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Friday, February 26, 2010

Military Technology to Track Down Migrants?

Arms manufacturers have been asked to advise an official European Union (EU) body on how their products can be used to stop asylum-seekers entering the bloc’s territory.

Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, will host an event in Spain this coming June, at which several makers of pilotless drones – or unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) – will give presentations.

Although these camera-carrying planes have been designed for war and have been used extensively in attacks on civilians in Palestine, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the agency is studying how they can be adapted to border surveillance.

A Frontex source said that none of these drones have been used in its work to date but that is examining what “added value” they can bring to tasks performed by the coast guards of EU member countries. “Special attention” is being paid to drones as they could be capable of monitoring vessels at sea for longer periods of time than equipment now in use by coast guards, according to the source.

Frontex is one of many bodies in Europe that are eager to use drones for security purposes. Earlier this month, the Merseyside police in England sought credit for the first known use of a drone to arrest a suspected criminal. Yet the affair turned into a controversy, when it emerged that the police did not have a licence to use these planes.

Amnesty International said this week it would be concerned if surveillance technology helped Frontex to erode the right to have asylum applications processed in Europe. “Is this being used to fulfil human rights obligations?” Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty’s Brussels office, said. “If it isn’t, that’s a problem.”

The EU’s executive, the European Commission, published a plan to strengthen Frontex Feb. 24. Under it, the Union’s governments would be required to ensure that boats and planes are at the agency’s disposal. Frontex, which has mainly performed a coordinating role between national border management authorities of EU states since its inception in 2005, would gradually be able to buy or lease its own equipment.

Cecilia Malmström, the EU’s recently-appointed home affairs commissioner, said that migrants are “not criminals” but “people coming in search of a better life”. Asked why technology invented for military purposes is being tested for migration control work, she insisted that “there has been absolutely no decision” on using drones for those purposes.

She also stated that “fundamental rights must not be infringed” by Frontex and announced that an independent monitor will be present when the agency is assisting with the expulsion of rejected asylum-seekers. “I don’t exclude at all that there have been errors committed (by Frontex in the past),” she added.

In June last year, Frontex coordinated Operation Nautilus, in which a boat carrying an estimated 75 migrants was intercepted off the Italian coast. Using a German Puma helicopter, the operation was the first of its kind in which Frontex succeeded in forcing migrants from the central Mediterranean Sea back to Libya. Human rights organisations criticised Frontex over this operation, contending that it was unable to give guarantees that the Libyan authorities had allowed people on that vessel the possibility to apply for asylum. Under international law, all individuals are entitled to seek protection from persecution in a country other than their own.

Bjarte Vandvik from the European Council on Refugees and Exile, a network of organisations working with asylum-seekers, said that the research on drones highlighted how Europe’s debate on migration issues is being determined by a “security approach”.

“We can’t accept that people are being sent back to possible torture or death without even being given an opportunity to have their claims dealt with,” he said. “People are being turned away from the borders of Europe today without being screened one way or another to see if they are here looking for protection or here looking for employment and a better life, which is not a crime either.”

Despite impressions conveyed by some politicians that the EU is “swamped” with more asylum-seekers than it can afford to accommodate, asylum applications have fallen sharply in the past two decades. When the Union had just 12 member states in 1992, it registered 550,000 asylum claims. Yet in 2008, the number for the EU – which now comprises 27 countries – was 238,000, while provisional data indicates that the number fell to about 223,000 last year.

Amnesty’s Beger said there has been “a lot of myths and scaremongering” about migration in Europe. There is a “very stark absence”, he argued, of any recognition that asylum-seekers and other migrants are human beings. Because the EU’s policy “disproportionately aims at returning people”, rather than upholding the right to asylum, migrants are undertaking ever more hazardous journeys in their attempts to enter Europe.

Alfredo Abad from the Spanish Commission for Refugees accused the EU of a “big hypocrisy” in setting out to build a common system of asylum in recent years, while simultaneously preventing refugees from arriving here.

First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Nick Griffin's foreign fascist festival

Fresh from agreeing to allow blacks and Asians join his party, Nick Griffin is this week embracing a group of men who have funny names and speak foreign languages. Have his regular trips to Brussels and Strasbourg finally brought out the British National Party chief’s cosmopolitan side?

