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Monday, October 31, 2011

Torture tools for sale at EU-supported exhibition

I have just learned a new euphemism. Weapons used by police against political demonstrations are now being called “interior protection technology” by some of their traders and manufacturers.

The latest innovations in this technology were displayed at the Milipol exhibition in Paris last month. The fair garnered some coverage in the business press; French paper Les Echos cited estimates that the global “security” market was worth 420 billion euros in 2010, a rise of 5.5% over the previous year. It is scandalous in itself that this blood-stained trade is growing at a time when health and education expenditure are being slashed in many countries. What’s even more scandalous is that the media failed to notice how some of the instruments on display have only one practical application: torture.

On Stand 3J019, the Chinese company Jiangsu Anhua was trying to drum up interest in its catalogue of “police equipment”. This included leg fetters - metal rings that are screwed together and used to shackle a prisoner. The firm appears to have no qualms about selling these items, even though rules approved by the 47-country Council of Europe stipulate that no prisoner should be restrained with irons or chains.

Another Chinese firm Mily Link International was assigned Stand 3G024. Both it and Jiangsu Anhua offered spiked batons, thumb cuffs and combination hand and leg cuffs. Chilling images of the “inquest” chairs they sell can be found on the internet. This metal contraption looks like the most uncomfortable seat ever made; it is impossible to see how it could have any benign purpose.

On Stand 1H135, Israel’s TAR Ideal Concepts was giving customers the possibility to buy its electroshock shield. It found a refuge in Paris that had been previously denied to it in London. In 2005, the firm was kicked out of the UK’s Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition because its brochures solicited orders for stun guns, batons and leg cuffs. TAR founder Tomer Avnon complained at the time that it was hypocritical to single out his firm. “Don't forget we were among booths offering everything from sniper rifles to silencers, cluster bombs and all sorts of nasty stuff,” he told The Jerusalem Post.

Nasty stuff

In the unlikely event that some of the Milipol guests in Paris had decided to respect Palestinian calls to boycott Israeli goods, they could instead enquire about buying electroshock shields from Korea’s Dae-Sung Tech at Stand 1D 136. That firm brought some samples of this “nasty stuff” along with it.

As the European Union is nominally opposed to torture wherever it occurs, surely this equipment should be banned. Yet while a law regulating the trade in instruments designed for torture or the death penalty came into effect in 2006, it contains wide loopholes. The equipment I have mentioned, particularly the spiked batons, should be added to the list of items covered by this law without further delay, in order to prohibit their exportation and importation.

Although the law is an important advance for human rights as it is the first of its kind in the world, it does not stop companies from outside the Union travelling here to advertise tools of torture. The loopholes also allowed Britain to export a batch of the drug sodium thiopental to the US last year, knowing full well that it would be used to execute Jeffrey Landrigan in Arizona. By authorising those exports, the UK government became an accomplice to a state-sponsored murder.

This is a classic case of the EU having exemplary policies on paper but not taking proper steps to enforce or strengthen them. One explanation for this reluctance is that the Union is formally committed to nurturing the industry devoted to “interior protection” (also known by the deceptively anodyne term “homeland security”).

Vast market

Following the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, the EU’s then commissioner for scientific research Philippe Busquin assembled a “group of personalities” from the arms trade. The fruit of the group’s extensive chin-rubbing was a 2004 report called “Research for a Secure Europe”. It stated that there is a “vast” market for “security products” and recommended that 1 billion euros should be allocated to “security research” each year from 2007 onwards.

Realpolitik meant that the group’s wish wasn’t entirely fulfilled. Rather than grabbing 1 billion euros per annum, it had to make do with 1.4 billion euros stretched out between 2007 and 2013. Yet the introduction of a “security” theme to the Union’s research programme was highly significant. Israeli arms companies have proven especially adept at drawing down funds from this pot of gold (Israel takes part on an equal basis in the programme alongside EU member states). Those firms include Motorola Israel, which has installed the kind of surveillance equipment being financed by the EU’s programme in illegal settlements in the West Bank. Last week, the European Commission claimed (unconvincingly) it had no information about Motorola’s activities in the settlements.

The manufacture and marketing of torture instruments cannot be viewed separately from the broader arms trade. All companies involved in that trade rely on violence and repression to prosper.

It is noteworthy that Europol, the Union’s police office, was an official partner and an exhibitor at the Milipol fair. Europol is legally bound to respect the Union’s human rights policy. Perhaps there should be an investigation, therefore, into why it was giving a veneer of respectability to a bazaar for the torture trade.

●First published by New Europe, 31 October 2011.

Friday, October 28, 2011

UK shadow foreign minister in pocket of Israel lobby

Britain’s Labor Party has been trying to rebrand itself lately after a 13-year spell in government. During an annual conference last month, the most memorable remark by its leader Ed Miliband was “I am not Tony Blair.”

