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Monday, February 28, 2011

The EIB's malignant myths

Does Philippe Maystadt have the cushiest job in the EU bureaucracy? For the past eleven years, Maystadt has been president of the European Investment Bank. It is a post that has required him to move from his native Belgium to Luxembourg but that drawback has been compensated for by a handsome salary and a chance to manage one of the largest portfolios held by any international financial institution in the world. The remoteness of the EIB headquarters has many advantages, too: nicely insulated from journalists covering European affairs from Brussels, his activities usually evade scrutiny from the mainstream media.

And so Maystadt was able to depict himself as a valiant eco-warrior last week by publishing data about how the bank delivered “record climate action lending” in 2010. With his statement dutifully regurgitated in business publications, Maystadt could relax safe in the knowledge that none of us journalists are too bothered to ask what the EIB is really up to.

As it happened, the bank dropped strong hints about its real agenda one day earlier. In a separate statement, it announced plans to finance the world’s largest “carbon capture and storage” scheme. Cash for this initiative will be generated through the sale of 300 million licenses to pollute under the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS). The bank does not intend to make public comments on individual beneficiaries of the scheme, according to the statement.

It is certain that much of the funding will be released to the fossil fuels industry, which has been promoting carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a panacea for the global warming that their rapacious activities played a large role in causing. Sure, the concept is a seductive one: instead of releasing heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, these will be buried under the ground where they can do no harm, the theory goes. The flipside of this fantasy is that it offers industrialists an excuse to keep burning as much coal and oil as they want and policy-makers to avoid taking urgent measures.

The scheme being supported by the EIB is called the “New Entrants Reserve” (NER). Documents given to transparency campaigners by Chris Davies, the British MEP who is one of carbon capture’s most vocal advocates, have shown that Shell and BP managed to tweak the terms of reference for the NER in their favour. In February last year, Davies – with more than a little help from his oily friends – clinched a deal with the European Commission and EU governments that at least eight CCS projects would be financed under the NER. As BP’s reputation belly-flopped in the Gulf of Mexico shortly after that deal, it is little wonder that Maystadt’s mandarins want to keep quiet about how they will be shovelling euros into projects designed to aid that corporate despoiler.

In September 2009, José Manuel Barroso undertook to work “more imaginatively” with the EIB in order to address the economic crisis. What the European Commission chief really meant was that he had parked his own imagination in a cul de sac. For senior politicians in Brussels have a habit of calling up Maystadt when they want to be seen throwing money at a problem. So it was no surprise to read an opinion piece that Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, had published in The Financial Times on Valentine’s Day. Her gesture of love to the people who had risen up against their governments in “our southern neighbours, including Egypt” would be to ask the EIB for a dig-out of €1 billion, she wrote.

According to Ashton, these loans will help support democratic transition. Why the hell does she think that loans are an appropriate instrument for that purpose? Under its dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt racked up foreign debts of nearly $35 billion, roughly $9 billion of which is owed to EU countries. International law holds that debts incurred in a manner that does not serve the interests of a country’s population should be declared as “odious”. Therefore, the fair thing to do would be to write off that debt once free and fair elections are held in Egypt. Yet instead of tackling that debt burden, Ashton wants to increase it.

Ashton described the potential loans as a “downpayment for reform”, implying that the EIB is on the side of the brave demonstrators who clogged downtown Cairo in recent weeks. That is laughable. Research by the Bretton Woods Project, an anti-poverty group, has documented how the EIB has been at the forefront of a trend whereby international financial institutions have been directing their loans away from public institutions to private firms. In 2000, about 90% of all funding for developing countries from those institutions went to public sources, the remaining 10% to corporations. Within seven years, that ratio was turned on its head, with 60% of such finance allocated to the private sector.

Counterbalance, another campaigning organisation, has shown that many of the firms on the EIB’s loan book operate in tax havens. They include Mopani, a Swiss-owned mining company, that has been taking its profits from copper extraction in Zambia out of Africa, without paying taxes, according to an audit paper made public earlier this month. This is not the first time that the EIB has been found abetting the plundering of Africa’s resources, and it won’t be the last. Shouldn’t we be paying a bit more attention to how this bank behaves?

