Friday, September 26, 2014

Karel de Gucht: enemy of the people

Serving lobster, foie gras and roast pigeon behind a gilded façade, La Maison du Cygne is reputed to be one of Brussels' finest restaurants. Karl Marx visited it when he was writing The Communist Manifesto, a tract focused on class struggle. Ironically, it has more recently hosted deliberations about how the power of the ultra-wealthy can be increased.

On 24 March 2011, Karel de Gucht, the EU's trade commissioner, dined there with around 40 representatives of a corporate club called the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue.

An internal European Commission report of the encounter indicates that de Gucht committed himself to pursuing objectives that harmed ordinary people and the world's poor.

Among the topics discussed at this secret nosh-up were ensuring that global health and environmental initiatives did not endanger the monopolies enjoyed by big business. Such monopolies have become known as "intellectual property rights" (IPR) - an anti-democratic concept whereby ideas and knowledge can be privately "owned".

After the electronics firm Siemens commended the EU's trade officials for their work "in a difficult area", De Gucht acknowledged that their policies on "intellectual property" were "not supported by public opinion".

Positive outcome?

De Gucht expanded on this theme in a letter he sent to the TABD, also during 2011. In it, de Gucht referred to an "impression that IPRs may hinder innovation, as well as access to essential goods such as medicines or 'green' technologies." He added: "the public debate around IPR risks putting rightholders on the defensive and it is necessary to reflect on how to change the terms of the public debate".

The same letter illustrates - perhaps inadvertently - why the public is correct.

De Gucht claimed that EU officials "prevented the inclusion" of IPR issues on the agenda for a major UN climate change conference in Durban that year, arguing that was "a very positive outcome".

He bragged, too, of putting pressure on the World Health Organisation not to bother itself with intellectual property.

Telling climate change negotiators they may not address intellectual property may be a "positive outcome" for big business. Not so for the rest of humanity.

African, Asian and Latin American governments had sought an arrangement whereby they would be able to override patents on solar panels, wind turbines and other technology for generating renewable electricity. This was an entirely reasonable request, aimed at making energy clean and affordable.

Yet de Gucht was more eager to help energy firms reap in profits than to avert ecological catastrophes.


His attitude to pharmaceutical patents is equally despicable. De Gucht wanted to ensure that discussions on intellectual property are confined to pro-corporate bodies like the World Trade Organisation, rather than being extended to UN agencies with a mandate to protect public health or fight poverty.

De Gucht and officials working under him have been saying different things in public than in private.

In January this year, de Gucht expressed some understanding over why there is disquiet about the planned EU-US trade and investment agreement and especially the proposal that it allow corporations to challenge laws and policies they do not like. He identified as problematic the tobacco industry's record of invoking similar clauses in previous trade accords to litigate against anti-smoking initiatives.

Yet tobacco firms have been active in seeking that such provisions - known to policy wonks as investor-state dispute settlement - be inserted in the EU-US deal. British American Tobacco and Philip Morris are members of the Trans-Atlantic Business Council (as the TABD is now called). It has been formally tasked by the American and European authorities with advising on how trans-Atlantic economic links can be bolstered and has prepared the groundwork for the current trade talks.

Last year, I asked Leopoldo Rubinacci, a leading EU trade negotiator, about why cigarette-makers were shaping the agenda. "I'm not aware of any specific participation or influence of the tobacco industry in this debate," he replied.

Contrary to what he implied, De Gucht's team has been in contact with individual tobacco companies, as well as umbrella groups to which they belong. In June 2012, his adviser Damien Levie met a representative of British American Tobacco.

Australia's moves to require that all cigarettes be sold in plain packaging - something that the tobacco industry is challenging under another free trade agreement - was discussed. Levie has more recently been working alongside Rubinacci as a negotiator with the US.

Unless she performs badly at her "confirmation hearing" in the European Parliament next week, Cecilia Malmström will soon replace de Gucht as the Union's trade chief.

Pandering to villains

The handover is unlikely to make much difference. Both of these politicians adhere to liberalism, an ideology dedicated to widening inequality.

In her previous role as the EU's home affairs commissioner, Malmström has approved efforts to train warplanes on asylum-seekers. Having sniffed out new opportunities for the weapons industry, she should have no difficulty pandering to Big Tobacco and other villains.

The wealthy will continue to be favoured.

•First published by EUobserver, 25 September 2014.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Revealed: Europe's "discreet" cooperation with Israel's nuclear industry

The European Union has been cooperating furtively with Israel's nuclear industry for at least six years.

