Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why are convicted criminals driving the EU's defence agenda?

Spare a thought these icy days of January for the arms industry. Recession has had such a devastating effect on makers of tanks and warplanes that the European Defence Agency is holding a conference later this month to mull over what can be done. According to the EDA, military spending has been “declining steadily” on this continent since 2005.

Pause for a moment. Is that really something to be exercised about? There is little to celebrate about the economic downturn but lower expenditure on the tools of war and oppression might offer one reason to be cheerful.

Unfortunately, the EDA’s own data hints that the situation is not as dramatic as the words “declining steadily” imply. In 2006, the 26 countries belonging to the agency spent 201 billion euros on the military. That fell to 194 billion euros in 2010. Significantly, though, the figure for 2010 was the same as that for the previous year. You don’t need to be a mathematical whizz-kid to discern a pattern here: rather than declining steadily, expenditure appears to be levelling off.

The EDA’s number-crunchers have calculated that at 520 billion euros, the US spent 2.7 times more on the military than the agency’s participating states in 2010. The suits and uniforms of Brussels seem to regard this imbalance as a bad thing. I, on the other hand, take solace in the fact that Europe isn’t aping that imperial leviathan across the Atlantic as wholeheartedly as it could.

Bywords for corruption

My solace is nonetheless slender. Over the Christmas break, I read Andrew Feinstein’s book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade. It traces how the firms which pushed for the establishment of the EDA have become bywords for corruption.

When the EDA was launched in 2004, the three giants of Europe’s weapons industry – Thales, EADS and BAE Systems – issued a joint statement predicting that the agency would play a “vital role” in stimulating greater investment in war (OK, I have resorted to paraphrasing). Feinstein devotes several chapters of his 672-page tome to the shenanigans of BAE.

In 2010, BAE was fined 400 million dollars in the US, the largest ever penalty imposed on a British corporation. That followed BAE’s admission of guilt that it had written false letters to the American authorities 10 years earlier. The authorities were investigating kickbacks that the company had paid while seeking deals in Saudi Arabia, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Feinstein explains meticulously how BAE not only gave bribes, it was granted permission to do so by Britain’s powers that be. Back in 1977, Britain issued the “Cooper directive” – named after an official in its ministry of defence – which authorised the payment of secret commissions by British firms angling for government-to-government contracts. The directive was a response to an official memo, stating that the Saudi royal family expected money under the table if they were to buy weapons from the West.

A one-time member of Parliament for the African National Congress, Feinstein indicates that the human cost of arms sales can’t merely be totted up using casualty figures from the battlefield (where such figures exist). As a legislator, he took part in a probe over a major arms purchasing decision announced by the South African government in 1999. Feinstein calls BAE “the villain in the piece”, citing estimates that 300 million dollars was paid in bribes and commissions to senior politicians, middlemen, civil servants and the ANC itself (Feinstein came under intense pressure from party colleagues not to cause them embarrassment but – pun intended – stuck by his guns). By 2018, the total price tag for this deal could exceed 6 billion dollars. In the five years following the decision, 365,000 South Africans perished from AIDS; for every rand spent on keeping people with HIV alive, 6.75 rand went on buying weapons.

Blair: saviour of Africa?

Do you remember how Tony Blair decided that eradicating African poverty should be the central theme of Britain’s presidencies of the EU and G8 in 2005? Blair doubled up as a “saviour” of Africa and a salesman for BAE during his term as prime minister. One of his most disgusting acts was to persuade the president of Tanzania, one of the world’s poorest countries, to spend 40 million dollars on a radar system for military aircraft.

BAE is not the only company on Feinstein’s radar screen (pun intended once again). He highlights how Thales of France was ordered in 2010 to pay a fine of over 800 million dollars to Taiwan after being convicted of inflating the price of frigates supplied as part of an arms deal struck in the early 1990s.

On paper, the European Union’s institutions and offices have a strong policy against fraud. Yet they remain happy to court arms companies, even when those firms are implicated in large-scale corruption. Thales recently gave a demonstration to Frontex, the EU border management agency, of a pilotless drone (or unmanned aerial vehicle) in a Greek military base. Named the Fulmar, the plane in question is Spanish-owned but uses equipment designed by Thales. Intriguingly, it can be launched from a catapult, rather than a runway.

Frontex sees its role as keeping foreigners out of Europe and doesn’t appear perturbed by how the people in question are usually impoverished and in need of help. It comes as no surprise then that its racist endeavours are being aided by others who are far better known for corruption than compassion.

●First published by New Europe, 22-28 January 2012.

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