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 27 February – 5 March 2011

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why I tried to arrest Israeli minister

If apartheid is a crime, there is only one way to treat its practitioners: arrest them. That is precisely what I tried to do when I confronted Avigdor Lieberman, the architect of a series of laws designed to make Israeli apartheid even more draconian than it already is.

As the Israeli foreign minister was about to give a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday (22 February), I stood in front of him and shouted: “Mr Lieberman, this is a citizen’s arrest. You are charged with the crime of apartheid. Please come with me to the nearest police station.” I was about to explain the charge further but two security guards had already whisked me away from Lieberman and his inscrutable glare. So I shouted “Free Palestine” and “Israel is an apartheid state” to underscore my point.

My action will probably lead to the confiscation of the badge that had given me access to the headquarters of the EU’s main institutions. Most journalists to whom I have spoken in the past few hours appear to view this as a major issue. For me, it is a trivial one. Palestinians are deprived of liberty every day because of the policies pursued by Lieberman and his government colleagues. Compared to the restrictions on movement caused by military checkpoints in the West Bank or by that medieval blockade of Gaza, the loss of my press card is of no consequence.

The decision to confront Lieberman was taken following a recent visit to the occupied Palestinian territories. Spending a Friday afternoon in the Silwan area of East Jerusalem felt like being transported back to Derry or Belfast in the early 1970s. I was shocked by how Israeli soldiers and police in full riot gear were firing tear gas at young boys who were doing nothing more sinister than throwing stones at the forces of occupation.

It was my first time in Silwan in almost two years and there had been a marked proliferation of Israeli flags there since my previous visit. That was a sure sign that Palestinians who have lived in East Jerusalem for many generations are being forced from their homes to make way for Israeli settlers. The dispossession is taking place so that an extremist group called E’lad can realise its plans for the City of David archaeological park. With the official blessing of the Israeli state, E’lad believes that Israeli settlers have more rights to live in the area than its actual residents, based on how the remnants of a three-millennia-old royal palace may have been discovered in Silwan.

Apartheid is the best word I can think of to describe the machinations of these settlers and their friends in government. Although apartheid is synonymous with South Africa, it has been recognised as a crime by the United Nations since 1973. The relevant UN convention refers to the dominance of one racial group over another. Israel was always intended to be a state based on a toxic notion of racial supremacy; Theodor Herzl, the ‘founding father’ of political Zionism wrote back in 1896 that he wished to set up “an outpost of civilisation against barbarism”.

More than a century later, Avigdor Lieberman is giving practical effect to Herzl’s blueprint. In the two years that Lieberman and his party Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) have been in government, about 20 new laws and bills have been brought before the Knesset (Israeli parliament) with the specific aim of copper-fastening Israeli apartheid. The party is seeking to make Arab citizens of Israel – who comprise about one-fifth of the country’s population – swear an oath of allegiance to a “Jewish and democratic state”, crack down on commemorations of the Nakba (the ethnic cleansing which led to Israel’s formation in the 1940s) and limit the rights of Palestinian prisoners to meet lawyers. Just last week, the Knesset held a debate about a proposal to outlaw activities promoting a boycott of Israeli goods or institutions.

If you get a sense of déjà-vu reading about the measures favoured by Lieberman, it is because they bear many similarities to those introduced by the white minority government in South Africa during its apartheid era.

As well as being recognised as a crime by the UN since the 1970s, apartheid has more recently been one of the offences covered by the Rome Statute, under which the International Criminal Court was founded. The EU is nominally a strong supporter of the ICC, yet the Union’s representatives have mostly kept their mouths shut about Israeli apartheid and its consolidation.

Apartheid is not the only crime on my mind right now. Bertrand Russell, the great British intellectual, once referred to the crime of silence. This is a crime that the EU commits when it embraces Lieberman, as it did this week. If our politicians are silent, then it falls to ordinary people to shout as loud as they possibly can.

·First published by The Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net), 22 February 2011

Monday, February 21, 2011

Europe's double standards on East Jerusalem

From the top of the hill, I see a blotch of navy blue and khaki green against the backdrop of a Biblical landscape. There are about 30 police officers and soldiers in full riot gear. They huddle together on opposite sides of the road. All is silent for a moment, then a rock comes flying and they race after the youth who has flung it. A loud and percussive pop reverberates around the valley and a fog of tear gas fills the air. It is a typical Friday afternoon in East Jerusalem.