An internal document that I recently obtained states that an accord on "joint and cooperative initiatives relevant for the peaceful use of nuclear energy" was signed between the EU and Israel in 2008. "This is a discreet agreement that has not been given publicity," the paper adds.

The document was drawn up ahead of an October 2013 visit to Israel by Antonio Tajani, then Italy's member of the European Commission.

It is not hard to understand why the Union wishes to keep this cooperation "discreet." The agreement was reached with Israel's Atomic Energy Commission -- the body that runs the Dimona reactor, where Israel's nuclear weapons were developed.

Israel introduced nuclear weapons to the Middle East and has refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It has refused to permit international inspection of all its nuclear activities.

In 2006, Ehud Olmert, then Israel's prime minister, acknowledged that Israel possessed nuclear weapons. The US Defence Intelligence Agency estimated in 1999 that Israel had between 60 and 80 nuclear warheads.


These facts put Israel in a very different category to Iran, supposedly a major threat to world peace.

Unlike Israel, Iran has no nuclear weapons. The National Intelligence Council -- a group advising the US president -- expressed "high confidence" in 2007 that Iran had halted its weapons development program a few years earlier.

Despite that explicit statement, both the EU and the US have slapped punitive sanctions on Iran (after some sanctions had been relaxed, America imposed new restrictions on business with Iran last week). The official narrative behind these sanctions is that everything must be done to stop Iran acquiring the bomb.

Yet the European Union is happy to cooperate, with Israel, a nation that actually has the bomb. Is it any wonder that Brussels officials don't want attention drawn to this hypocrisy?

Military links

I asked the EU's Joint Research Centre (JRC) - which is tasked with implementing the "discreet" agreement, why it is cooperating with Israel, a known threat to world peace. A JRC spokesperson tried to present the "scientific collaboration" involved here as benign.

The research with Israel concerns the "medical application of radionuclides, radiation protection, as well as nuclear security related to the detection and identification of nuclear and radioactive materials," according to the spokesperson. "It does not cover any activities related to reprocessing and enrichment."

I asked the spokesperson if any guarantees have been provided that Israel will not use the fruits of its research with the Union for military purposes. Not surprisingly, I didn't receive a reply to that question.

When I asked how much had been spent on nuclear cooperation with Israel, the JRC would only say that the research in question is "not jointly funded as each institution covers its related activities."

As well as overseeing the development of nuclear weapons, Israel's Atomic Energy Commission has strong links to the conventional arms industry.

Apart from Dimona, the commission also runs the Soreq research center. Soreq's own website says that it develops equipment with "homeland security" applications -- a euphemism for surveillance technology and weaponry. When journalists have been given guided tours of that center, its scientists have bragged of inventing lasers to assist snipers.

The JRC -- the European Commission's in-house science service -- has been cooperating more directly with Israel's weapons industry, too.

In December 2010, it teamed up with Elbit, the Israeli arms company, for what it called a "small boat detection campaign" in Haifa. The purpose of this exercise was to see how drones can be used for maritime surveillance, principally to stop asylum-seekers from entering Europe.

Elbit is one of the leading suppliers of warplanes to the Israeli military. This means that it is providing some of the key tools that Israel used to inflict death and destruction on Gaza this summer (and in previous attacks). By hosting the "boat detection" exercise, the EU indicated its eagerness to deploy Israel's tools of mass murder against refugees.


Although the EU has tried to keep the nuclear research "discreet", it has openly celebrated more palatable forms of engagement with Israel.

José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing European Commission chief, posed for photos with Benjamin Netanyahu, when the two men approved an energy and water cooperation agreement in 2012. The JRC tried to sell that accord as ecologically sound by stressing that it concerned renewable energy and resource conversation.

Environmental campaigners have a name for tactics designed to rebrand a villain as a tree-hugger: "greenwashing."

Cooperation on "clean" energy provides scant comfort to Gaza's people, whose only power plant was bombed by Israel this summer. Nor should it be forgotten that Israel attacked a center for autistic children that had solar panels on its roof. So much for Israel's commitment to renewable energy.

Israel is a nuclear-armed rogue state. I'm sure that many decent people would be horrified to learn that the EU is liaising with the very agencies that developed Israel's nuclear weapons -- even if this cooperation is "discreet."

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 5 September 2014.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Why Europe won't impose an arms embargo on Israel

In Greek mythology, Hermes was both a thief of cattle and a protector of sheep. Israel's weapons industry is promoting the Hermes drone as similarly versatile to the god after which it is named.

