Friday, October 10, 2014
Friday, September 26, 2014
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".
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
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.
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?
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
Thursday, July 24, 2014
Earlier this year Angela Merkel was awarded Israel's "presidential medal of distinction." The German chancellor merited this honor, some journalists dutifully reported, because of her "unwavering commitment to Israel's security."
That "unwavering commitment" might help explain why Merkel does not appear perturbed by what happened to Ibrahim al-Kilani. He had spent twenty years in Germany, qualifying there as a civil engineer, before returning to Gaza in 2001, where he had married and started raising a family. On Monday, Ibrahim, his wife Taghreed and their five children were wiped out in an Israeli attack.
Ilias, the youngest of the children, was only four. His sister Yasmin was six. The other siblings -- Yassir, Sawsan, and Rim -- were aged between eight and twelve. It should not be necessary to spell out that they were entirely innocent of any crime.
One day after this family was wiped out, Germany and all European Union governments issued a statement on the events in Gaza. As the Union's foreign ministers were meeting that day, they had every opportunity to demand an explanation from Israel as to why it had just killed a family of EU citizens.
Yet the EU's statement did not even mention the al-Kilanis. Rather, the foreign ministers stressed that they recognized "Israel's legitimate right to defend itself against any attacks."
Israel was politely asked to make sure its military action was "proportionate and in line with international humanitarian law."
It is hard to remain calm when reading those carefully chosen words -- of abject cowardice. Not for the first time, the EU was blaming Palestinians for the atrocities visited upon them by a brutal occupation. The truth was turned upside down.
Many of us have long suspected that the European Union doesn't really care when Palestinians are killed by Israel. Now we can say for certain it doesn't care even when Israel bombs EU citizens.
Ahmad al-Kilani, Ibrahim's cousin, made this point in an interview with a Turkish news agency: “No German or American nationality stops Israel from murdering us. Israel is like a monster that destroys everything it encounters. This is genocide.”
Eventually, the German foreign ministry announced yesterday that it was seeking "clarification" from Israel about why it killed the al-Kilani family.
That is a hollow gesture, when you recall that Merkel explicitly stated last week that "we stand by the side of Israel, when it comes to self-defense." She has not withdrawn that remark, despite the abundant evidence that the al-Kilani family and the people of Gaza more generally have not been bombed for reasons of "self-defense" but in grotesque acts of aggression.
The al-Kilani family had already suffered enormously from Israel's latest attack on Gaza. They had fled their home in Beit Lahia, an area in northern Gaza that Israel has shelled continuously.
Stand by Palestine
They tried to escape once more, finding an apartment in Rimal, supposedly a safer part of Gaza City. It has been reported that Taghreed al-Kilani was preparing an iftar, the meal that ends a day of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, when Israel shelled them.
More than 700 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the current Israeli offensive.
Insipid requests from the European Union for Israel to behave in a "proportionate" manner won't stop the slaughter. It, therefore, falls to ordinary people of conscience around the world to take action.
We know what we have to do: intensify our campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. If Angela Merkel and other Western leaders are so determined to side with Israel, the rest of us must stand by the Palestinians.
Thanks to Shahd Abusalama for help with research and translation.
•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 24 July 2014.
Friday, July 11, 2014
The daily press briefing at the European Commission seldom fails to illustrate the cozy relationship between journalists and the powerful. So harmonious is this rapport that many of its attendees "graduate" from being spoonfed stories by official EU spokespersons to eventually becoming spokespersons themselves.
Michael Mann offers a case in point. He used to be on the staff of The Financial Times. Today, he commands a higher salary as a mouthpiece for Catherine Ashton, the Union's foreign policy chief. Part of his job involves regurgitating Israeli propaganda.
There was no acknowledgement that Israel has been subjecting Palestinian civilians to collective punishment -- in clear violation of international law. There was no mention of the seven-year siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza. There was no recognition that Benjamin Netanyahu's government has used the murder of three Israeli teenagers as a pretext to kill much higher numbers of Palestinian children in recent days (more than twenty children have been killed in Gaza over the past few days; a death toll that is likely to rise).
Instead, there was an anodyne call for "restraint."
Like most of the Brussels elite, Mann lives in something of a bubble. For the past few months, the main topic of conversation within this cocoon has been which dodgy politician will become the European Commission's new president. The harm inflicted by the EU's austerity policies and by its "strategic" partners (as Catherine Ashton has categorized Israel) has been largely ignored.
Diplomats based in Israel live in a bubble, too. The EU's embassy in Israel is located in a skyscraper in the business district of Ramat Gan, a city beside Tel Aviv. The convivial coffee shops and restaurants which the embassy's staff frequent provide no clues of the immense human suffering in Gaza, around seventy kilometers away.
Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the EU's ambassador to Israel, ventured a little bit outside the bubble on Monday. He didn't go to Gaza, however, but to Ashkelon in southern Israel. There, he expressed solidarity with Israelis facing the "unacceptable threat" of rockets from Gaza.
The ambassador elaborated on this gesture of solidarity in a softball interview with the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz. "I wanted to underline that shooting rockets indiscriminately at civilians cannot be a legitimate or an acceptable response to any kind of grievance that you have," he said.
Listeners to the video of the interview posted on the Haaretz website were spared any explanation of what kind of grievances Palestinians may have.
The awkward fact that they have long been treated as laboratory rats for the Israeli arms industry was omitted. That's hardly surprising, if you delve a bit deeper.
In June, Israel signed an agreement that enables its weapons manufacturers -- the very people profiting from the current attack on Gaza -- take part in the EU's scientific research programme. Known as Horizon 2020, that programme has been allocated a colossal €80 billion ($109 billion) between now and the end of the decade.