Two years have passed since the last time I was here in the Silwan district, on the cusp of the Old City. The tension is more palpable and there are more Israeli flags here now, a sure sign that Palestinians are being driven from their homes by force.

Fakhri Abu Diab, a community leader, says he had been expected in court a few days earlier. The Israeli authorities want to take over more than 80 Arab houses to make way for the City of David park. That park is promoted by Zionist extremists who claim to have unearthed a royal palace from 3,000 years ago. The court hearing on the project was called off at the last minute because the judge handling the case committed suicide.

The Diab family are paying a heavy psychological price for their efforts to save their homes. Last month the Israeli police turned up at his front door in the early hours of the morning. They arrested his 19-year-old son, alleging that he had been throwing stones. Diab followed them to the police station. “They took my ID and I waited for four hours,” he tells me. “One said: ‘I want to cut your tongue because what you say is dangerous’. I said: ‘All people have the right to speak. Me and my children are against the demolition of our home but we are non-violent people.’”

Diab had to pay 2,000 shekels (€400), more than the average monthly wage for a Palestinian worker, to have his son released. Arrests of children and adolescents are common in Silwan; in early February, police also nabbed a 42-year-old woman, who they found alone when they broke into her house. The habitual use of tear gas means that locals often feel they are smothering. The metal canisters containing tear gas are collected by residents after they have been fired. A recent inspection of such canisters found that some had past their “use-by” date almost five years ago. Israeli forces still fired them, even though doctors have warned that tear gas becomes more toxic after it expires. The tear gas grenades are manufactured by Combined Systems Incorporated, a firm based in New Jersey. Although promotional catalogues describe them as non-lethal, Jawaher Abu Rahmah died at the beginning of January after she inhaled tear gas during a protest against the massive wall Israel has built in the West Bank.

On paper, the European Union is opposed to the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem. In a secret report, that was leaked to the press last month, EU diplomats protested at Israel’s expropriation of Arab property. This is in contravention of international law; the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 forbids an occupying power from transferring its civilian population into the territory that it occupies. Of more than 500,000 Israel settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories, about 190,000 live in East Jerusalem, the report noted.

The apparently strong stance of these diplomats is not replicated by other EU bodies. In their report, the diplomats criticised the way a pro-settler group El’ad has been tasked with managing the archaeological sites Israel regards as central to the City of David scheme. “The organisation has entered into a partnership with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) which is paid directly by El’ad to physically carry out the excavations without Palestinian involvement or international oversight,” the report said.

The same IAA is among the participants in Euromed Heritage, an EU-funded scheme allocated €13.5 million between 2008 and 2012. That is despite how the authority is located in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. This is just one example of how the EU is failing to live up to its legal obligations not to confer any recognition on Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967. Europol, the EU’s police office, is examining ways of cooperating with the Israeli police, despite how its national headquarters are also in East Jerusalem.

Catherine Ashton personifies the inconsistency of the EU’s approach. As the Union’s foreign policy chief, she has issued several statements against the expansion of Israeli settlements here. Yet she has embraced the political architects of the expansion. When she chose the Middle East for her first working trip abroad of 2011, she exulted in how EU-Israel relations are “strong and solid” and voiced hope they will become even stronger in the months ahead. She is scheduled to discuss the practical aspects of these links with Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, this week.

There is much talk here about the uprising in Egypt that caused Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. The Israeli government is petrified by the turn of events. Israel had relied on Mubarak to abet its crimes, particularly to enforce the blockade on Gaza. It is too early to say what the Cairo protests will mean for Palestine but the discomfiture of the Israeli elite offers at least some hope.

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 20-26 February 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Time to talk straight about corporate power

Straight-talking is such a hallmark of the North-East of England that it is listed as a tourist attraction by local authorities. Voters in the region might be interested, then, in reading the latest “declaration of interests” for their man in Brussels, Martin Callanan. It shows that the Conservative MEP undertook a “biofuels study visit to Malaysia” in May 2010. To his constituents, a “study visit” translates as a “junket” or a “jolly”.