This commitment to change does not appear to have affected Labor’s stance on the Middle East. John Spellar, a shadow Foreign Office minister, has an especially close relationship with London’s pro-Israel lobby.

An inspection of Spellar’s declaration of interests shows that he travelled to the Herzliya security conference, one of the key events on the Israeli political calendar, in February. His airfare and accommodation (estimated total: £1,970 or $3,170) was paid for by David Menton, a director of the Britain Israel Research Center (BICOM). In its own words, that lobby outfit is “dedicated to creating a more supportive environment for Israel in Britain.”

Thanks to a source who shall remain nameless, I also learned that Spellar’s researcher Linda Smith is a partner of BICOM staff member Luke Akehurst (a former spindoctor for the arms industry). Smith and Akehurst both serve as Labor members of Hackney Council, a local authority in London.

I emailed Smith earlier today, asking if her views on the Middle East differ from those of Akehurst but did not receive a reply. Spellar has also not responded to a request for comment.

Lobby at center of resignation scandal

This information about Spellar’s connection to BICOM appears all the more significant given the organization’s role in a controversy leading to the recent resignation of Liam Fox as Britain’s defense secretary. Fox, who belongs to the Conservative Party, was severely embarrassed over revelations that his close friend Adam Werritty was posing as his official adviser during foreign travels, when Werritty had been given no such job by the British government. The Guardian newspaper revealed that Werritty’s jet-set lifestyle was being bankrolled by three prosperous Zionists. They included Poju Zabludowicz, BICOM’s chairman. When Werritty attended the 2009 Herzilya conference, his expenses were covered by BICOM.

David Menton, the man who picked up the tab for Spellar’s trip to Israel earlier this year, is a business associate of Zabludowicz, a billionaire who owns a sizeable chunk of Las Vegas. Menton is a founder of Synova Capital, a private equity fund. According to Synova’s website, the fund’s “cornerstone investor” is the Tamares Group, which is led by Zabludowicz.

I was intrigued to read an article by Spellar, in which he bragged of Labor’s affinity with the poor. It is difficult to square that posture with his willingness to go on junkets funded by a wealthy supporter of Israel, a state that denies an entire people their most elementary rights.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 28 October 2011.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

EU in denial about aid for Motorola Israel

I know nothing” is a catchphrase associated with the TV sitcom Fawlty Towers. Less amusingly, it also sums up the line of defence from European Union officials when quizzed about how they are facilitating Israel’s crimes against humanity.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the EU’s scientific commissioner, this week attempted to give an assurance that the technology firm Motorola Israel’s participation in research activities financed by the Union did not pose any legal or ethical problems. She stated that her aides do not have “any information about any radar systems Motorola Israel might or might not have installed in the West Bank.”

Her statement -- made in response to a query from a British member of the European Parliament (MEP) -- smacks of either dishonesty or incompetence. If the officials who drafted her reply had done a little searching beforehand, they would have learned that the European Commission has been recently appraised of Motorola’s work in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In May, the Palestinian organization Stop the Wall sent a detailed paper to Geoghegan-Quinn outlining how a number of Israeli beneficiaries of EU science grants are abetting human rights abuses. Point (d) on that paper was devoted entirely to Motorola Israel. It said: “Motorola has created at least four surveillance systems used in at least 20 illegal Jewish-only settlements and military camps throughout the occupied West Bank.”

Treating Palestinians as “intruders”

Motorola Israel is taking part in two EU-funded research projects, with a combined value of over €9 million, at the moment. One of them, named iDetect 4All, relates to the development of equipment designed to raise the alarm when an “intruder” approaches a building or resource considered economically important.

The technology involved in this project appears to bear many similarities to the “virtual fence” that Motorola has installed around a network of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. A 2006 report in The Jerusalem Post noted that this radar system uses thermal cameras to identify “intruders” to the settlements. Reading between the lines, that means Motorola is helping to keep Palestinians away from illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

According to Geoghegan-Quinn, “checks” have taken place to ascertain that Motorola Israel is based within the state of Israel. These found that it was eligible to benefit from EU science grants.

Yet the checks cannot have been too profound. The “association agreement” covering EU-Israel relations explicitly says that both sides must respect human rights. If Motorola Israel is – as can be proven – enabling human rights abuses, then it should be kicked out of the research programme immediately.

Call for action

Motorola Israel is one of numerous Israeli firms taking part in the EU’s research programme, which has a total budget of €53 billion for the 2007 to 2013 period. Last week, several groups representing Palestinian academics and students protested at how many of the activities under this programme connect European universities with Israeli arms manufacturers and others who profit from the occupation of Palestine. A call for action signed by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) urged third-level students and teachers in Europe to devise a strategy for ending cooperation between their colleges and Israel.

