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Monday, June 27, 2011

Financial mafia corrodes democracy

The only time I have been in Athens, I squandered an opportunity to visit the Acropolis. My excuse was feeble: a hangover. For years afterwards, I felt guilty about this snub to the fabled birthplace of democracy. Then I realised it was trivial compared to the very real affront to democracy being hurled at present-day Greece.

If the business press is to believed (and it generally is) shadowy outfits with strange names wield more power than George Papandreou, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy combined. Last week the credit rating agency Fitch refused to accept a Franco-German plan that commercial banks should “voluntarily” roll over their loans to Greece. Do that and we will consider Greece to have defaulted on its debts, Fitch announced. One week earlier, Standard and Poor’s downgraded Greece’s rating by three notches, pushing up the cost of insuring Greek debt.

Moody’s, Fitch and S&P control 95% of the credit rating market. It is surely obscene that three private firms headquartered in the US can determine the fate of entire nations.

It is widely known that the trio has done immense harm. Yet – like certain mafia bosses of yore - they seem untouchable. Around this time last year José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, asked: “Is it normal to have only three relevant actors on such a sensitive issue, where there is a great possibility of conflict of interest?”

The situation is worse than Barroso hinted. When the global economic crisis erupted in 2008, there were many questions about how the agencies had given positive ratings to institutions engaged in reckless behaviour. The simple answer is that they were rewarded for deceit. In October that year, leading players in the agencies explained to an oversight committee in the US House of Representatives that banks were paying them to present a favourable picture. Bankers who devised highly risky collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) typically chose the agency with the lowest standards, encouraging a race to the bottom, Raymond McDaniel, a Moody’s executive said.

Frank Raiter, a former head of mortgage ratings at S&P, went further by suggesting that deliberate falsifications occurred and that information that would enable thorough assessments of creditworthiness was deliberately withheld. He recalled asking for loan level tapes - data about each individual loan - in a CDO known as Pinstripe. In response, he got a memo from Richard Gugliada, a managing director with the agency, saying: “Your request for loan level tapes is totally unreasonable. It is your responsibility to provide those credit estimates and your responsibility to devise some method for doing so.”

The rise of the ratings agencies is part of a wider corporate coup, which began in America but has had global ramifications. Although the Big Three were all set up in the early part of the twentieth century, it wasn’t until 1975 that they were given official status by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Thus began a process where an oligopoly was given a vast say in determining how the world’s economy is run.

Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, the French billionaire who runs Fimalac – the parent company of Fitch – has called himself a “child of globalisation”. His fortune has been amassed thanks to the allergy to regulation that remains prevalent in Washington. In May, the SEC commissioner Mary Schapiro proposed that agencies should publish information revealing how they calculate creditworthiness. But her recommendations do nothing to address the conflict of interests that are at the root of the problem. And so banks will continue to pay the agencies and there will still be strong incentives to turn a blind eye to improprieties.

What should be done in Europe? Michel Barnier, the EU’s single market chief, has been signalling that he wants to put manners on the agencies. But the reforms he has introduced have so far been piecemeal. Forming the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) to supervise the agencies has not deterred them from behaving belligerently towards economies in a parlous state. If anything, it might have prompted them to be even more aggressive in order to show that they are not cowed by pesky regulators. Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister who fancies himself as “Mr Euro”, wants Europe to have a credit ratings agency of its own to break the stranglehold of the Big Three.

Tinkering with a system that is inherently rotten won’t make much difference, however. The inspiring street protests against austerity in Greece and Spain show that there is a public appetite for serious reflection on why private interests dictate how the world is run.

Clearly, the ethics of mass indebtedness have to be seriously examined. The next few weeks will see the publication of a book called “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” by the anthropologist David Graeber. He argues that the idea of a mass cancellation of international debt should be entertained. “It would be salutary not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality, that all these things are human arrangements and if democracy is to mean anything it is the ability to agree to do things in a different way.”

Restraining the rating agencies is a first and necessary step. The bigger challenge is for the public to reclaim our economies from a mafia.

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 26 June – 2 July 2011

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Israel's future weapons unveiled in Paris

For the past few years, Ehud Barak has generally visited arms fairs in Paris during June to help drum up business for Israel’s weapons-makers. The exception was 2010, when the international outcry over the attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla prompted the defence minister to cancel his trip.

