Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How Greece abandoned Palestine

When Andreas Papandreou died in 1996, The New York Times noted that he often left Western governments “befuddled or exasperated” as he took positions “diametrically opposed to theirs.” Citing examples of his “maverick” behavior, the paper’s obituary referred to how the Greek prime minister granted diplomatic status to the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1981, the year he first took office.
Like most political leaders, Papandreou was a man of contradictions. He professed to despise American imperialism, while allowing the United States retain military bases on Greek soil. Yet he deserves some posthumous acclaim for saluting the PLO when it was still a genuine resistance movement and for criticizing Israel more trenchantly than any of his counterparts in the then European Community.

In recent times, the current Greek premier George Papandreou has acted as if he wishes to totally negate his father’s legacy. No doubt, Greece’s refusal to allow the Freedom Flotilla II set sail for Gaza was partly the result of pressure -- and possibly even financial blackmail -- from the US and Israel. Nonetheless, it was not an isolated occurrence but the logical consequence of a process that was already underway.

In July 2010, Papandreou Junior visited Israel barely one month after the assault on the Mavi Marmara, in which nine Turkish peace activists were murdered by Israeli forces. As an immediate response to that massacre, Greece called a halt to a joint military training exercise then being undertaken with Israel off the island of Crete. But Papandreou had no qualms about going ahead with his trip to Israel as planned.

Israel was swift to reciprocate. In August last year, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Greece. Netanyahu reportedly used the occasion to recommend that the two countries be connected by a gas pipeline. It is not known whether the two men discussed how the Leviathan gas field – the source of the energy on Netanyahu’s radar screen at the time – is located off the Lebanese coast and how Israel’s exploitation of its reserves could spark a new conflict with Lebanon.

It is known, however, that both Israel and Greece continue to strengthen their military cooperation. Codenamed Minoas 2010, the operation that was stopped at the time of the Mavi Marmara bloodbath was, in fact, resumed in October last year. Apache and Black Hawk helicopters were used in the exercise, which tested out landing and take-off procedures in mountainous areas and under several different weather conditions. In December, Flight International stated that there had been at least four such exercises between Greece and Israel over the preceding few months.

Friction between Greece’s historic foe Turkey and Israel have almost certainly helped the Netanyahu-Papandreou relationship to blossom. Papandreou is surely an astute enough politician to have scented an opportunity for Greece to replace Turkey as Israel’s most valued ally in the Mediterranean. The similarities in the men’s backgrounds could well be another factor. Both were educated at highly regarded universities in the US (Papandreou in Harvard, Netanyahu in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and despite heading parties that are nominally different in ethos, both are heavily influenced by US politics and culture.

Perhaps more significantly, the recent intensification of relations has followed several years where the two countries have worked alongside each other under the umbrella of NATO. That US-dominated alliance has formed a ring around the entire Mediterranean. Almost every country bordering that sea is either a full member of NATO or has signed up to its Orwellian-titled Partnership for Peace.

Even though there appears to be no imminent prospect of Israel joining NATO, its ties to the alliance have grown exponentially over the past decade. An Israeli-NATO agreement on sharing intelligence was signed in April 2001. Five years later, Israel reached agreement on implementing an “individual cooperation program” with NATO. Updated in December 2008, the agreement paved the way for a high number of joint operations between it and the alliance. Greece has been involved too in most, if not all, of these operations. In 2007, for example, Greek warships took part in drills in Eilat, an Israeli port on the Red Sea.

Both Greece and Israel are also participating in Operation Active Endeavor, a NATO-coordinated exercise under which ships patrol the Mediterranean. That operation was, according to the official narrative, launched in response to the 11 September 2001 atrocities in the US. But in practice its remit has expanded beyond keeping a watch out for potential “terrorist” activity on the waves. In particular, it has been used as part of a repressive agenda of helping prevent foreigners who seek to flee poverty from reaching Europe.

In March, Active Endeavor’s scope was further broadened during preparations for the war against Libya. A 24-hour airborne surveillance system was put in place as part of the ongoing operation. Despite its severe economic problems, Greece has provided a number of warplanes and ships to that war effort, in which NATO has availed of at least seven Greek airfields.

Meanwhile, the solidity of Israel’s links to NATO were underscored shortly before Gabi Ashkenazi stepped down as head of the Israeli military in February. Ashkenazi, who oversaw Operation Cast Lead, which killed 1400 Palestinians in Gaza during December 2008 and January 2009, advised NATO strategists on what tactics should be used against Afghanistan and was treated to a farewell dinner in his honor at the Brussels residence of Giampaolo Di Paolo, chairman of NATO’s military committee.

On a proportionate basis, Greece is one of Europe’s largest spenders on the military, although this expenditure is being cut as part of a wider austerity drive that mainly affects vital public services. In 2009, Greece allocated 2.54% of its gross domestic product to military spending, the highest level in the European Union. Britain was next at 2.53%.