Of course, they haven’t. Far from sampling the diversity of Europe, Griffin is to share a platform with some of the continent’s most narrow-minded politicians in Ghent on Wednesday.

According to his Facebook fan-page, Griffin is visiting the Belgian city to address a “student symposium”. Yet the poster for the event indicates there will be precious little of the academic chin-rubbing you’d normally expect at an event billed as such. The poster depicts a burqa-clad woman standing in front of a European flag studded with minaret spires.

This crass Islamophobia is typical of promotional material produced by the far-right party Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), whose de facto youth wing, the National Student Association (NSV), is organising the event. Like the BNP, the Vlaams Belang has had to amend its rulebook in recent years after its precursor the Vlaams Blok was banned for flouting anti-discrimination laws. Frank Vanhecke, the Vlaams Belang leader, who is also scheduled to speak in Ghent, is not as openly xenophobic as he used to be – he once denounced an Amsterdam mayor who named a square after Nelson Mandela as a “renegade towards his own people and race”. Yet he has no qualms about inciting hatred against Muslims. Women who wear a veil, he has said, have signed a contract for their deportation.

Another guest in Ghent will be Bruno Gollnisch, deputy-leader of the French National Front. Gollnisch has been helping the BNP finesse its electoral strategy, according to a story in the Daily Mirror. By turning to him for advice, Griffin evidently no longer appears as keen to emphasise that he is “not” an anti-Semite as he was during his appearance on the BBC’s Question Time last year. In 2004, Gollnisch suggested that the Nazi gas chambers may be a myth.

Griffin is no “gravy train or career politician”, a message directed at his constituents in north-west England recently declared. How then does he explain his use of a budget that is supposed to be reserved for parliamentary researchers and secretarial help to pay his bodyguard? Or how he uses the European Parliament chamber to score the most parochial points imaginable? During a debate on the Haiti earthquake in January, he argued that no humanitarian aid should be given to its victims because the disaster had happened “in somebody else’s backyard”. Griffin quoted the Bible to claim that EU governments only had duties to their own citizens. The central teaching of Christianity – “love your neighbour as yourself” – is conveniently omitted when fascists interpret scripture.

It would be comforting if Griffin and his ilk were confined to the political margins. But the truth is that “mainstream” parties and European institutions have happily stolen many of the extreme right’s clothes and invariably wear them with greater ease. Griffin’s wish for boats carrying asylum-seekers to be sunk is not far removed from what Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, is already doing, for example. Last summer this agency helped the Italian authorities force a vessel to land in Libya; in contravention to international law, the people on board it were not granted the possibility to apply for asylum. Frontex is also planning to use pilotless drones – the type of warplanes that have caused numerous civilian deaths in Palestine, Afghanistan and Pakistan – in future operations designed to prevent migrants entering Europe.

If there is one thing more nauseating than Nick Griffin himself, it is how “respectable” politicians pander to his agenda.

Originally published by The Samosa (www.thesamosa.co.uk)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Euro not for Europe's poor

For 329 million people shopping with the euro is a part of everyday life. Since its notes and coins were introduced on New Year’s Day 2002, this single currency has made it possible to travel across a 16-country zone stretching from Cyprus to Ireland without having to change the money in one’s pocket or handbag.

Yet while it may sound like a dream for holiday-makers, the economic crisis in Greece has illustrated that there is a flipside to Europe’s experiment in monetary union. In order to guarantee the ‘stability’ of the currency, participating governments have signed up to rules stipulating that their budget deficits should be no more than 3 percent of their gross domestic product. After Greece admitted its deficit stood at 12.7 percent, it has undertaken to slash it to 2.8 percent by 2012; the measures envisaged to achieve this drastic reduction include cutbacks in public sector pay and spending on education and an increase in the retirement age.

The irony of how these measures will hurt Greeks on low-income far more than the politicians and business elite widely blamed for causing the crisis has not been lost on some commentators. Costas Douzinas, a law professor at Birkbeck College in London, said that the euro-zone’s economic affairs are being run “according to a kind of witchdoctor theory.”

“It is not Greece that is suffering but the Greek working people, the people who are always at the bottom of the pile,” he said. “If you want to have a reduction of the deficit, the first thing to do should not be to hit the most vulnerable parts of society, the low-paid civil servants and the working class. You should hit big capital, the people who profited out of the extreme neo-liberal organisation of the markets.”