Barak’s annual routine has now been restored. He was in France once again this week to cut the opening ribbon for the Israeli pavilion at this year’s Paris Air Show. His trip follows the announcement that Israel’s weapons exports were worth $7.2 billion in 2010, a growth of $300 million over the previous year.

Predictably, hacks working for the business and “defence” press were happy to regurgitate the promotional material pumped out by Israeli exhibitors in Paris.

Rafael, a Haifa-based firm, must be especially pleased with the attention devoted to it. In a fawning feature published by Aviation International News, Rafael signalled it is adapting well to these times of austerity. Ilan Biran, the Rafael chairman, said he is running a “boutique” firm, which is hoping to benefit from the increased willingness of countries to share military technology, rather than to rely on domestic suppliers, in order to lower their defence spending.

Like the state of Israel itself, Biran has been able to depict his firm as both tiny and terrifying. The “boutique” Rafael has teamed up with the American behemoth Raytheon to develop David’s Sling. This “air defence missile system” – likely to replace Hawk missiles already in Israel’s arsenal – is making its debut in Paris. Rafael is also being lauded as the innovator of the Iron Dome system. Reportedly capable of intercepting rockets such as those fired by Hamas into southern Israel, Iron Dome has become a useful tool in Israel’s never-ending propaganda war.

Another big draw in Paris is the new medium-weight laser-guided bomb (MLGB) from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Though only 253 pounds in weight, these sound obese compared to the 22 pound nano-satellites that IAI is working on.

It is surely obscene that the display of weapons that may well be used to kill Palestinians and attack other countries in the future elicits no criticism in the press. How can journalists specialising in “defence” really know so little about the realities of war that they faithfully regurgitate the canard that Israel’s weapons are designed to minimise “collateral damage”? When was avoiding harm to civilians ever on Israel’s agenda?

·First published by Mondoweiss (www.mondoweiss.net), 23 June 2011

Monday, June 20, 2011

Secret ploy to starve India of medicines

Just when I hoped never to hear the name Peter Mandelson again, the Prince of Darkness emerged into the Swiss sunlight. A video on the internet shows this architect of New Labour trying to conceal his unease with a grin when confronted by protesters at the annual meeting of the ultra-elitist Bilderberg Group in St Moritz earlier this month.

Mandelson now runs the consultancy firm Global Counsel. As his job involves helping corporations penetrate the markets of developing countries, it is something of a continuation of his stint as Europe’s trade commissioner. His penchant for accepting trips on billionaires’ yachts brought the occasional controversy to his four years in Brussels (2004-08). Yet it was some of his more mundane activities that were truly scandalous, particularly his efforts to increase the bills that the world’s poor pay for healthcare.

In July 2007, Mandelson wrote to the Thai government, urging it to abandon plans for keeping the price of medicines affordable. He was irked by indications that the Bangkok authorities would overrule patents in cases where branded medicines were more than 5% dearer than the price of generic versions of the same products. His letter had menacing undertones – warning Thailand it could face “isolation” from certain types of foreign investment if it pushed ahead with its “new approach to access to medicines” (Mandelson’s words).

I was reminded of Mandelson’s less-than-subtle threat over the past fortnight when I received a new batch of correspondence between pharmaceutical lobbyists and the European Commission. These documents – dating from 2007 to 2010 - indicate that major drug companies are determined to prevent developing countries from saving lives among the disadvantaged, whenever profit is at stake.

Indeed, there is little difference between the substance of Mandelson’s letter to Thailand and an email message relating to India that the European Federation for Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) sent to various Brussels officials in September 2010. That message concerned a discussion paper from India’s department of industrial policy, which raised the possibility that compulsory licenses (CLs) could be issued to ensure that larger quantities of branded medicines are made available in generic form. According to EFPIA’s trade specialist Louis-Nicolas Fortin, the paper “includes considerations that raise key concerns for our industry”. Among them were the possibility of “broadening CL grounds beyond public health emergencies.”

I read the Indian paper meticulously and found that it had a strong relationship with common sense. It began with a history lesson about how compulsory licensing allows a government to authorise the production of a patented item without the consent of the patent-holder. During the world wars, that system was used to share aviation technology and for manufacturing penicillin. A few pages later, it cited estimates that 700,000 people in India are diagnosed with cancer each year and that most of them are unable to pay “for expensive anti-cancer medicines”. Moreover, it said that India has the highest number of HIV cases in South Asia but only 300,000 out of 2.5 million Indians infected with the virus are being treated.