Palestine solidarity activists based in King’s College London have already begun a campaign against an EU nanotechnology project linking their university with Ahava, a firm producing cosmetics in the illegal settlement of Mitzpe Shalem. The campaign has drawn support from the renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky and the poet Remi Kanazi.

Details of EU-funded science projects can be found on a database called Cordis. If you work or study in a university, enter the name of your college into its search engine, along with the word “Israel.” There is every likelihood that the resulting information can be used to challenge your university’s authorities about their links with Israel. Don’t be shy in kicking up a fuss on campus. Institutions that cooperate with Israeli apartheid must be confronted.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 27 October 2011.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Belgium "bans" Free Palestine T-shirts, ignores torture of its citizen

I had a surreal experience on Sunday.

For the second consecutive week, a group of us entered a Brussels food exhibition to protest at a stand promoting SodaStream, the manufacturer of soft drink machines based in Mishor Adumim, an Israeli-controlled industrial zone in the occupied West Bank. As soon as we began distributing flyers alerting the public to the company’s crimes, the police arrived. They surrounded us for a while, before escorting us outdoors (throughout this time, we chanted “Boycott Israel” slogans).

A police officer then explained that we needed a permit from the local mayor’s office to wear T-shirts saying “Free Palestine”. (I swear that I’m not making this up). One young woman pointed to a slightly different T-shirt she was wearing that read “I ♥ Palestine.” According to the officer, that garment was permissible as it was considered apolitical. Yet if several people want to wear “Free Palestine” T-shirts at the one time, they need special authorization, the officer maintained.

After this bemusing encounter, the protest organizer Nadia led us to a nearby tram stop, where we handed out our remaining flyers. It was there that I had a conversation with an activist named Farida, who told me about the grotesque human rights abuses inflicted on her brother Ali.

Extradited to Morroco

Ali Aarrass, a Belgian-Moroccan national, was extradited from Spain to Morocco in December last year, after having been held in custody since 2008. He was arrested in Melilla, a Spanish-controlled enclave on Morocco’s north coast in April 2008.

The Spanish authorities refused to heed a call from the UN Human Rights Committee in November 2010 that the extradition not take place until that committee had completed its examination of the case. Amnesty International has complained that the extradition breached the European Convention on Human Rights, which forbids the return of anyone from a country to which he or she is at risk of torture.

I called Farida this morning and she told me that Ali was repeatedly tortured when he was sent to Morocco. The methods used against him included hanging him up by his hands and feet. “My brother was very deeply shocked,” Farida said, adding that when one lawyer went to see him he reflexively covered his face with his hands, fearing that his visitor would beat him. “It was really horrible.”

Aarrass is scheduled to appear in court this Thursday. He is accused of belonging to a network, directed by Abdelkader Belliraj, another Belgian-Moroccan national who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009 after being convicted of planning terrorist acts. The case against Aaarass was considered by the Spanish national criminal court. But in March 2009, Baltazar Garzon, provisionally closed investigations because of a lack of evidence.

No help from Belgium

Even though Aarrass has spent most of his life in Belgium and served in its army, this country’s authorities have refused to help him. Farida contacted the Belgian foreign ministry when Ali was held in Spain. “Their excuses were ridiculous,” she said. “They said ‘we cannot interfere in Spanish justice’. I said, ‘I’m not asking you to interfere but to visit him and see if he is in good health.’” (Aarrass has undertaken a number of hunger strikes).

Aarrass has a six year old child, who he has not seen in four years. His mother, who also lives in Belgium, can only visit him rarely. Efforts by his family to have him receive medical attention from independent doctors have been thwarted by the Moroccan authorities.

I was impressed by Farida’s commitment to human rights. As well as raising awareness about her brother’s plight, she also takes part in actions supporting the Palestinians and other victims of human rights violations.

She is encouraging people of conscience to send Ali a note of solidarity. His address: Ali Aarrass, Prison de Salé II, Salé, Morocco.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 25 October 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

Health apartheid entrenched by EU's austerity agenda

Almost two decades have passed since I was first accused of scaremongering. With more energy than knowledge, I organised a lonely campaign against the EU’s Maastricht treaty in the part of Dublin where I grew up. Urging a “no” vote in a 1992 referendum, I stopped people in the streets to warn that the rigorous economic rules contained in that treaty would lead to severe cuts in social spending. It is probably superfluous to add that I was on the losing side.

Having lived in Brussels for 16 of the intervening years, I can claim a reasonable understanding of the Union’s politics. Now aged 40, I have less respect for the Union’s institutions than when I first tried to learn how they work. As I have always disliked the “Euro-sceptic” tag and its xenophobic connotations, it is a relief to have finally found a label that sums up my views. So it is with great pride, I declare myself an “indignado”.

