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Monday, January 30, 2012

Merkel's machinations and the death of democracy

Consider this question about Zimbabwe. Roughly one-tenth of the 330 million dollar debt it “owes” the UK relates to the supply of British-made Land Rovers to the Zimbabwean police. Rates of infection for HIV in Zimbabwe have begun to decline in recent years due to a scale-up in antiretroviral treatment, according the latest United Nations World AIDS Day report. Should patients now forgo life-saving medical care so that bills can be paid back to the former colonial overlord?

In his compelling book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber describes how the International Monetary Fund demanded that Madagascar cut a monitoring and eradication programme for malarial mosquitoes in order to settle debts. In the absence of proper monitoring, malaria returned to the highlands of Madagascar, where it was previously thought to have been wiped out. Ten thousand people died, Graeber writes, “in order to ensure that Citibank wouldn’t have to cut its losses on one irresponsible loan that wasn’t particularly important to its balance sheet anyway.”

Africa’s debt is not the hot issue it was in the late 1990s and the early part of the new millennium. But the underlying problems have not disappeared. The way us journalists have shifted our attention away from this persistent crisis is all the more inexcusable, when you consider that there are some parallels between it and the problems we face in Europe.

During the past week, the Dublin government paid 1.25 billion euros to unsecured Anglo Irish Bank bondholders. At the end of March, another 3.1 billion euros is scheduled to be paid by Ireland, largely to please French and German banks who consorted with Anglo in financing reckless speculation by property developers. The 3.1 billion euro sum would be sufficient to fund Ireland’s primary school system for a year, according to the campaign group Debt Justice Action. Children who weren’t even born in 2007, when Anglo approved the loan for the single biggest transaction in the Irish property boom, are being condemned to an inferior education.

A touchy-feely quote on the programme of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos reads: “The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.” It is attributed to the theologian Albert Schweitzer. Sadly, that sentiment appears alien to the woman who opened the event, Angela Merkel. In her Davos speech, the German chancellor made the case for “more Europe”. What she really desires is a meaner Europe, where remote institutions in Frankfurt, Brussels and Luxembourg have the power to insist that less is spent on essential public services.

Taking capitalism to extremes

On 31 January, Merkel will probably be granted her wish of having a “fiscal compact” treaty for the EU. It will give the European Court of Justice power to fine EU governments that do not keep within rigid deficit limits. Dogmatic principles about how every economy in the Union – with the exception, this time, of Britain – should be run will be enshrined in the agreement rubberstamped at the imminent summit. No matter what type of governments us mere mortals elect in future, they will have to play by these rules. As a result, the Union will be formally committed – under its treaties – to a much more extreme form of capitalism than the United States is under its constitution.

Almost none of the Union’s citizens will have any say on these matters. The idea that they should be consulted is viewed as absurd by Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Overstepping their powers, they made sure that George Papandreou abandoned his plan to hold a referendum on the terms of a “bail out” a few months ago. Papandreou’s idea was considered so silly that he had to hand over his job as Greek prime minister to a de facto representative of Goldman Sachs.

“Deficit of public authority”

Ireland, it appears, is the only country that might have a referendum on this “fiscal compact” monster. And I’m sure that Enda Kenny’s government would avoid holding one if it could get away with doing so. The sole reason why Ireland traditionally lets its people say “yes” or “no” to EU treaties is that an economist called Raymond Crotty undertook a court challenge against an attempt to ratify the Single European Act without a referendum in 1987. Crotty died in 1994 but his case established that significant changes to EU treaties necessitated an amendment to the Irish constitution, something that can only be done with public approval.

Rulings of similar significance have been delivered in Germany. In 2009, the federal constitutional court in Karlsruhe gave its verdict on the Lisbon treaty. According to the court, there is “a deficit of public authority when measured against the requirements of democracy.”

To her disgrace, Merkel is now taking actions that will increase that deficit. Ironically, of course, her efforts are being presented as indispensable towards dealing with another type of deficit. Why is tackling fiscal deficits considered a more urgent task than resuscitating democracy?

Around this time last year, mass demonstrations in Cairo caused the downfall of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. The protests can be emulated in Europe. When Angela Merkel tries to deprive children of a good education to increase her own stature, resistance becomes imperative. Unless ordinary, decent folk – the 99 percent, to use the slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement – stand up to her, 31 January 2012 could go down in history as the day when democracy died.

●First published by New Europe, 29 January – 4 February 2012.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why are convicted criminals driving the EU's defence agenda?