A new version of this pilotless warplane - the Hermes-900 - made its combat debut when Israel attacked Gaza during the summer. It might take some time before we have an idea how many deaths can be attributed to this particular killing machine (or, more accurately, its operators).  Israel has forbidden Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch from entering Gaza to investigate how the offensive was conducted.

We can nonetheless be certain that it helped to inflict immense suffering and destruction. Able to carry twice the bomb-load as the model of drone it will replace, the Hermes-900 was introduced during the first week of the attack, which began on 8 July. At the end of that month, the Israeli Air Force exulted in how it had been flown "non-stop".

Israel has been eager to emphasise its less lethal applications, too. Brazil bought a Hermes-900 drone for surveillance during the World Cup. The deal enabled Elbit, the plane's manufacturer, to boast of how it was contributing to "safety" at sporting events.

At least, the mass surveillance of football fans was widely reported. Discussions about the potential use of Israeli drones to track refugees destined for Europe's shores have, by contrast, gone largely unnoticed.

Last year, Elbit contacted Frontex, the EU's border management agency, seeking to show off its drones. Elbit suggested that the agency would have a "special interest" in the "search and rescue variant" of the Hermes-900.

In response, Frontex arranged an appointment in its Warsaw headquarters for a "senior director" with the weapons company. Elbit followed up by offering a "live demo" of its technology, according to internal Frontex documents that I obtained under EU freedom of information rules.

Another key supplier of warplanes used to flatten Gaza, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), gave such a demonstration to Frontex in October 2011. IAI was paid more than $260,000 for that privilege, although it could have charged more. In an exchange of email messages, IAI assured the agency that it had the "best suitable" drones for catching asylum-seekers. To underscore its altruistic side, the firm offered to exhibit its wares at a "greatly reduced price".

These low-key discussions provide some clues about why the EU has refused to impose an arms embargo on Israel. Three years ago, Frontex acquired the power to buy or lease its own equipment (until then, it had borrowed from EU governments).

It is acutely aware that Israel is a leading innovator of the drones that it covets. It is equally aware that Israel Aerospace Industries has taken part in EU-funded research projects on how drones can hunt down asylum-seekers. Nobody should be fooled by touchy-feely terms like "search and rescue" or "safety". Frontex is pursuing an essentially racist agenda of trying to prevent foreigners from entering Europe.

There is an obscene logic behind why the EU's border management officials would wish to cooperate with Israel. Both Frontex and Israel have violated the rights of Palestinian refugees.

As part of its activities, Frontex works with the Greek authorities to "screen" asylum-seekers. A report by several human rights organisations published in May documented how Frontex was recording that Palestinian refugees who had lived in Syria were "stateless", without recognising that they were fleeing a vicious civil war.

These refugees were ordered to leave Greek territory within 30 days. A principle enshrined in international law - that nobody should be expelled to a country where his or her life will be at risk - has been blithely ignored by an agency of the European Union.

Israel is a state founded as a result of large-scale dispossession. Around 750,000 Palestinians were uprooted in the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe), the ethnic cleansing at the time of Israel's establishment in 1948. A large number fled to Gaza. Over the past six years, these refugees have been subject to three all-out attacks.

Eyewitness accounts from doctors working in Gaza's hospitals indicate that Israel dropped experimental weapons during this summer's attack. The weapons are believed to include DIME (dense inert metal explosives), which causes horrific injuries by burning at high temperatures. Al-Haq, the Palestinian rights group, has stated that DIME was carried in Hellfire missiles that were dropped from Israeli drones.

The only proper and compassionate response to such horrors is to cease doing business with Israel's arms industry. That step would require ripping up a commitment to invest more in the development of drones made by the EU's presidents and prime ministers in December 2013. While Israel was not explicitly mentioned in that pledge, Europe's key drone projects have involved a significant level of input from Israel.

The British Army's planned Watchkeeper drones, for example, are based on Elbit's Hermes-450. Due to be replaced by the Hermes-900, it has been marketed as the "primary platform" for Israel's "counter-terror operations" and as "a mature and combat-proven" aircraft. The likely customers of these products understand exactly what those euphemisms mean: drone-makers are twisting their contribution to Israel's crimes against humanity into selling points.

Even before Gaza was bombed, Israel Aerospace Industries had a backlog of orders worth $9.7 billion. Elbit had a backlog worth $6.2 billion. Don't be surprised if their weapons will be in greater demand now.

Gaza was turned into a laboratory for the arms industry this summer. By forging close links with Israel's arms industry, Europe has accorded Palestinians the same status as animals used in cruel experiments. With their indomitable spirit, the people of Gaza have shown that they will never accept that status.

•First published by Middle East Eye, 4 September 2014.