Faaborg-Andersen was so keen to stress his empathy with Zionists that he effectively gave an "up yours" salute to the main Palestinian plea for justice: the 2005 call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. He was at pains to stress that Israel is welcome to continue exporting goods from its settlements in the occupied West Bank, even though some EU governments have recently advised firms against doing business with the settlements.
"The EU is not banning anyone," he said. "We are against boycotts. We are against BDS. We are against the isolation of Israel."
Far from isolating Israel, some of the EU's leading representatives appear intent on embracing it tighter. Last month, Daniel Calleja, head of the European Commission's enterprise department, lead the Union's second "mission for growth" to Israel in as many years.
Among the Israeli firms which have been involved in this "mission" to increase business with Europe are Elbit, a supplier of the drones now being used to bomb Gaza and of surveillance equipment installed in the apartheid wall declared illegal by the International Court of Justice almost exactly ten years ago.
Ahava, a firm making cosmetics in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, has been taking part, too.
There is, of course, an important caveat that should be added when the EU claims to oppose boycotts. It is only against boycotts of Israel.
Under US pressure, the Union decided to boycott the Palestinian government formed after the 2006 election. EU representatives, who constantly harp on about democracy, didn't like the result of that exercise in democracy because the wrong party -- Hamas -- won.
Those of us who try as best we can to live in the real world detect a heady stench of double standards from EU representatives. The representatives, however, seem oblivious to that stench. I guess that's what happens when you live in a bubble.
•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 10 July 2014.
Thursday, May 22, 2014
Two markedly different images of the Israeli military have emerged: the grainy and the glossy.
The grainy image is epitomized by the new video of soldiers murdering two teenage boys. This image is often captured by amateurs. It is authentic.
The glossy image is of a caring force that does everything to avoid civilian harm -- the most moral in the world, according to some politicians. This image is constructed professionally. It is fraudulent.
Spindoctors occasionally try to add a new layer of gloss, hoping that it will conceal the cruelty with which Israel has become synonymous. One such effort was a photo-shoot for Maxim, a magazine popular among certain types of men. It featured a number of scantily-clad women, all of whom had apparently served in the Israeli military.
During an investigation for Spinwatch, an organization monitoring the "public relations" industry, I learned that Saranga has now brought his "makeapartheid sexy" campaign to Brussels (needless to say, the campaign is not actually called that).
Saranga can often be seen hanging out with the main figures in European Friends of Israel (EFI). That group was formed by members of Britain's Conservative Party, who felt that there should be a strong Zionist lobby within the European Parliament.
EFI has arranged for Saranga to train its staff and supporters about how to "sell" Israel on "social media" websites. The group appears to have paid close attention. Its Facebook page brims with hasbara as Israeli "public diplomacy" is called. A particular emphasis is placed on Israel's technology industry, which is busy inventing things that "could save your life," as one post claimed.
EFI applies Israeli gloss liberally. Earlier this year, I heard Marek Siwiec, a Polish member of the European Parliament (MEP) who chairs the group's political board, praise Israel for the "humanitarian aid" it was providing to victims of Syria's civil war. "Israel is protecting hundreds of thousands of lives," he said. "I think this phenomenon should be more presented for the European public."
Siwiec airbrushed an inconvenient truth out of this "phenomenon." Many victims of the appalling situation in Syria had been previously dispossessed by Israel. I'm referring here to those Palestinians who sought refuge in Damascus after they were forcibly displaced in the Nakba -- the ethnic cleansing at the time of Israel's establishment.
When I later asked Siwiec a few basic questions about EFI, he boasted of how it was a "transparent organization." Yet he refused to divulge any details about its finances.
After some further digging, I found out that EFI has received backing from some very wealthy entrepreneurs. One of the them was Yaron (Ronny) Bruckner, who died last year. His Luxembourg-registered property and consumer goods firm Eastbridge has been stepping up its business activities in the US. In 2011, it bought the New York skyscraper that previously housed the insurance giant AIG.
Another man to sit on EFI's administrative board was Marc Grosman. He owns Celio, a clothing retailer with more than one thousand stores in sixty different countries.
Almost certainly, these two men have helped fund EFI. At the same time that Bruckner became one of the EFI's administrators in 2011, a new rule was added to the group's statutes. It set the maximum annual donation which EFI board members can make to the group at a cool €5 million ($6.8 million). Before then, the yearly limit had been a mere €1,000 ($1,400).
Unfortunately, EFI has enjoyed some success during its eight year history. It was instrumental in ensuring that the European Parliament approved a trade deal between the EU and Israel in 2012.
Despite its technical name -- the Agreement on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (ACAA) -- that deal was of huge political importance. It has meant that Israeli pharmaceutical companies -- and potentially the manufacturers of other Israeli goods -- can ship their products to the European Union without having to undergo costly quality controls. In effect, this means that Israel is being accorded commercial preferences usually reserved for businesses inside the EU.
The EFI's success on that dossier can be at least partly attributed to how the current European Parliament veers more towards the right than the left. The group seems to be nervous, however, about the prospect of encountering greater difficulties in the assembly that will be formed as a result of this week's election.
It has asked budding MEPs to sign a pledge that they will work against boycotts of Israel. More than likely, it would not have done so if it did not feel under pressure. Some EFI stalwarts have admitted to me that they regard the Palestine solidarity movement as too strong for their liking.
This is a testament to people power. The Palestine solidarity movement is not backed by profit-hungry corporations. It does not hire "rebranding" specialists to place photo shoots in mass circulation magazines. And yet by patiently and diligently building public awareness, it is striking fear into the hearts of Israel's elite and its "friends."
Israel is losing its propaganda war. No amount of gloss can save it.
•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 21 May 2014.