crimes by vilifying innocent Jews but it does offer an explanation.

Anti-Semitism is not studied as rigorously and carefully as it ought to be. However, the data available to us leads to an inescapable conclusion: the state of Israel must shoulder a large degree of blame for any ill-feeling that Jews have to endure. The problem is surely compounded by how Israel’s supporters are refusing to address it honestly and thereby making it worse.

·First published by The Samosa (, 17 December 2011

Weapons lobby eyes EU science grants

Arms traders are seeking to convince the European Union that publicly-funded scientific research grants should help develop weapons for future wars.

In a series of secret discussions, Brussels officials and representatives of the arms industry are examining if the EU’s multi-billion euro “framework programme” for research can be used for projects of a military nature.

Since the 11 September 2001 attacks in Washington and New York, senior policy-makers in the European Commission, the EU’s executive wing, have been eager to ensure a greater involvement of arms manufacturers in the programme. Yet because of the reluctance of some EU governments to give the Commission a greater say in military matters, the scope of “security research” has so far been limited to projects that, according to EU officials, can be categorised as “civilian” and “non-lethal”.

About 1.4 billion euros (1.85 billion dollars) have been allocated to the “security” theme of the current framework programme, which runs from 2007 to 2013 and has an overall budget of 53 billion euros. With planning already underway for the next phase of the programme – from 2014 to 2020 – the arms industry is pushing for projects of a more explicit military nature to be funded.

Many arms industry lobbyists view the research programme as an important source of money at a time when military expenditure is being reduced throughout Europe. While the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) advocates that its members should devote at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product to the military, France, Greece and Britain are the only EU countries that have met that target.

The secret talks on how science grants may aid the military are being organised by a network called SANDERA (Security and Defence policies in the European Research Area).

Burkhard Theile, a German arms industry lobbyist who is taking place in the talks, said that he wishes to see EU research grants being used for developing new pilotless drones (also known as unmanned air vehicles, UAVs). Such weapons were used extensively by Israel to kill and injure civilians in Gaza during 2008 and 2009. They are also being used by the US in carrying out extrajudicial executions – which frequently result in civilian deaths - in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen.

“UAVs have both civilian and military uses and they should be funded by the Union,” Theile said. “They can equally be used for border patrol or for missions like the one we have in Afghanistan.” Formerly a vice-president of Rheinmetall, a maker of tanks and warplanes, Theile now runs his own consulting firm for the arms trade.

Andrew James, a lecturer in Manchester Business School and coordinator of Sandera, acknowledged that giving the European Commission a greater say in scientific research may encounter resistance from EU governments. He said: “A number of powerful and influential stakeholders in Brussels and beyond would like to see defence in some form take funding more broadly than it does at the moment, not least because defence spending among (EU) member states is obviously declining. This is politically controversial. Not all member states would be comfortable to see the Commission getting involved in defence research.”

Rather than being financed as a “security” project, the work of Sandera is covered by the section of the EU’s research programme reserved for social science and humanities.

Academics from the Free University in Berlin have expressed concern that the research programme is focusing less on issues of a genuinely social nature. A paper drawn up by Tanja Boerzel, a professor at the university, laments how EU-financed social science projects are often driven by the interests of private companies. Although about half of all academic staff at leading European universities work in social sciences, only 2 percent of the EU’s research programme is allocated to this field, the paper says.

Ben Hayes, a campaigner with the civil liberties organisation Statewatch, argued that the research programme should concentrate more on social than on military issues. “There is a huge conflict of interest in allowing the military and security lobby to set the research agenda, to be able to define the priorities and then to apply for the funding on offer,” he said. “They are developing their wares with taxpayers’ money and then selling them back to the state. This is a hugely misdirected allocation of taxpayers’ money and scarce resources.”

Mark English, the European Commission’s spokesman on science, said that the EU executive expects to increase the amount of grants given to social research from 84 million euros next year to almost 111 million euros in 2013. He also denied that there are discussions taking place about using EU grants for military purposes.

But a study published in October by the European Parliament, the EU’s only directly-elected institution, concluded that the arms industry is already adept at drawing down funds from the Union’s budget. The report said that it is “mostly large defence companies, the very same who have participated in the definition of EU-sponsored security research which are the main beneficiaries”. The leading recipients of these grants to date include Verint, an Israeli maker of surveillance equipment, and the German and French firms Fraunhofer and Thales.