Indignation seems to be the only proper response to a letter that appeared in The Lancet, a medical journal, earlier this month. Written by several academics specialising in health issues, it lamented how the economic crisis has led to a 40% reduction in the budgets for Greek hospitals. “Overall, the picture of health in Greece is concerning,” the academics stated. “It reminds us that, in an effort to finance debts, ordinary people are paying the ultimate price: losing access to care and preventive services, facing higher risks of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, and in the worst cases losing their lives.”

Indignation also seems to be the only proper response to the pharmaceutical corporation Roche, which has announced it will stop delivering cancer medicines to hospitals in Greece and warned that it will take similar action against Spanish hospitals. These measures are being introduced or threatened to punish hospitals that cannot pay their bills. Terminally ill patients are being deprived of treatment because of a crisis they did not cause.

Merkel’s sadistic stance

And indignation seems to be the only proper response to Angela Merkel, who praised as “remarkable” an austerity programme introduced in Portugal earlier this year. Healthcare was one of the main targets in that programme, yet Merkel still demanded that more pain be inflicted on the Portuguese public (literally). José Manuel Barroso, who was prime minister of Portugal before taking up his plum post with the European Commission, argued that drastic cutbacks were “indispensable for confidence in the European economy”.

Last month, the same Barroso claimed that a “silent revolution” had been undertaken. He was referring to how a spineless European Parliament rushed through its approval of half-a-dozen sets of new economic rules (dubbed the “six pack” regulation). These rules give the Brussels authorities greater power to scrutinise the budgets of national governments belonging to the EU and to penalise those who spend more on public services (including health) than the Union’s “Stability and Growth Pact” allows. Rather than constituting a revolution, the Parliament’s decision can more accurately be called a coup, as the writer and activist Susan George has suggested.

Barroso is no revolutionary, unless you count his youthful dalliance with Maoism. He is a reactionary, implementing a system of apartheid. Determining access to healthcare based on wealth is just as immoral as determining access based on skin colour.

Indeed, the experience of South Africa is instructive. Because American and European governments pressurised the African National Congress to dispense neo-liberal prescriptions in the early 1990s, racial inequalities have persisted there. In 1993, the richest 23% of South Africans had access to 61% of total health spending.

Discrimination against the disadvantaged

A form of health apartheid risks being entrenched in Greece. Even though Greeks work longer hours than Germans, the average income in Greece is now lower than it was when the country entered the EU in 1980. Out of a population of 11 million, nearly 1 million are unemployed. Greek governments were certainly guilty of profligacy in certain areas, most notably on military expenditure, which is rightly being decreased. Yet both the Athens and the EU elite are discriminating against the disadvantaged and cosseting those who are already comfortable. The richest 20% of Greeks pay the least income tax. By contrast, one-third of Greek citizens were in danger of poverty even before the crisis started to bite; rises in value-added tax mean they are the ones footing higher bills.

The denial of essential medicines to Greek hospitals appears all the more cruel when you realise that 70% of Greece’s 300 billion euros debt is held by French and German banks.

An audit published last month by the University of Limerick estimated that Ireland’s debt stood at 371 billion euros at the end of March. Of that sum, 279 billion euros related to the covering of bank debt. The Limerick team concluded it was reasonable to assume that a large part of the almost 92 billion euros remaining (identified as “direct government debt”) could be attributed to the banking crisis.

Imagine this situation. You live in the same town as a multi-millionaire, whose playboy lifestyle lands him in trouble. Using some opaque formula, the local court decides that he is not liable for his debts. Instead, it decides you will help repay them by not having an operation your doctor regards as necessary to keep you alive. That would not be fair, would it?

So why should Greek cancer patients die to save German banks?

●First published by New Europe, 24 October 2011.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Police aggression at Brussels protest against Israeli firm

On Sunday, I was at the receiving end of aggressive police behavior during a protest against a company operating in an illegal Israeli settlement.

Along with about 15 activists, I picketed a food fair in Brussels to highlight how SodaStream produces soft drink carbonation machines at a factory in Mishor Adumim, an Israeli-controlled industrial zone in the West Bank.

Dressed in green and white “Free Palestine” T-shirts, we surrounded the SodaStream stand and distributed leaflets alerting the fair’s attendees to the firm’s criminal activities. We then walked through the exhibition hall – beside the Atomium, one of Brussels’ best-known landmarks -- chanting “boycott Israel” slogans.

It wasn’t long before the police arrived and moved us outside. We were immediately followed by a few men who started making rude and threatening gestures towards us.

A few moments later, a police officer grabbed the few leaflets I had not yet distributed and crumpled them in a ball. “You don’t have the right to do that,” I shouted at him. He smirked and swiped the cap I was wearing off my head. He was carrying a gun and a baton in his belt.