Greece is known to have concluded deals with several Israeli weapons makers, although it has not published comprehensive details on such deals. In February, Evangelos Venizelos, the Greek defense minister, confirmed that “precision-guided” weapon kits known as SPICES (Smart Precise Impact and Cost Effective). Elisra, a subsidiary of the leading Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit, has also supplied electronic warfare systems to the Greek air force over the past decade.

It is true that Greece has combined its ever-tightening embrace of Israel with calls for the blockade of Gaza to be lifted. But it is impossible to take those calls seriously now that the Athens government has assisted Israel in thwarting protest against the very same blockade. Andreas Papandreou’s championing of Palestinian rights might have had some moral weight in the early 1980s. Three decades on, his son George has become a craven accomplice in maintaining the Israeli occupation.

·First published by The Electronic Intifada (, 13 July 2011.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A reckless plan for fisheries reform

We live in an age of oxymorons. Firms that enable human rights abuses subscribe to a concept called “corporate social responsibility”. Governments that are browbeaten into strangling their national economies receive “rescue packages”. And here in Brussels political processes rigged in favour of private interests are accompanied by “public consultation”.

On Wednesday, the European Commission will publish a new proposal for “reforming” the Common Fisheries Policy. Like many other important initiatives these days, it has been formulated following a “consultation” exercise that has proven to be a sham.

One of the key recommendations of this proposal is that the capacity of Europe’s fishing fleet should be reduced through “market measures”. This will mean that vessels could buy and sell quotas for catching particular fish species. It is a system that will benefit owners of large vessels primarily, which explains why they are the only ones in favour of it.

For my sins, I have trawled (pun intended) my way through a slew of submissions on CFP reform that were sent to EU officials when they held a “consultation exercise” on this subject. These made clear that there was widespread opposition to the idea of tradeable quotas from ecologists and small-scale fishermen alike. EuropĂȘche, an umbrella group for the fishing industry, confessed it was divided. Some of its less affluent members feared a “privatisation of fishing rights leading to these being concentrated in the hands of powerful corporations, with the risk of small-scale coastal fisheries disappearing”, its paper stated. By contrast, the wealthier industry representatives in EuropĂȘche were sympathetic to the idea. So was the laconic Dutch Fish Product Board, which claimed that it’s “best to leave the reduction of existing overcapacity to the market”.

Daniel Bromley, a professor of applied economics at the University of Wisconsin, has argued that makers of international fisheries policy are in thrall to an “ownership fetish”. In a 2009 article for the journal Fisheries, he wrote: “In national financial affairs, the debate is cast in terms of ‘free markets’ versus government interference in the market. In fisheries policy, the debate is cast in terms of the documented failure of national governments to manage – assure the sustainability of – fish stocks versus the utopian vision of so-called ‘privatisation’ and the implied abdication of management. The advocacy of individual fishing quotas is the natural resource equivalent of economic deregulation dating back to the triumphalism of the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and it was happily announced that ‘markets had won’. In contrast to the emerging understanding in world financial affairs that ‘the market’ and its self-interested players cannot be trusted with the greater public good, quite the opposite ideology persists in fisheries policy – just leave it to the industry to bring about efficiency.”

Rather than placing its blind faith in the industry, the Commission should be pushing for legally-binding measures to reduce the capacity of the European fleet. Almost every time the future of the CFP is debated in public, an EU official will pipe up to proclaim how there are “too many boats chasing too few fish”. But that observation is simplistic and misleading as it implies that every boat is at fault, when it is the large vessels – or more accurately their rapacious owners – that have plundered fish stocks to such an extent that existence of some species is imperilled.

For much of the history of the CFP, the industry has received vast handouts in order to build new vessels that can net ever higher quantities of fish. In theory, reforms introduced to the policy in 2002 put an end to such subsidies, yet in practice they continued. Between 1994 and 2006, Spain received a cool 46% of all subsidies. The Spanish were supposed to use part of this money to reduce overfishing. Instead, it went on spanking new vessels.

Last month the Commission published a snapshot of the fishing industry for a number of EU countries. This paper said that while 66 Spanish fishing vessels with a total capacity of nearly 5,000 gigatonnes were scrapped with the aid of public subsidies in 2009, another 85 with a total capacity of 1,000 gigatonnes were built. The inference that it had trimmed capacity should be treated cautiously; Madrid supplied incomplete data to Brussels, the paper added.

One absurdity of the CFP – as revealed in a September 2010 report by the watchdog – is that the European taxpayer paid for 860 boats to be modernised and then to be scrapped between 1994 and 2006. Over half of these vessels were from Spain and France. In the case of the Spanish boat Mikel Duena Primera, there was an interval of just 17 days between funding decisions for revamping and destroying.