The idea of building a single currency was originally hatched by just five companies involved in selling cars (Fiat), oil (Total), chemicals (Solvay), electronic goods (Philips) and pharmaceuticals (Rhône-Poulenc). In 1987 they formed the Association for the Monetary Union of Europe (AMUE), which argued that the patchwork of different currencies then in use in Europe prevented it from competing with Japan or America. Upon its inception, the grouping decided to exclude trade unions and other public interest advocates from its membership. Etienne Davignon, the AMUE president, argued that the single currency could “only be effective if it was proposed by the people who were in favour without the necessity to compromise between themselves.”



David Boyle from the New Economics Institute, a Massachusetts-based body that challenges conventional thinking on financial management, said that while there is a need for “big reference currencies”, it is wrong to believe that the euro and its common interest rates can bring equal benefits to all areas where it is used. “Interest rates don’t suit every country in the EU at the same time,” he said. “How can they? In times of hardship, a single currency will benefit those at the heart of Europe – maybe Paris and Frankfurt – but it will damage the outlying areas. Single currencies are blunt instruments and will tend to increase poverty around the edges.”

Unlike the dollar or the yen, the euro has been introduced in a situation where its participating countries apply considerably different policies on other key economic questions. Efforts by France, for example, to introduce common rules on taxation have been resisted by other euro-zone members such as Ireland, which has been fearful that higher corporate taxes would act as a disincentive to foreign investment.

Roland Kulke, a researcher with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a left-wing German think-tank, said the economic crisis in Greece has highlighted the intrinsic design flaws in the euro. “You can’t have a common currency without at least a certain kind of coordination on budgetary and financial policies,” he said.

The euro, coupled with the absence of any increase in real wage levels over a two decade period, has enabled Germany to become a top exporter, Kulke added. More peripheral countries such as Greece, on the other hand, have been unable to devalue their currencies to sell goods abroad at a competitive price.

One of the murkier aspects of the Greek crisis is that opaque transactions by Wall Street firms appear to have contributed significantly to it. Goldman Sachs and other top investment banks are known to have sent high-level delegation to Athens in the recent past, fuelling allegations that they were betting against the euro and helping to falsify the real economic picture in the country by using complex financial instruments to conceal the true nature of the Greek debt.

Susan George, a leading member in the French anti-poverty group ATTAC, called on the European Central Bank (ECB) and other euro-zone institutions to consider a tax on transactions of a high-risk nature. “An international currency tax would help stop speculation against the euro,” she said. “But unfortunately I don’t think the ECB is going to move on this.”

Originally published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A surreal argument for biofuels

Could destroying the rainforests make good environmental sense?

This barmy idea is set out, albeit less explicitly, in a paper on biofuels under discussion by senior Brussels officials. Even though palm oil plantations are a major source of tropical deforestation – and hence a major contributor to climate change - the leaked paper suggests that such plantations can often be deemed as ecologically sustainable. And if that isn’t puzzling enough, it also indicates that forests that have been chopped down to make way for biofuel plantations can still be considered as forests.

Not since René Magritte completed the “This is not a pipe” painting has something as surreal been produced in the Belgian capital. Yet unlike Magritte’s work, this paper – known in Brussels parlance as a “communication” – could soon be taken literally across Europe. It is intended to guide EU governments as they formulate strategies on how to power one-tenth of all cars, vans and trucks with biofuels by 2020.

The paper has the distinct whiff of something that has been written in close cooperation with the biofuel industry.

In November last year, the Malaysia Palm Oil Council (MPOC) warned that its exports to the EU would drop as a result of new “sustainability criteria” stipulating that the use of biofuels should bring a net 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over conventional petrol or diesel. Malaysia’s palm oil producers have recruited the public relations firm GPlus to make its case for those criteria to be interpreted flexibly. The hiring was a shrewd one; GPlus is made up largely of ex-employees of the EU institutions, who get paid handsomely to fix appointments with their old workmates. GPlus was founded by Peter Guilford after his stint as a European commission spokesman; his current team includes erstwhile Labour MEPs David Bowe and Glyn Ford.


The MPOC has been found to have made misleading claims in the recent past. In 2008 Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against the MPOC over a publicity campaign broadcast on BBC World. According to the regulator, the MPOC’s ads gave a false impression that palm oil plantations hosted a comparable diversity of wildlife to native rainforests. The verdict appears to have made no impression on the European commission, however. Ten months later, its scientific research centre jointly organised a conference on biofuels with the MPOC in Kuala Lumpur.