Although Israel is not formally a member of the European Union, it has been a participant in the EU’s science activities since the 1990s. A recent paper by the Quaker Council on European Affairs noted that Israel “appears to be standing out” in its ability to receive funding earmarked for security research. The Quakers expressed concern about how companies that have supplied weapons used against Palestinians and provided services to illegal settlements in the West Bank are among the recipients of EU research grants. The report said: “Israeli industries that profit from the occupation in Palestine should not be eligible to apply for EU funding.”

·First published by Inter Press Service (, 17 December 2010

Monday, December 13, 2010

IMF: master of Europe

Did you weep with joy on New Year’s Day 2002? For Romano Prodi, the experience of watching shiny euro coins spring from cash registers for the first time was akin to a federalist wet dream. “The euro is our money, my money, your money,” Prodi, then president of the European Commission, gushed. “And a little piece of Europe in your hands.”

Prodi was one of several EU leaders to hail the introduction of a single currency as proof that wounds opened by the Second World War had finally been heeled. What hogwash. Far from being a triumph for peace, the euro was the realisation of a plan hatched by a corporate clique. Just five companies – Fiat, Total, Solvay, Philips and Rhône Poulenc – laid the euro’s foundations when they formed the Association for the Monetary Union of Europe in 1987. According to their rationale, the patchwork of different currencies used in Europe at the time hampered it from competing with Japan or the US.

Next week the flaws in that blinkered logic will be exposed when the EU’s presidents and prime ministers meet in Brussels. Apparently in a bid to stop the euro-zone from disintegrating, the summit is expected to endorse a “financial stability mechanism” for economies in difficulty. Doubtlessly, there will be some effort made to depict the scheme as a gesture of solidarity; yet the small-print reveals that many of the levers of economic power will be held by an institution based in Washington.

In order to qualify for loans from the mechanism, a country would have to go through rigorous checks from the International Monetary Fund. The IMF might typically be headed by a European nominee but is nonetheless an agent of US imperialism. Piecemeal reforms to the fund in recent times have not weakened America’s grip over it. Commanding 16.5% of its voting shares, the US retains a veto over all key decisions. Rather than the euro enabling Europe to compete with America, a US proxy is now to be given greater power to meddle in our economies.

For a brief period in 2008, it was fashionable for commentators to predict the end of neo-liberalism – that poisonous ideology under which the market was treated as infallible. The savage cutbacks forced on Greece and Ireland this year by the IMF – with the backing of the EU’s top institutions - illustrate how premature those predictions were.

Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine offers an indispensable guide to understanding what is really happening. She traces how the IMF underwent a process of “colonisation” by acolytes of Milton Friedman, the right-wing economist who acted as a mentor to such destructive politicians as Donald Rumsfeld and the Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet. That process came to fruition in 1989 when the “Washington Consensus” was unveiled, committing the IMF and its sister body the World Bank to privatising every activity under the sun, as well as to scaling back public spending everywhere.

I have just returned from a speaking tour of Ireland, where I was astonished with the deference with which Ajai Chopra, head of an IMF “mission” to the country, was treated by the national broadcaster RTE. Chopra’s surface geniality and his insistence that he is merely a humble civil servant should not be allowed conceal how he is a Friedmanite fundamentalist. During the 1990s he was tasked with “rescuing” the South Korean economy. The “humble” servant treated democracy with disdain by telling all four candidates in a presidential election that Korea would receive no foreign assistance unless they signed up to an austerity programme. The resulting cuts he demanded helped Korea’s unemployment rate to triple between 1996 and 1999.

Chopra has displayed similar contempt towards Irish sovereignty. Although Brian Cowen, the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister), stated that the IMF had no interest in micro-managing economies, that is precisely what it’s doing. After an IMF paper from November advocated that the country’s minimum wage should be slashed, the Dublin government obediently took measures to steal from the poor. You can be sure that Chopra and his team would never agree to work for €7.65 per hour (down from €8.65 per hour) but that is the new minimum wage that has been set for Ireland.

Things are even worse in Romania, where the IMF has told the Bucharest authorities not to increase wage levels that are as paltry as €150 per month. And they are worse again beyond this continent, where the cost of the IMF’s inflexibility can be measured in human lives. As its contribution to a United Nations summit convened to address global poverty in September, the IMF argued that low-income countries in Africa and Asia should not increase government spending unless their revenue also rises. This hawkish approach to deficit management is imperilling the realisation of the UN’s millennium development goals for reducing the most extreme forms of poverty – including infant and maternal mortality – by 2015, a study by Oxfam has found.

Five years ago, the Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré poured brilliant scorn on the IMF for conditioning assistance to the country on privatisation of its cotton industry. “People who have never seen cotton come to give us lessons on cotton,” he thundered. “This is not a partnership. This is a master relating to his student.”