Spare a thought these icy days of January for the arms industry. Recession has had such a devastating effect on makers of tanks and warplanes that the European Defence Agency is holding a conference later this month to mull over what can be done. According to the EDA, military spending has been “declining steadily” on this continent since 2005.

Pause for a moment. Is that really something to be exercised about? There is little to celebrate about the economic downturn but lower expenditure on the tools of war and oppression might offer one reason to be cheerful.

Unfortunately, the EDA’s own data hints that the situation is not as dramatic as the words “declining steadily” imply. In 2006, the 26 countries belonging to the agency spent 201 billion euros on the military. That fell to 194 billion euros in 2010. Significantly, though, the figure for 2010 was the same as that for the previous year. You don’t need to be a mathematical whizz-kid to discern a pattern here: rather than declining steadily, expenditure appears to be levelling off.

The EDA’s number-crunchers have calculated that at 520 billion euros, the US spent 2.7 times more on the military than the agency’s participating states in 2010. The suits and uniforms of Brussels seem to regard this imbalance as a bad thing. I, on the other hand, take solace in the fact that Europe isn’t aping that imperial leviathan across the Atlantic as wholeheartedly as it could.

Bywords for corruption

My solace is nonetheless slender. Over the Christmas break, I read Andrew Feinstein’s book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade. It traces how the firms which pushed for the establishment of the EDA have become bywords for corruption.

When the EDA was launched in 2004, the three giants of Europe’s weapons industry – Thales, EADS and BAE Systems – issued a joint statement predicting that the agency would play a “vital role” in stimulating greater investment in war (OK, I have resorted to paraphrasing). Feinstein devotes several chapters of his 672-page tome to the shenanigans of BAE.

In 2010, BAE was fined 400 million dollars in the US, the largest ever penalty imposed on a British corporation. That followed BAE’s admission of guilt that it had written false letters to the American authorities 10 years earlier. The authorities were investigating kickbacks that the company had paid while seeking deals in Saudi Arabia, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Feinstein explains meticulously how BAE not only gave bribes, it was granted permission to do so by Britain’s powers that be. Back in 1977, Britain issued the “Cooper directive” – named after an official in its ministry of defence – which authorised the payment of secret commissions by British firms angling for government-to-government contracts. The directive was a response to an official memo, stating that the Saudi royal family expected money under the table if they were to buy weapons from the West.

A one-time member of Parliament for the African National Congress, Feinstein indicates that the human cost of arms sales can’t merely be totted up using casualty figures from the battlefield (where such figures exist). As a legislator, he took part in a probe over a major arms purchasing decision announced by the South African government in 1999. Feinstein calls BAE “the villain in the piece”, citing estimates that 300 million dollars was paid in bribes and commissions to senior politicians, middlemen, civil servants and the ANC itself (Feinstein came under intense pressure from party colleagues not to cause them embarrassment but – pun intended – stuck by his guns). By 2018, the total price tag for this deal could exceed 6 billion dollars. In the five years following the decision, 365,000 South Africans perished from AIDS; for every rand spent on keeping people with HIV alive, 6.75 rand went on buying weapons.

Blair: saviour of Africa?

Do you remember how Tony Blair decided that eradicating African poverty should be the central theme of Britain’s presidencies of the EU and G8 in 2005? Blair doubled up as a “saviour” of Africa and a salesman for BAE during his term as prime minister. One of his most disgusting acts was to persuade the president of Tanzania, one of the world’s poorest countries, to spend 40 million dollars on a radar system for military aircraft.

BAE is not the only company on Feinstein’s radar screen (pun intended once again). He highlights how Thales of France was ordered in 2010 to pay a fine of over 800 million dollars to Taiwan after being convicted of inflating the price of frigates supplied as part of an arms deal struck in the early 1990s.

On paper, the European Union’s institutions and offices have a strong policy against fraud. Yet they remain happy to court arms companies, even when those firms are implicated in large-scale corruption. Thales recently gave a demonstration to Frontex, the EU border management agency, of a pilotless drone (or unmanned aerial vehicle) in a Greek military base. Named the Fulmar, the plane in question is Spanish-owned but uses equipment designed by Thales. Intriguingly, it can be launched from a catapult, rather than a runway.

Frontex sees its role as keeping foreigners out of Europe and doesn’t appear perturbed by how the people in question are usually impoverished and in need of help. It comes as no surprise then that its racist endeavours are being aided by others who are far better known for corruption than compassion.