Despite rolling out the red carpet for the biofuel industry, the commission has been less than transparent with green activists. Their requests for access to studies that the commission has requested on the impact of biofuel cultivation – particularly within the EU - have been turned down. A story in The International Herald Tribune this week might explain why; it quoted handwritten notes from a top-ranking farm official who indicated that concern over the environmental impact of biofuels could “kill” their development.

Meanwhile, a new study by ActionAid provides a sorely-needed reminder that the growth of biofuels does not only harm the endangered orangutans of south-east Asia. Rather, it predicts that the price of pumping cars full of crops that had been traditionally used to feed people – wheat, maize, sugar, palm oil and soy – will be a fresh upsurge in global hunger. The number of people suffering from hunger could grow from 1 billion today to 1.6 billion by 2020 if the biofuel craze continues.

Anyone feeling a sense of déjà-vu reading that warning can be forgiven. Less than two years ago, the World Food Programme found that Europe’s increased use of biofuels was at least partly to blame for the spike in food prices across many poor countries. José Manuel Barroso, the European commission chief, denied then that his support for biofuels could be responsible. Barroso is still in charge now and, by all indications, still in denial.


Originally published on The Guardian's website (www.guardian.co.uk)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Arms lobby licks its lips over climate change

Arms dealers do not only manufacture instruments of death. They are adept, too, at manufacturing a political consensus.

Because there is a plethora of think-tanks and policy institutes in Brussels, it can be extremely difficult to gauge how effective some of them are. But one that has certainly made an impact in its eight-year-history is Security and Defence Agenda (SDA), a forum sponsored by Europe’s top weapons-makers, including BAE (yes, the same BAE that recently paid fines worth £287 million to avoid being prosecuted on corruption charges in both Britain and the US). Giles Merritt, the SDA’s director, was named by The Financial Times last year as one of the 30 most influential people in Brussels.

Each month the SDA hosts a pow-wow in Biblothèque Solvay, an elegant early twentieth century library that offers a welcome reprieve from the more bombastic architecture of the nearby EU institutions. It is here that senior diplomats, politicians and military strategists explore how policy can be adapted to serve the interests of the arms industry.

Perhaps the only thing to admire about this group is that it is fiendishly clever. Merritt, a former lobbyist for the comparably unscrupulous tobacco industry, has advised his clients to “stop making macho ads with missiles and fighter planes” and present a more caring image.

His counsel has been heeded up to a point. Over the past few years the defence establishment has emphasised that it is deeply concerned about climate change. The problem is that it is concerned for all the wrong reasons.

With global warming expected to increase competition between nations over energy sources, the arms industry and its political stooges have realised that there are contracts to be won from turning an environmental question into a security issue. This was clear from a meeting that the SDA held in 2009, during which a NATO representative described the Arctic as brimming with “riches and potential” and warned of a “scramble” for resources and territory among the countries in the region (the US, Russia, Canada and all of Scandinavia).

His statement is likely to be given a more official imprimatur when the leaders of NATO countries gather in Lisbon this November. There they will update the ‘strategic concept’ that guides the alliance’s activities by incorporating climate and energy issues within it. The European Union has been ahead of NATO in this regard. In 2008, the EU’s then foreign policy chief Javier Solana – a former NATO secretary-general - published a paper noting that new trading routes were opening up in the Arctic as a result of the polar icecaps’ melting and hinting that it would only be a matter of time before there were clashes over which countries controlled different parts of the region. Faced with such belligerent posturing from Brussels, is it any wonder that Russia – clearly the main nation to whom these messages were addressed – has recently identified NATO as a serious threat?

The arms industry has everything to gain from talking up the prospect of resource wars. New data from the – an outfit set up at the request of BAE and its French and German counterparts - shows that while the collective defence expenditure of its 26 participating states has been fairly constant at €200 billion (£174 billion) for the past few years, it has fallen in proportional terms from nearly 1.8% of gross domestic product in 2006 to 1.6% in 2008. If the involvement of many European countries in Afghanistan doesn’t lead to greater spending, then it’s only logical that weapons merchants will pray for more lucrative conflicts. And if things turn out the way they predict, they could be one of the few beneficiaries from ecological catastrophes.