The IMF’s status as master of Africa has long been assured. We know now that it is master of Europe too.

·First published by New Europe (, 12-18 December 2010

Monday, December 6, 2010

Food giants dictate how we live and diet

Junk food is an elixir of capitalism and its terrible twin, war. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist,” Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist and unofficial White House stenographer, once wrote. “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas.”

When a British soldier with whom I worked sent me photographs from Iraq in 2003, I was astonished to see him clutching a jumbo-sized soft drink in the KFC outlet of a Basra barracks. Here was a military invasion sponsored by a brand of fried chicken. Closer to home, David Cameron’s government has tasked Pepsi, McDonald’s and KFC lately with helping to draft new policies on obesity. While some public health advocates have rightly denounced this step as tantamount to allowing cigarette-makers decide how smoking should be regulated, the depressing truth is that this kind of behaviour is viewed as perfectly acceptable by the ruling elite in Brussels.

Later this week Belgium’s EU presidency will host a conference to assess the Union’s work on nutrition. Invitees include those belonging to an obscure group called the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health. Set up in 2005, the ‘platform’ brings together non-profit groups promoting sport and consumer protection with corporations that have a vested interest in making your waistline bulge.

There are no prizes for guessing which side wields more influence over decision-makers. In November the Confederation of Food and Drink Industries in the EU – known by its French acronym CIAA – held its annual conference in Brussels. No fewer than four European commissioners found time to attend. John Dalli, the EU’s health and consumer policy chief, used the occasion to laud the “self-regulation” approach that the food industry favours on such topics as advertisements directed at children (or more accurately, ads that make kids demand certain “treats” from their parents).

Dalli’s prepared script for that meeting gave the impression that all parties to the “platform” broadly support self-regulation. This was misleading. BEUC, the European consumers group, is advocating a ban on TV ads for food products that are high in sugar, salt or fat content between 6am and 9pm.

More generally, the declarations of support offered by the European Commission for “big food” appear distasteful when one considers how CIAA has successfully removed any teeth from proposed new rules on nutrition.

In June the European Parliament capitulated to corporate pressure, when a majority of our elected representatives voted against a “traffic light” system for processed food. The system envisaged had the beauty of simplicity. Each time you picked up a convenience meal in a supermarket freezer, you would know that it was high in cholesterol if the cholesterol level was marked in red.

In one of the biggest lobbying offensives ever seen in Brussels, the food and drinks industry sent 100 times more messages to MEPs than champions of public health did. A few politicians might have deluded themselves that the volume of correspondence they received against the “traffic light” measure meant it faced widespread opposition. The truth was that the industry had infinitely deeper pockets than those on the other side of the argument. Although estimates cited by lobbying watchdogs and some journalists that industry spent €1 billion on the campaign have been refuted by the CIAA, it is extremely difficult to ascertain precisely how much food giants allocate to “buying” votes.

After dragging its heels for a few years, the CIAA only signed up to the Commission’s register of “interest representatives” in recent weeks. Although its entry states a commitment to “full transparency”, it merely tells us that the confederation spent less than €250,000 directly trying to press its case in the EU institutions during the 2009 financial year. There is a strong likelihood that this is an underestimate. Does the figure cover the cost of running a “think-tank” called the European Union Food Information Council (EUFIC)? Despite the confederation’s “transparency”, you have to search hard on the EUFIC website to find out that it is sponsored by Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Unilever and Kraft. Much easier to find are news stories – cleverly presented as objective reportage – insinuating that scientists believe genetic factors are a greater determinant of obesity than the type of grub we eat.

For many years, I was unaware that there could be a connection with high obesity levels in the industrialised world and malnutrition in more impoverished regions. Raj Patel’s book Stuffed and Starved brilliantly explained how these problems are interrelated. The grim statistics of almost one billion people suffering from chronic hunger and how 27% of men and 38% of women in the EU are overweight or obese are symptomatic of the corporate capture of our lives.

One of the more obscene aspects of this inequity is the assumption that there is something natural about restricting good nutrition to the rich. The perverse nature of agricultural subsidies in Europe has meant that only the wealthy can afford wholesome, organic food. The question of keeping the poor healthy has been shamefully neglected; I was shocked to learn that a 20-year-old system of allocating food resulting from EU agricultural surpluses to “most deprived persons” has not had to follow any criteria relating to nutritional standards.

The right to food and adequate nutrition has been recognised as a human right by the United Nations. Why do EU officials think they can trample on this right with impunity?

·First published by New Europe (, 5-11 December 2010