With the Commission itself estimating that 72% of assessed stocks in the EU’s waters are overexploited, it is surely vital that it responds with bold thinking, not by trusting the market. Fish belong to wider ecosystems; hoovering them from the oceans with wild abandon has knock-on effects for marine animals and for the complex web of nature on which the future of the humans depends. It is about time that policy-makers realised that fish require special protection, not to be treated merely as economic goods.

Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. By that measure, the officials behind this week’s blueprint for fisheries reform are certifiably bonkers.

·First published by New Europe, 11 July 2011.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Dodgy arms dealers dictate policies

To William Hague, the wave of protests in the Middle East and North Africa this year constitute “the most important event of the early twenty-first century”. The foreign secretary’s paeans to freedom have been effusive but evasive. One salient fact that he neglected to mention in a May address to London’s Mansion House is that Britain has helped suppress some of the very same protests.

Two months earlier, Saudi troops invaded Bahrain to defend a beleaguered monarchy, bringing numerous tanks supplied by BAE Systems with them. Known as Tacticas, these tanks were made in the northern English city of Newcastle (with final assembly in Belgium). Saudi Arabia ordered over 260 of these vehicles in 2006, on the proviso they would be delivered in 2008. While the relevant licenses were issued under a Labour government, the current coalition in London hasn’t revoked any export permits for arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

BAE is a byword for dodgy deals. Early last year, it paid a fine of $400 million to avoid being sued for corruption – over sales to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere – by the US Department of Justice. A British Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE’s Saudi connections was shelved in 2006 on the order of that other valiant defender of liberty Tony Blair.

Its tarnished reputation does not seem to bother European Union’s officials, however. The European Defence Agency has tasked BAE with drawing up a blueprint for meeting the Union’s requirements on “precision guided ammunition” by the end of this year. Precision-guided weapons are supposed to allow targets be selected with pinpoint accuracy but they are invariably used to butcher the innocent.

This is one of many troubling activities by the EDA that elicits virtually no criticism in the press. The agency is obsessed with pilotless drones – or unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) - and believes it’s imperative that they are used for everything bar washing the dishes. Research by the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, estimates that for every “militant” killed in US drone attacks undertaken as part of its “war on terror”, 10 civilians have also been killed.

An EDA paper on drones that I stumbled upon indicates that the agency’s contractors have a twisted worldview. This paper was written for the agency by BMT Defence Services, a designer of warships. It referred to scenarios BMT was studying on the use of drones and indicated that the analytical system it had devised could enable distinctions to be drawn “between friendly and potentially hostile population groups”.

Although the agency’s staff routinely reel off three-letter acronyms, only one such acronym is apt in this case: WTF. What is the real message here: that population groups opposed to the military invasion of their country can be considered as “legitimate” targets? That notion is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Israel, home to some of the world’s leading weapons firms, declared Gaza an “enemy entity” in 2007. By the end of the following year, Israel was testing out its state-of-the-art drones on this “hostile population”. The “collateral damage” included children and pregnant women.

During last month’s Paris Air Show – a jamboree for the arms industry – the EDA formally signed a cooperation accord with the European Space Agency, a nominally civilian body. At a briefing beforehand, journalists were assured that the EDA has no intention of introducing weapons into Space. Rather, the agency’s focus is on bits of debris floating around in parts of the universe and the threats they could pose to this planet.

I am sceptical of that assurance. The history of the EU’s adventures in Space are that projects that appear benign end up having other applications. In 2002, the European Commission recommended that Galileo, the satellite navigation system, should be civilian in nature. By 2008, the same institution indicated that the military would comprise about half of all clients with access to Galileo’s encrypted signals.

Moreover, some informed analysts predict that the drones so dear to the EDA’s heart will soon make extensive use of satellite technology. A 2010 study by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs argued that improved satellite communications capacities will be “absolutely essential” for drones over the coming two decades.

There is a more fundamental reason why the EDA should be regarded as sinister: it is the brainchild of the arms industry. After pushing for an agency of its type to be established for many years, weapons manufacturers saw their wish come true in 2004. BAE and its French equivalent Thales were then represented on an official working group that drafted part of the EU constitution, which was subsequently copied and pasted into the Lisbon Treaty. To their delight, that treaty allows the agency to take “any useful measure” to “strengthen the industrial and technological base” of Europe’s arms industry.

One probable consequence of that clause is that the Union’s scientific research programme will be used to develop the weapons of the future. Indeed, this may already be happening. Thales is the top recipient of grants earmarked for “security” projects under the current multi-annual programme, which runs from 2007 to 2013. While all these schemes are supposed to be non-military, there are no safeguards in place to prevent the fruits of EU-funded research being used for aggressive purposes.

The arms industry thrives on the destruction of human life and the denial of human rights. Its level of influence is pernicious.

·First published by New Europe, 3-9 July 2011