The only humane response to all this pointless suffering is to get medicines to the people who need them. If that means violating patents, then so be it. How dare the suits in EFPIA’s Brussels office imply that the high levels of cancer and AIDS in India may not constitute an emergency.

After I finished reading that Indian paper, I turned to one drafted by EFPIA itself in September last year and marked “confidential”. The latter document outlined a number of “priority issues” for European pharmaceutical firms trading with India. Not one word of concern was expressed about the dismally low levels of medical treatment in the country.

Another email by the diligent Louis-Nicolas Fortin underscored that the “overall, top-most priority for our industry is to ensure commitments to introduce effective and significant regulatory data protection” in India. Regulatory data protection – also known as data exclusivity – is a means of forbidding makers of generic drugs from using information that the “originator” of a medicine hands over to the authorities when registering that product.

In a recent interview with medical journal The Lancet, India’s trade minister Anand Sharma stated there is “no question” of accepting data exclusivity in the free trade agreement he expects to sign with the EU later this year. To allay Indian fears, Karel de Gucht, the Union’s current trade commissioner, claimed in May that “we’re not asking for data exclusivity, we’re just not”. It is difficult to take his assurance seriously as some versions of a proposed trade agreement drawn up by Brussels officials were definitely aimed at restraining India’s generics industry – a leading supplier of low-priced medicines to Asia and Africa.

The batch of correspondence illustrates that EFPIA’s bludgeoning is by no means confined to India. In 2009, it reacted with horror to the idea that a data exclusivity provision which the EU wanted to insert into a trade agreement with Colombia and Peru would allow some flexibilities for public health reasons. According to the lobby group that “would set a precedent of a much weaker standard” of intellectual property than the one it coveted.

Back in 2003, a study carried out for the European Parliament named EFPIA as one of the most effective corporate interest organisations in Brussels. No doubt, it was proud with that recognition. But it’s disgraceful that its success depends on restricting medical treatment to the rich.

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 19-25 June 2011

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

London turns into Israel's lab

Is the British press finally waking up to how Israel’s surveillance industry is using London as a laboratory?

The current issue of muckraking journal Private Eye reports that Heathrow Airport will have shiny new equipment for screening passengers installed with the help of several Israeli firms as part of preparations for next year’s Olympic Games. The sporting event affords an opportunity to run a “live test” on the Total Airport Security System (TASS), a 14.5 million euro ($21 million) project mainly financed by the European Union.

As it happens, details of the project were announced almost exactly a year ago. In a June 2010 statement, the consortium behind TASS bragged that it had won formal EU authorisation for the scheme, which uses “real-time sensors” and various other tools to monitor aircraft, people, cargo, and restaurant areas in an airport separately and then blend all the resulting data in a “multisource labyrinth”.

The project is being coordinated by Verint, an Israeli supplier of surveillance equipment (or “actionable intelligence solutions”, according to its own bumph). Another participant in the consortium is Elbit, which made many of the pilotless drones that Israel used to devastate Gaza during 2008 and 2009. Elbit also helped install an electronic spying system into the annexation wall that Israel is building in the West Bank (illegally, according to a 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice).

This is by no means the first indication that Israel’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to security has caught on in London. Metropolitan cops who killed an innocent Brazilian man Jean-Charles de Menezes in 2005 had received specialist training in Israel. One year earlier, the aforementioned Verint won a contract to provide a video system to keep a watchful eye on users of the London Underground. Verint has also been tasked with putting a new closed circuit TV network into Earl’s Court – a world-famous venue for exhibitions and events – ahead of the Olympics.

The Palestinian organisation Stop the Wall, meanwhile, has complained this week about how EU officials appear determined to keep on subsidising Israel’s war industry.

The Union’s executive arm, the European Commission, has recently invited comments on the future of its science policy, as part of a “public consultation exercise” about what priorities it should follow after 2014, when its current multi-annual programme for research expires. Israel is the most active non-European participant in that programme. And while the Commission received numerous pleas to declare Israeli firms such as Verint and Elbit ineligible for further grants, it has omitted any reference to them in the 24-page summary that it compiled of public responses.

Jamal Juma’a, coordinator with Stop the Wall, described the omission as “deeply disappointing” . He said: “By providing research funding to companies involved in constructing and maintaining Israel’s apartheid wall, the EU is undermining its own stated commitment to international law and a just peace between Israel and the Palestinian people.”