No name badge

Unlike most of his colleagues, the police officer did not have a visible name badge on his shirt. Because he refused to give his name, I tried to take his photograph with my mobile phone (unsuccessfully, it transpired). When he saw me doing so, he demanded to see my identity card but I refused to show it to him.

More police arrived. At one point, I counted 10 in total, all armed. Indeed, it felt to me that there was a far more visible police presence at this small protest than there was the previous day, when I was one of an estimated 7,000 people who marched through Brussels in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement and to register our outrage with the austerity agenda being imposed on Europe’s people.

A few of us complained about the officer’s aggressive conduct but his colleagues still refused to give us his name. Another activist approached the officer at one point and asked his name. “Je m’appelle David et je suis juif,” he said. (“My name is David and I am Jewish”). I can only assume that the officer mentioned his religion in an effort to suggest that our action was anti-Semitic, which it certainly was not.

Threatened with arrest

Later, four of us went to a nearby police station to complain about the officer’s behavior and the participation of SodaStream in the exhibition. At the station, another officer told me that I would have to show him my ID card. I replied that I would be happy to do so if I was given the name of the officer who had been aggressive towards me. The second officer then accused me of blackmail and warned that he would arrest and detain me for 12 hours unless I complied with his order. I told him he could arrest me if he wished. (The second officer gave me his name but warned of serious, though unspecified, consequences if I posted it on the internet).

After a minute, I asked to use the toilet. The second officer was no longer in the hallway when I returned. The three other activists accompanying me all advised me to show my card and then file a complaint with a committee that monitors the Belgian police. As they had organised the action, I felt that I should accept their advice.

I do not wish to exaggerate the significance of what happened to me. Having a few leaflets confiscated is nothing compared to having your home destroyed, as regularly happens to Palestinians.

Yet it seems important that all attempts to stifle actions in support of the Palestinians should be documented. There was no excuse for that officer to behave in the way he did, given he was not provoked in any way. And if he was genuinely interested in fighting crime, he would have studied the information on the literature he crumpled. If he did, he would have learned something about why were protesting against SodaStream. He and his fellow police officers could then investigate why an exhibition next to his station was hosting a firm that profits from violations of international law.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 16 October 2011.

Putting art before avarice in Berlin

Marx has made a strong impact on Berlin. Erich Marx, that is.

He was an entrepreneur, whose collection of art by Andy Warhol, Anselm Kiefer and Robert Rauschenberg is on display in the Hamburger Bahnhof, a train station transformed into a gallery. My favourite is a vast triptych by the recently deceased Cy Twombly. The words “I am Thyrsis of Etna, blessed with a tuneful voice” are scrawled onto its main panel above some bottle green paint that looks as if it has been rubbed crudely onto the canvas. Apart from some touches of pale red and blue, the remainder of the panel is blank.

I am captivated by modern art, for reasons I do not understand. Show me a Caravaggio or a Da Vinci and I can admire the mastery of technique, yet be otherwise unmoved. Show me a video of Jackson Pollock splashing paint around or even one of Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinets and I feel a funny sensation akin to love.

The sensation hits me again in Friedrichshain, a district of Berlin that used to be in East Germany. For a moment, I am saddened by how an elegant red-brick kindergarten has been defaced by gaudy spray-paint. Then, I look up and see a giant cartoon character stare at me from a multi-colour mural covering a block of flats. Used wrongly, graffiti and street art can amount to vandalism. Used correctly, they can bring cheer to drab neighbourhoods.

Joep van Liefland is a Dutchman living in Berlin since 1996. He runs Autocenter, a small gallery (he prefers the term “art space”) above a Friedrichshain supermarket. The exhibitions he organises do not receive any public funding; instead, they rely on donations and events such as a recent auction to mark the 10th anniversary of the centre’s opening. “There has always been a counterculture in Berlin,” he tells me. “In the 1970s and ‘80s, it was maybe much bigger than now.”

Constantly evolving


Berlin’s art scene appears to be constantly evolving. In 2008, Der Spiegel described the city as “something of an art mecca”, celebrating its abundance of unused property that can be turned into studios. Earlier this month, a piece in The New York Times noted that the scene has “downshifted”, with many small galleries closing and the Art Forum Berlin cancelled after 15 years of this fair.

Van Liefland says that because he wasn’t in New York in the 1980s, he wouldn’t draw a comparison between its appeal for artists and that of Berlin today. But he adds: “Lots of Americans come here, that’s for sure. And already prices are going up. It has been changing rapidly, especially in the last five years. If you compare Berlin to what it was 10 or 15 years ago, you’ll see that it is moving in the direction of a normal city.”