Callanan’s expenses-paid trip was organised by the Malaysian embassy to the EU, which diligently promotes palm oil as essential for Europe’s transport needs. This week Callanan will return a favour to his hosts when he presents a paper he authored on “light commercial vehicles” (or, as his constituents call them, “vans”) during a session of the European Parliament. His paper advocates that there should be a special pollution target applying to those vans which can run on a blend of conventional petrol and biofuels.

Callanan’s paper is the Parliament’s official response to proposals on regulating emissions from vans published by the European Commission in 2009. Callanan purports to be a public representative, rather than a stooge for the private sector. How can it be right that he first behaves as a biofuels freeloader, then puts forward recommendations tailored to serve that industry?

A few months before he became Britain’s prime minister last year, David Cameron raged against the “far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money”. Cameron’s comments primarily related to domestic politics but they are equally valid when applied to his party’s MEPs, including Callanan.

A few years before he became prime minister, David Cameron tried to rebrand the Conservatives as an ecologically sound outfit. The behaviour of Callanan and other Tories underscores how cynical and hollow an exercise that was.

Along with his fellow Tory Malcolm Harbour, Callanan has been one of the most active participants in the Forum for Automobile and Society since its inception in 1999. The forum brings car-obsessed MEPs together with the manufacturers of their dream climate-changing machines. Both Harbour and Callanan have done nicely out of this far-too-cosy relationship (to use their leader’s words).

Harbour’s latest declaration of interests indicates that he no longer takes free gifts from his corporate chums. Nonetheless, he has spent much of his 12 years as an MEP doubling up as an adviser to the car industry and as a legislator on dossiers affecting that sector. He has attended Grand Prix racing as a guest of Jaguar and Toyota and been loaned a variety of models from different companies. Callanan, meanwhile, has admitted that he was given a discount by Ford when he bought a new car in 2006. No company gives a politician a perk without expecting something in return.

Whereas the Commission had proposed that an average new van should release no more than 135 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre by 2020, Callanan is pressing for a far less stringent target of 140g per km. His stance mirrors that of ACEA, the main umbrella group for car and van makers in Europe, which claims that it is being required to bring down emission levels too quickly.

ACEA deserves no sympathy. Although most sectors of the EU’s economy reduced their emissions of greenhouse gases between 1990 and 2007, there was a net increase of 185 million tonnes in the amount of carbon dioxide released by road transport over that period, according to the European Environment Agency. The urgent task of making cars and vans cleaner and more fuel efficient must not be stymied by a few Tories with a surfeit of testosterone.

In Bursting the Brussels Bubble, a book published last year by an alliance of transparency activists, this city was labelled a paradise for corporate lobbyists. On most weekdays, it is virtually impossible to walk through the European Parliament’s corridors without bumping into hordes of gung-ho gun-for-hires. Corporate interests massively outnumber champions of nature and the poor. An authoritative source told me recently that 700 access badges to the Parliament have been issued to the pharmaceutical industry. Public health advocates, in contrast, have less than 10.

The Parliament’s internal rules require that its members declare gifts they receive from governments or companies. Yet there are no comparable regulations obliging MEPs to divulge who writes the amendments that they seek to planned new legislation.

One of the most important dossiers considered by the Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee in 2010 related to the management of hedge funds. When this dossier faced a key vote in May last year, the committee had to grapple with 1,600 suggested amendments. Parliamentary insiders estimated that half of these were drafted by lobbyists representing the financial sector.

It is a measure of how far the Parliament can be removed from the real world that this appalling state of affairs was presented as a good thing. A clip on EuroparlTV, the assembly’s in-house channel, focused on the hedge fund dossier to explain what was called “the art of the amendment”.

David Earnshaw from the public relations behemoth Burson-Marsteller featured on that piece arguing that the “tabling of amendments to some extent demonstrates the democratic process.” What nonsense. Allowing a corporate clique dictate how their industries should be regulated amounts to a subversion of the democratic process. If this carry-on is so prevalent in the EU’s only directly-elected institution, why should anyone trust the wider system?