Informed citizens in the US have long been aware that Israel’s military machine is oiled with dollars. It is clear now that the same machine is oiled with euros, too, and that the Brussels bureaucracy is refusing to even acknowledge that this state of affairs is legally and ethically problematic, to say the very least.

·First published by Mondoweiss (www.mondoweiss.net), 14 June 2011

Monday, June 13, 2011

How Europe bankrolls Israel's jails

In these times of austerity, the idea that politicians should go on a long holiday is not something I am inclined to advocate. Yet I will make an exception for Catherine Ashton. The EU’s foreign policy chief urgently needs to take time off from dashing around the world and to study the background to some of the conflicts she is reportedly trying to resolve.

Even though Ashton has made numerous trips to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, she continues to display a spectacular level of ignorance about the political situation there. Like her mentor Tony Blair, she has swallowed the canard that resistance to the occupation amounts to terrorism. Take how she uses almost every available opportunity to call for the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006. “I want to see the people of Gaza with a future and I also want to see Gilad Shalit, captive for years in Gaza, given the chance to go home to his mother and father,” she said last month.

Here are a few facts for Ashton to consider. Shalit is a staff sergeant in an army representing a rogue state that violates international law with impunity. Of course, he should be treated humanely and releasing him would be the decent thing to do, especially given that he has been away from his parents for so long. But the fact remains that he is a military officer trained to kill, maim and oppress, not – as Ashton implies – an innocent victim.

Shalit is the first Israeli soldier to be captured by a Palestinian armed group since 1994. By contrast, 700,000 Palestinians have been detained under Israeli military orders in the occupied territories since 1967. That amounts to one-fifth of the total Palestinian population in those territories. By placing so much emphasis on one Israeli, Ashton is turning a blind eye to the infinitely worse suffering that Palestinians have to endure. She does not even acknowledge – as far as I can tell – that Israel’s response to Shalit’s capture was disproportionate, to use a word that rolls regularly from the tongues of EU representatives. At the moment, there are some 900 prisoners from Gaza in Israeli custody. Following Shalit’s capture, Israel has denied those prisoners visits from their families, thereby breaching its international obligations (the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 says: “Every internee shall be allowed to receive visitors, especially near relatives, at regular intervals and as frequently as possible.”)

If Ashton reads only one book this summer, then I would recommend “Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel”, a new collection of essays edited by Abeer Baker and Anat Matar. She should take her time digesting all the valuable information in it, then ask herself why Shalit is more worthy of her concern than this Palestinian portrayed by the Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard: “Hamed hasn’t seen his mother for four years. He hasn’t seen his brothers and sisters ever since his arrest, 24 years ago. He has brothers who were born after his arrest, whom he has never met. But most troubling for Hamed, so he told me when last I met him, is his concern that he will never again see his 75-year-old mother, who is ill.”

Or maybe Ashton could ask her aides to investigate the case of Noura Mohamed Shokry El Hashlamon. In 2007, Hashlamon undertook a hunger strike to protest at her detention without trial. Throughout her 27-day strike, she was held in solitary confinement “in a 2 metre square cell, with sewage leaking from the plumbing, glass fragments on the floor and a 1 metre by 0.5 metre barred window without any glass to protect the cell from the cold weather,” according to Addameer, a prisoner support organisation.

Or maybe Ashton could phone Javier Solana, her predecessor as EU foreign policy chief, and ask him why he wasn’t more critical of Ariel Sharon. Among the litany of cruelties attributed to Sharon in his intertwined military and political career was that he approved the introduction of a more harsh prison regime. Sharon was prime minister in 2003, when Yaakov Ganot was appointed head of the Israel Prison Service. Labelled a “blatant racist” by Palestinian prisoner Walid Daka, Ganot order the use of tear gas and batons on detainees. He also had dogs set on Muslim prisoners, knowing full well that doing so would be considered a grave insult to their religion.

Most importantly, Ashton should be incensed by Daka’s well-researched conclusion that the EU is subsidising Israel’s detention practices. Each Palestinian prisoner receives a payment of 500 shekels (100 euros) per month, as well as a pension varying from 1,500 to 6,000 shekels (depending on such factors as number of years served). Although these prisoners are held within Israel, the bill for their expenses is paid by the Palestinian Authority (PA). To meet these bills, the PA receives special grants from the EU to be spent on prisoners. Part of this money goes to Israeli companies that provide food and cleaning supplies to the jails.

