Wednesday, November 27, 2013

EU rekindles love affair with Livni

A short memory can be an asset in politics.

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

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

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

Apartheid's "sensitivities"

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

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

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

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

Blood on their hands

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

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

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

Tips for settlers

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 15, 2013

Peter Mandelson: a battering ram for big business

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

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

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

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

New extremes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cloaking their intentions

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Secret talks

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

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

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

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

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

•First published by Spinwatch, 14 November 2013.

Arms dealers sniff opportunities as French president visits Israel

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

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

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

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

"Guaranteed success"

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

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

No problem with humiliation

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Business chiefs demand more austerity

The plebs must suffer.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•First published by EUobserver, 15 November 2013.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

John Bruton: from prime minister to puppet

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

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

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

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

Revolving door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recipe for conquest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•First published by EUobserver, 6 November 2013.