The friction between the creative and the commercially-minded is visible across Berlin. Near the aforementioned kindergarten, the property firm CDS Wohnbau is developing a series of townhouses. Elsewhere in Friedrichshain, police forced squatters from a building in February; nine were arrested during the eviction. The building had been occupied by squatters since the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1990.

Tacheles, a former department store in Mitte (a central district), has been a refuge for squatters and artists for a similar length of time. It, too, is the subject of a battle between the city authorities and the artistic community. (Tacheles, incidentally, was used by the Nazis to detain French prisoners).

Heroic battle

I don’t wish to romanticise Berlin’s squatters and artists too much. Many would probably share my left-leaning political views. Others appear more willing to compromise. I was taken aback at how several of those whose works were on sale in Tacheles had notices requesting that no photographs be taken. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I would have thought this attachment to intellectual property – a corporate concept – is at odds with the free-thinking ethos that they seem to embrace.

Still, there is something marvellous about seeing artists demand that a site in what businesspeople would regard as a prime location be preserved as a cultural commune. It is all the more heroic that this struggle is being waged in the former East Berlin. This city has been blighted by totalitarianism in the not-too-distant past. It should not be crushed by another hugely destructive ideology, that of market fundamentalism.

Sadly, there are a number of fundamentalists holding powerful positions in Berlin. Germany’s federal coalition includes both the Free Democrats, which has an ultra-liberal approach to economics (they are opposed to tax increases on the rich) and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, which takes a distinctly illiberal stance on social issues (they have denied full marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples). In 2010, the German parliament introduced cutbacks of 29 billion euros on social spending. Parents on welfare lost a monthly payment of 300 euros, which they had received for a year after the birth of a child, as a result. Merkel is demanding even more drastic austerity measures in embattled euro-zone countries like Greece and Ireland.

Berlin’s art scene might seem irrelevant to the supposedly hard-headed accounting exercises being undertaken in federal government departments. But the studios and small galleries serve as a reminder that a city with a history like Berlin’s should move to a rhythm dictated by something other than the lust for profit. That is why non-conformists should be cherished.

●First published by New Europe, 17 October 2011.

Monday, October 10, 2011

CAP remains welfare scheme for wealthy

It has been a fecund year in our garden. I produced enough spinach to make four or five vegetarian lasagnes. If the pumpkins continue to flourish, we should have more than 10 of them in time for Halloween. My wife has experimented with growing radishes and carrots. Should we now apply for EU farm subsidies?

OK, that was a facetious question. Yet I am probably more deserving of those subsidies than many who receive them. In “The Black Book of Agriculture”, Hans Weiss documented how six of Austria’s 10 richest individuals benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy. At the other end of the spectrum, only 20% of the 2.2 billion euros that Austria drew down from the CAP in 2008 went to small farmers in mountainous areas.

Every few years, the European Commission undertakes to shake up the CAP and learn from past “mistakes”. Its latest reform blueprint will be presented this week. Not for the first time, this will be an exercise in window dressing.

Words like “sustainable” will be used liberally in the hope that the Brussels press corps will present the new recommendations as ecologically and socially responsible. Yet draft versions of the blueprint indicate that little, if anything, will be done to tackle the harmful consequences of industrialised farming.

Fuzzy criteria on environment


In theory, 30% of direct payments under the CAP will be subject to “good practice” requirements. But unless the final blueprint is made tougher, these requirements will be fuzzy. They will not be flanked with rules on preventing soil degradation and erosion. Large-scale monocultures will still be allowed, despite how they reduce the nutrients in the soil.

Drafts of the blueprint do not advocate any increase in support for farmers who manage land within the EU’s Natura 2000 network of sanctuaries for endangered flora and fauna. No incentives are likely to be introduced for maintaining grasslands, even though these carbon-rich areas must be left intact if we are to mitigate the effects of climate change. And penalties imposed on farmers who engage in environmentally destructive behaviour will amount to nothing more dissuasive than withholding 1% of their subsidies.

Why are Dacian Ciolos, the EU’s agricultural commissioner, and his advisers taking a business as usual approach? By giving excessive support to intensive agriculture, the CAP has proven ruinous to traditional family farms and the wildlife found on them. Data compiled by ornithologists shows that 20 out of 36 varieties of farmland birds in Europe are in decline. Overall numbers of farmland birds have fallen by 48% since 1980, with the grey partridge down by 82% and both the corn bunting and linnet by more than 60%.

Mired in scandal


I guess that the plight of these little feathery creatures does not elicit much comment in Brussels office blocks, where a macho culture prevails. This lack of concern is short-sighted. I’d strongly urge those officials to read Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse”, which is packed with case studies of how ecologically reckless practises can imperil human civilisation. (As an aside, I don’t agree with how Diamond has a favourable view of voluntary codes of conduct for big business; legally-binding measures must be introduced and enforced).