This means that the European taxpayer is unwittingly bankrolling the mass incarceration of Palestinians. As these subsidies are providing prisoners with a modicum of dignity, I’m not arguing they should be stopped. Rather, Ashton should be pressing for sanctions to be imposed on Israel for defying international law. If she does that, then she can take as long a holiday as she wants.

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 12-18 June 2011.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Silence over EU science grants to Israel's war machine

Top European Union officials seem to be in denial about how they are subsidising Israel’s war industry in the name of innovation.

Although it probably won’t send pulses racing in many newsrooms, a vitally important debate is taking place at the moment about the future of Europe’s policy on scientific research. The debate directly concerns Israel because it is the most active non-European participant in the Union’s multi-annual programme for research. Manufacturers of the weapons used to blitz Gaza during Operation Cast Lead have proven especially adept at accessing funds from the programme, which has been allocated 53 billion euros ($37 billion) between 2007 and 2013.

The ethical and legal questions behind handing over taxpayers’ money to Israeli arms companies are being avoided by the Brussels elite. On Friday (10 June), Europe’s science commissioner Máire Geoghegan Quinn will host a conference to discuss what the priorities of the successor programme – beginning in 2014 – should be. If the agenda for the event is anything to go by, the discussion will be dominated by big picture themes like “strengthening competitiveness” and “tackling societal challenges”. Israel is barely mentioned in preparatory documents – or at least in those that have been made public.

The EU’s cowardice towards Israel is in stark contrast to the stance taken by Norway. In 2009, the Oslo government decided that a state-owned pension scheme should withdraw its investment in Elbit because that Israeli company had supplied an electronic surveillance system to the annexation wall in the West Bank. Yet despite how the wall was declared unlawful by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2004, Elbit has been deemed eligible to take part in at least four EU-funded science projects for the 2007-13 period.

Both Elbit and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) made the pilotless drones or unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) used to bomb Gaza’s civilians in 2008 and 2009. IAI has similarly contributed components to surveillance equipment fitted into the West Bank wall. And IAI is doing nicely, too, out of the EU, taking part in no fewer than 15 of its research projects.

I have quizzed Geoghegan Quinn and her aides about Israel on several occasions. The pat response I have always got is that all of the schemes being financed are of a civilian nature, so there’s nothing to worry about. That is hogwash. There are no safeguards in place to stop the Israeli companies from applying the fruits of this research to developing more sophisticated warplanes than they have in their present arsenal. And you don’t need to be a bearded boffin to see how the results of these projects could be adapted for military purposes. A 70 million euro project named Maaximus – involving IAI and bankrolled by Europe - aims to create lighter and more affordable aircraft. Could it be helping develop the slimmed-down warplanes of the future?

It is a measure of how reliant academics have become on corporate and even military funding that they can defend this grotesque situation. Konstantin Novoselov, 2010 winner of Nobel Prize for Physics, was in Brussels during May to give his input to the debate on Europe’s science policy. The Russian-British scientist told me he was “sick” of people complaining about Israel and argued that the EU gains more from Israel’s participation in its research activities than Israel does itself. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that his views echo those of many Brussels officials, who claim that because Israel invests heavily in technology, the EU needs to court Israel if the Union’s domestic technology sector is to ever flourish.

Fortunately, there are other academics more willing to speak out. The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) has filed a complaint with the European Commission recently. “The EU continues to fund Israeli research in full knowledge of its exploitation by the state of Israel in the oppression of the Palestinian people,” BRICUP wrote. In total, the Israelis expect they will have pocketed more than 500 million euros from the current research programme once it concludes at the end of 2013.

The aforementioned ICJ verdict stipulated that every country is under an obligation not to “render aid or assistance” that would help sustain the illegal situation created by the West Bank wall. Surely, the granting of EU subsidies to companies that helped build that wall constitutes such “aid or assistance”. Why are Europe’s representatives so nonchalant about their support for crimes against humanity?

·First published by Mondoweiss (www.mondoweiss.net), 8 June 2011

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Canada talks dirty on trade

Whenever I hear the name Canada, I go all mushy. Chipmunks capering in suburban gardens; waitresses that sing the word “awesome” every time someone asks for a beer; summer afternoons beside majestic lakes. Could this be the world’s cutest country?