I’m not trying to suggest that there aren’t security implications from climate change. But allowing the arms industry to shape the debate increases the possibility that our politicians will be distracted from taking action to address its root causes. Solar and wind power, insulation of buildings, better public transport and saner methods of food production are what we should be prioritising if the momentum that was sabotaged by myopic world leaders in Copenhagen a few months ago is to be rebuilt. Pounding the drumbeat of war, however, is the last thing we need right now.

Originally published by The Samosa (www.thesamosa.co.uk)

Monday, February 15, 2010

With pacifists like this, who needs warmongers?

Growing up in the deeply uncool Dublin of the early 1980s, I became fascinated by images of rain and mud beamed into my family’s home on BBC news bulletins. Those were the conditions which the women of Greenham Common peace camp endured in their noble quest to remove weapons of mass destruction from British soil and eventually from the entire world.

Almost 30 years later, my admiration for those activists remains undimmed. The intensity of that admiration is surpassed, though, by the anger I feel towards people who used to support the peace camp but have since abandoned their principles for political expediency and personal gain.

Take Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s first foreign minister. During her recent confirmation hearing in the European Parliament, she was quizzed about the job she once held as a treasurer with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Faced with unproven claims, made by a particularly vile and reactionary Tory MEP Charles Tannock, that CND was financed by the Soviet Union, Ashton rightly refused to apologise for her past. Nonetheless, she tried to distance herself from it by underscoring how she was young then and implying she has long grown out of that idealistic phase.

As if feeling that some kind of atonement is needed, Ashton’s most important statements in her new role have sent a signal towards Iran. The rank hypocrisy of her position must not be allowed go unchallenged. Her elevation to the House of Lords and her subsequent move to Brussels are due almost entirely to her close links with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. She has not said one word – in public, at least – that is critical of how Britain is pursuing the Trident renewal programme (albeit with an apparent willingness to scale back its original plans) in flagrant violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So what moral authority does she have to threaten Iran over its nuclear ambitions?

Much has been made of Ashton’s inexperience in international diplomacy. But I regard that inexperience as far less troubling than how she has tried to compensate for it by turning to some of the most elitist figures in the Brussels bureaucracy for counsel.

The team helping her assemble the EU’s new diplomatic service includes Robert Cooper among its members. Now one of the Union’s top politico-military strategists, Cooper was Tony Blair’s chief confidant on foreign policy until 2002.

After helping pave the way for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (though Cooper was no longer in London when the latter war was declared, he assisted Blair during its preparatory stages), he explained his worldview in the equally erudite and accessible book The Breaking of Nations. It suggested that a new ethos of imperialism, which emphasises voluntary action over coercion, should be developed for the twenty-first century. Cooper cited the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as institutions that provide “a limited form of voluntary empire”, without expressing any concern about the misery they have inflicted on the world’s poor by insisting that governments serve the interests of the markets, rather than those of their own citizens.

Cooper has close contacts with some of the more hawkish US representatives in Europe. In 2008, he wrote a pamphlet with Ronald Asmus, Brussels director with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an inveterate defender of Israeli aggression. Cooper’s contribution to that pamphlet displayed how he is in awe of American hegemony. “What is the point of the Belgian army today?” he asked. “It is not to defend Belgium, since no one is going to attack it. Rather it is to demonstrate a sufficient commitment to ‘the West’ that friends and allies, above all the USA, will be there if ever Belgium should need help.”

By relying on people like Cooper, Ashton is ensuring that the key decisions about European security and foreign policy will be taken in the Pentagon and the White House. The likelihood that she will distinguish the EU from America by stressing that Europe values human rights or social cohesion above economic or military might appears non-existent.

Other members of the team surrounding Ashton have displayed a contempt for democracy. Catherine Day, the Irishwoman who is secretary-general in the European Commission, spent several months last year trying to bludgeon her compatriots into accepting the Lisbon treaty, even though they had previously rejected it in a referendum. And veteran French diplomat Pierre de Boissieu has been instrumental in ushering in a single currency in much of Europe. Conceived by bankers and industrialists, the fiscal discipline demanded by this project has led to austerity measures affecting millions of people – most recently in Greece.

With friends like these guiding her, Ashton could soon have far better reasons to apologise than what she did in her younger days.


Originally published in The Samosa (www.thesamosa.co.uk)