The Commission’s blasé attitude is all the more inexcusable when one considers that there have been a number of scandals involving the CAP over the past few years.

In Bulgaria, Dimitar Peychev, a former deputy minister for agriculture, has been the subject of a criminal investigation. His wife and daughter received 1.5 million euros worth of EU subsidies that he had been tasked with distributing in 2009.

The controversy bore some similarities to a previous one in the Netherlands. Back in 2005, Cees Veerman, then the Dutch agriculture minister, was severely embarrassed when it emerged that he had failed to mention his ownership of four farms in France on his declaration of interests. Veerman had trousered at least 185,000 euros in EU subsidies.

Poor oversight

Within the past month, the European Court of Auditors has published two reports critical of different aspects of the CAP. The more recent one pinpointed examples where authorities in EU countries had been slow to act when irregularities in farm spending were detected. More than 250 instances were identified by the auditors, in which the Spanish region of Andalucia waited four years or more before taking any steps to recover money in irregularity cases.

The earlier paper from the auditors examined expenditure on “agri-environment” measures. While 22.2 billion euros has been allocated to such measures under the CAP for the period from 2007 to 2013, the auditors found that the anticipated environmental benefits could not be demonstrated for almost one-quarter of the contracts it examined.

A 2010 study by the whistleblowing website farmsubsidy.org highlighted the intimate connections between the politicians who set agricultural policies and the recipients of the resulting largesse. Twelve of the Union’s 27 farm ministers at that time came from an agriculture or agribusiness background.

“The CAP’s annual 40 billion euros of direct aids are nothing more than a system for delivering taxpayer’s money directly to farm businesses, with as few strings as possible,” the study stated. “No clear objectives, no targets, no indicators of success, no policy outcomes necessary.”

The subtitle for this week’s blueprint is “Towards an economically and ecologically competitive sector”. Such corporate public relations gibberish cannot conceal how the Commission is merely tweaking a hugely expensive policy that puts the interests of the wealthy and greedy above everything else.

●First published by New Europe, 10 October 2011.

Friday, October 7, 2011

easyJet enables pinkwashing of apartheid

Earlier this week, I took a flight with easyJet and almost vomited when I saw a feature about Tel Aviv in the airline’s magazine Traveller. “Liberal and hedonistic, Tel Aviv has ambitions to be the world’s gayest destination,” I was told.

Stretched out over six pages, the piece was replete with propaganda. The Tel Aviv municipality was praised for funding a gay community centre, annual Gay Pride events and a gay film festival. This puts the city “streets ahead of London”, moist-eyed journalist Jamie Hakin wrote, as it “turns out Tel Aviv doesn’t simply tolerate its gay scene and associated tourism, it actively courts it.”

I carefully read the piece but did not see the word “Palestinian” appear even once. The only attempt to deal with the politics of the region was via a quote from the Israeli movie director Eytan Fox: “There are some people who claim the [Israeli] government is using the gay community a little like a fig leaf, to say, ‘Look how accepting of minorities we are.’ But as a guy who has been working most of his life to promote gay issues through my films, we can’t avoid the fact that, thanks to a lot of people, Israel has changed in ways that are amazing. It used to be a very macho culture that could never accept gay people.”

Pinkwashing” apartheid is among the activities undertaken as part of the Brand Israel initiative sponsored by the country’s foreign ministry. As part of this public relations blitz, the Israeli government has financed events like “Out in Israel” – held in San Francisco last year – which promote the country as a haven for homosexuals. This capitalizes on the work of Zionist groups like StandWithUs, which has produced flyers bragging how “Israel has no laws against sodomy, and its constitution guarantees equal rights.”

Dishonest

Like most propaganda, this is dishonest. For a start, Israel does not have a written constitution and its quasi-constitutional laws do not guarantee equal rights; they facilitate systematic discrimination against the Palestinians who comprise one-fifth of Israel’s population. Furthermore, the idea that Israel has banished homophobia is not supported by empirical evidence. A recent survey of gay members of the Israeli military found that 40 percent of respondents suffered verbal abuse and 20 percent sexual or physical violence.

Why is easyJet enabling Israeli propaganda? For commercial reasons, of course. The budget airline has been pushing for a new agreement to liberalize aviation between the European Union and Israel. By opening up the market to greater cooperation, easyJet should be able to fly from Tel Aviv to more European cities than it does at the moment, Hugh Aitken, a representative of the firm, has said, according to the Israeli business publication The Marker.

Protest at obscenity

Many gay rights activists have opposed Brand Israeli, it should be emphasized. In 2009, the Toronto-based group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid issued a statement against leisure tourism in Tel Aviv. The following year, an Israeli float was prevented from taking part in Madrid’s Gay Pride parade to register the organisers’ outrage at the murderous attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.