There is one anomaly: a repugnant government. Stephen Harper, its prime minister, has arguably posed a bigger threat to the survival of the human species than his buddy, George W Bush. Though little known over here, Harper should be regarded as an enemy of the European people.

Tar sands buried in Alberta comprise the largest reserves of crude oil outside of Saudi Arabia. Because scientists are almost unanimous in linking fossil fuels to climate change, the only responsible course of action is to leave them in the ground. Much to the delight of Shell and BP, the Harper government is adamant that they should be extracted and exported.

In February, the Canadian trade minister Peter Van Loan said that the issue of selling tar sands to Europe is being treated separately from talks aimed at reaching a free trade agreement with the EU. His statement was misleading. Reuters subsequently published details of a letter that the Canadian embassy sent to the European Commission in March, which warned that Ottawa may take retaliatory action if the EU was to introduce strict rules on the environmental effects of tar sands. The letter argued that “singling out” tar sands by subjecting them to tougher standards than conventional oil would amount to “unjustified discrimination” and implied that this would have repercussions for the trade negotiations.

Over the past few days, a Canadian newspaper The Dominion has revealed details of a major offensive undertaken by Harper and his minions in Europe. A “pan-European oil sands advocacy strategy” was launched in December 2009, under which politicians worked with energy giants to address the “reputational risk” for Canada caused by tar sands. The strategy focused on the EU’s fuel quality legislation, with Canadian diplomats in Brussels coordinating a lobbying campaign to convince MEPs and the Union’s officials to lay off tar sands.

The strategy has clearly had an impact. In a 2009 paper, the European Commission cited estimates that petrol derived from tar sands were 20% more damaging to the climate than conventional petrol. Yet when the Commission recommended “implementing measures” for a fuel quality directive in February last year, it left out any reference on the need for a separate standard for tar sands.

MEPs gathering in Strasbourg this week are scheduled to debate what effect the tar sands debate is having on the aforementioned trade talks. I hope that they will denounce Harper’s attempts to prolong and worsen our oil addiction but I wouldn’t bet on them doing so.

The idea of a free trade agreement with the EU was not hatched by Harper, it appears. A US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks indicates that Jean Chrétien was eager to kickstart the process of attaining a deal with Europe before he stepped down as Canada’s premier in 2003. Yet Harper – seldom missing a chance to court corporate power - has shown particular brio in encouraging the talks with Europe, which eventually got underway in 2009.

The objective is no bog-standard deal, apparently, but a “comprehensive economic and trade agreement” (CETA). Full-on liberalisation and privatisation will be positively encouraged in what Stuart Trew from the Council of Canadians, a social justice group, calls this “freakish economic experiment”.

One draft of a potential agreement recommends setting up a trade in goods arrangement where countries could not show a preference for less polluting versions of the same product. If enforced, this would prevent Europe from restricting imports of tar sands.

Another proposal under discussion is that the agreement would be based around the concept of “negative lists”. This would mean that if a government or regional authority in either Europe or Canada did not explicitly exclude a sector of economic activity or a particular service from the agreement, it would automatically be included. This could pave the way for opening up vital services like healthcare to competition among companies, who would only be inclined to treat patients if doing so was deemed commercially advantageous.

The European Services Forum, an influential outfit banding together Veolia, Goldman Sachs and Vodafone, is advocating that CETA should be modelled on the North America Free Trade Agreement, concluded between the US, Canada and Mexico in 1994. The forum particularly wants chapter 11 of NAFTA pasted into an EU-Canada accord. That chapter allows private firms to sue governments over laws or measures regarded as obstacles to profit-making.

NAFTA has undermined the concept that water is a public resource. In 2008, AbitibiBowater, a Canadian company registered in the US, closed a paper mill it operated in Newfoundland. When the province sought to re-appropriate water use permits allocated to the company, AbitibiBowater invoked NAFTA to argue it owned the licenses (even though they were conditional on production). Effectively enabling water to be privatised, the federal government decided to settle the company’s 130 million Canadian dollar (93 million euros) claim.

If comparable provisions make their way into CETA, we could easily see North American behemoths waging war against authorities in Europe which, say, oppose genetically modified crops. Providing executives with all that ammunition is an assault on democracy, yet CETA has elicited little comment on this continent. Unless it’s stopped, we could be sleepwalking towards disaster.

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 5-11 June 2011