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 13-19 February 2011

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

NATO's dangerous games in Asia

Colin Powell was regularly called a “dove” when he was America’s secretary of state. It was a misnomer. While he may have quarrelled with other members of the Bush administration on tactical issues, Powell’s entire military and political career was dedicated to world domination. One of his first acts as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was to lead an invasion of Panama. “We have to put a shingle on our door saying ‘Superpower lives here’,” he said on its first day in December 1989.

Hype would have us believe, too, that there is a substantial difference between Republicans and Democrats on foreign and economic policies. In reality, there is little. Barack Obama has been eager to convince the world that he is not under the spell of the oil industry in the way that George W Bush was. Yet the perks enjoyed by energy giants remain largely unchanged; on top of not having to pay any corporate income tax last year, Exxon Mobil was given a refund worth $156 million.

That businessmen headquartered in the state of Texas continue to wield enormous clout in Washington can be seen from a presentation given by Robert Blake, a State Department official dealing with Central and South Asia, in Houston during January. Blake suggested that the regions covered by his portfolio were replete with untapped resources, declaring – with considerable understatement – that these were bound to be of interest in the Lone Star state. The passage about Uzbekistan read like it was copied from a brochure for an industry fair: “Though often overlooked as an energy source, Uzbekistan has substantial hydrocarbon reserves of its own and produces about as much natural gas as Turkmenistan. Located at the heart of Central Asia, much of the region’s infrastructure – roads, railroads, transmission lines, and pipelines - goes through Uzbekistan, offering it a unique opportunity to expand its exports with little investment in new infrastructure.”


There was no mention of how Uzbekistan is ruled by the brutal dictator Islam Karimov (the same Karimov who was welcomed to the headquarters of NATO and the European Commission recently). Exploiting “overlooked” resources was evidently deemed more important than the lives of the hundreds of unarmed demonstrators killed at Karimov’s behest during the Andijan massacre in 2005.


Blake was – perhaps unwittingly – expanding on a theory posited by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the political scientist and one-time national security adviser to Jimmy Carter. In his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard, Brzenzinski argued that control of Asia was essential if the US was to cement its position as the world’s only superpower. “For half a millennium, world affairs were dominated by Eurasian powers and peoples who fought with one another for regional domination and reached out for global power,” he wrote. “Now a non-Eurasian power is pre-eminent in Eurasia - and America's global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained.”


NATO, Brezinski added, would be a vital tool in preserving that dominance. His words appear prescient. According to the official narrative, the invasion of Afghanistan and the consequent expansion of Western military bases in neighbouring countries were a response to how the Taliban was sheltering Osama bin Laden. But can it be a coincidence that the war followed the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation a few months earlier? Was it not a signal to the SCO members like Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that the US was the boss, so they had better reduce their ambitions for greater energy cooperation?


Ever the obedient servant, some of the EU’s most powerful states are helping to increase US penetration into Asia. Following the Andijan massacre, the Union imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan in 2005. The newspaper Tageszeitung revealed last year that Germany defied the sanctions by secretly giving military training to 35 Uzbek soldiers. In 2009, Angela Merkel’s government succeeded in convincing the EU to drop those sanctions. Access to the German military base at Termez in Uzbekistan – which hosts aircraft used in the war in Afghanistan – shouldn’t be affected by something as trivial as human rights, she decided.


NATO has also supplied troops to bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which neighbour China. Statements pumped out in Washington and Brussels might habitually describe Beijing as a “partner”. But the games played by NATO in China’s backyard tell another story.

It is a similar situation with Russia. Visiting Georgia last summer, Hillary Clinton effectively told Moscow that only the US and NATO could station troops in the former Soviet Union. Ordering Russia to withdraw its troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Secretary of State said: “The United States does not recognise spheres of influence.”


During his aforementioned trip to Houston, Robert Blake told his audience that Turkmenistan may hold the key to one of the five largest reserves of gas on the planet. To emphasise their interests in getting hold of gas from the Caspian Sea, delegations from the European Commission and the US government visited Turkmenistan in January. It is hard to imagine that those delegations had not seen a warning issued late last year from Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, about certain countries wishing to “interfere” in the Caspian region.


The scholar Edward Herman has described NATO as a “US and imperial pitbull”. The pitbull is barking simultaneously in the directions of Russia, China and Iran. It needs to be sedated.

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 6-12 February 2011