It is obscene for easyJet to be selling Tel Aviv as a gay paradise, when Israel denies elementary rights to gay and straight Palestinians alike.
The current issue of Traveller gives an email address -- carolyn@easyJet.com -- for contacting Carolyn McCall, the firm’s chief executive. Please write to her and complain about how easyJet is sugar-coating apartheid.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 6 October 2011.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Don't turn Brazil into a corporate playground

Children are protected from danger by their parents. The UN has recognised a principle called the responsibility to protect. So what is wrong with protectionism?

It is by shielding vulnerable sectors of the economy from competition that countries develop. This method has been used extensively in Europe and North America in the past; yet the rhetoric from our modern leaders indicates it is sinful for governments to nurture infant industries and prevent them being submerged by global corporations.

Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff is expected in Brussels this week for two “summits”: one with the EU’s political representatives; the other with its business elite. More than likely, both events will hear pleas for “protectionist” urges to be restrained.

Inevitably, the objective of introducing a free trade agreement between the EU and Mercosur – the common market banding together Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay – will be a dominant theme at these meetings. Talks about framing such an accord have been conducted – with interruptions – since 1995 and, despite occasional predictions that a deal is on the horizon, none appears imminent. For a start, the enthusiasm for an agreement expressed by the European Commission is not shared by governments in France, Ireland and some other EU countries worried about pitting their beef industries against increased imports from South America.

Rather than taking on the meat industry in this continent, Karel de Gucht, the EU’s trade commissioner, has blamed Argentina for the deadlock. Speaking in April, he described the Buenos Aires government as the “great obstacle” towards reaching an agreement. “Argentina’s protectionism is creating problems and they are making our exporters nervous, especially in the automotive industry,” he said.

Bid to privatise water

If several of the Union’s own leaders are hostile to these trade talks, then who is pushing for them to succeed? In 2004, the European Services Forum (ESF) told Pascal Lamy, then the Union’s trade chief, that Mercosur countries must be willing to open their economies more to foreign firms. The ESF gave a list of the sectors it wanted liberalised: financial services, telecommunications, maritime transport, computer technology and “environmental services”. Almost certainly, environmental services was code for water, as one of the ESF’s members Veolia is eyeing private water contracts throughout the world. Water privatisation has proven catastrophic in Latin America. In the mid-1990s, the World Bank gave Bolivia a loan on the condition it would sell off public water utilities in its main cities. The result was that the poor were unable to afford clean water. By 2005, the cost of having proper water and sanitation in a La Paz household came to $450; to fork out that amount a worker on the minimum wage would have to put aside his or her entire pay for a nine month period.

But, of course, the realities of life in impoverished barrios will not be exercising the minds of the executive types in Brussels’ Palais d’Egmont, where the EU-Brazil business summit is taking place. The association of European chambers of commerce (Eurochambres) has a leading role in this jamboree. Almost a year ago, its secretary-general Arnaldo Abruzzini gave a grim warning about the consequences of the talks with Mercosur failing: “If we don’t reach agreement, China will overtake the EU [in its business with South America].”

Ah yes, the spectre of Red China. Ignore, please, the obligatory references to “shared values” like human rights and democracy when Rousseff meets EU bigwigs. The real agenda here is beating the Chinese.

Lust for resources

Energy is of critical importance in this race. The business summit will be taking stock of what has happened since the European Commission recommended forming a “strategic partnership” with Brazil in 2007. The Commission’s paper stated that Brazil has “huge natural resources” and that while it’s already a “major investment hub” for European companies, it will “offer major additional openings”. Biofuels were identified as an area where Brazil and Europe can cooperate more closely, given that the Commission is determined to press ahead with increasing the use of food crops to power cars. Findings by the Commission’s own in-house scientists that biofuels are not a solution to climate change have been glossed over. Instead, the Union’s most senior officials are more eager to please Repsol, the Spanish energy firm that is active in the Mercosur-EU Business Forum, one of the participants in this week’s summit.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made some appalling decisions as Brazil’s president. Last year, he promised the French arms industry $6 billion in immediate contracts, money that should have been used to combat poverty. Yet he should be praised for overruling a patent on efavirenz, an AIDS treatment drug, in 2007, to ensure that affordable generic versions of the medicine would be provided to those who needed them.

If the EU has its way, Brazil would be restricted from putting public health before the commercial interests of pharmaceutical giants in the future. The Commission wants strict rules on intellectual property included in a free trade agreement so that generic medicines won’t be as readily available.

The agreement coveted by the EU is often compared to the Free Trade Area of the Americas that the US wanted to introduce. Luckily, that initiative was killed off six years ago because it encountered massive public opposition. The challenge is to encourage the same level of opposition to an equally ruinous EU-Mercosur accord. Corporations should not be granted planning permission to turn South America into their private playground.

●First published by New Europe, 3 October 2011