●First published by New Europe, 22-28 January 2012.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Is the European Parliament a corporate dating agency?

Elections often have little to do with democracy.

Stepping into a polling booth once every four or five years is a pretty meaningless exercise if the people we chose to “represent” us either belong to a financial and corporate elites or are subservient to them. The European Parliament is an elected institution but is it a democratic one?

Democracy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state”. A code of conduct for MEPs approved by a majority of them last month seems to chime with that concept. It said that MEPs shall “act solely in the public interest”.

But there are strong reasons to predict that the code will be habitually violated. Many MEPs have joined secretive clubs, known within the Brussels beltway as “intergroups”, that serve private, rather than public interests.

Karl-Heinz Florenz exemplifies why these clubs are pernicious. In 2010, this German Christian Democrat set up the European Raw Materials Group, with the objective of making the supply of natural resources a top priority for the EU’s political activities. The invitation for the group’s inaugural meeting indicated that it was an initiative of the Small and Medium Entrepreneurs Union, a business association led by Paul Rübig, the group’s co-founder. Rübig combines his job as an MEP with being a managing director of an eponymous metal company.

Florenz has been tasked with drafting the Parliament’s official position paper on a planned EU law for dealing with old computers, mobile phones and electrical equipment. His paper, scheduled for debate in Strasbourg this week, recommends that a proposal made on this topic by the European Commission should be amended to emphasise that “retrieval of critical raw materials” is a guiding principle when managing electronic waste. Florenz has argued that the Commission’s blueprint paid insufficient attention to raw materials.

Conflict of interests

Florenz’s key suggestions (which include a target for recycling 85% of electronic waste by 2016) may well be sensible. But his eagerness to stress the raw materials component of this dossier must raise questions, considering his links to companies that have a vested interest in pushing the EU to pursue a more aggressive agenda on ensuring access to the often rare resources required by modern technology. Recycling plays little more than a cameo role in that agenda, which is mainly focused on ensuring that corporations won’t be held back from exploiting the resources of foreign (and frequently impoverished) countries by namby-pamby ideas like ecological protection or national sovereignty.

The new code of conduct for MEPs also commits them to abide by the principles of “selflessness, integrity, openness, diligence, honesty [and] accountability”.

When I asked Florenz if corporate interests had any input into this work, he replied that he had personally drafted the paper, along with an assistant. “There is no conflict of interests, firstly because the European Raw Materials Group has not yet started its content-based work and secondly because the European Raw Materials Group is simply a group of like-minded members of all political groups in the European Parliament who exchange views on a subject,” he added.

Can we really believe that his intention was merely to start a talking shop for policy wonks?

Bribes

It is worth recalling that the MEPs’ code of conduct is the direct result of a sting operation undertaken by reporters working for The Sunday Times. Unlike the despicable phone-tapping undertaken by other newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch, this operation was perfectly defensible as it exposed how corruptible some politicians are. When the paper’s reporters posed as lobbyists and offered 60 MEPs large sums of money in return for tabling amendments to legislative proposals, they found that 14 MEPs were willing to accept such bribes.

Florenz was not among the 14 but it has been documented that he has tabled amendments written by private sector interests in the past. An investigation by the organization Corporate Europe Observatory revealed that when the Parliament’s environment committee was conducting a debate on the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) in 2008, Florenz copied and pasted amendments drawn up by the steel industry group Eurofer and signed them as if they were his own work.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that such behaviour is common in the Parliament, yet there is no appetite to stamp it out. Even if no cash is offered in return for tabling amendments, the practice is unethical.

Florenz is undeniably influential. He was chairman of the environment committee from 2004 and 2007 and then served as the Parliament’s point man on climate change between 2007 and 2009.

In a 2004 interview with The New York Times, he was quoted as whinging about the inordinate number of lobbyists who badger MEPs. His staff, however, appear to be on such good terms with those pests that they sometimes end up being hired as lobbyists. Axel Eggert, a director of public affairs with the aforementioned Eurofer, is a former assistant to Florenz. Another one of Florenz’s previous advisers, Christian Hierholzer, went on to work as a healthcare specialist with Weber Shandwick before heading the Brussels office of hanover, a public relations firm so cool that it spells its name in lower case.

The career path followed by these men illustrates the unhealthily close relationship between MEPs’ offices and big business. How can we have democracy if the EU’s only directly elected institution serves as a corporate dating agency?

●First published by New Europe, 15-21 January 2012.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Forget Iran; Israel is a bigger threat to world peace

Is a war with Iran inevitable? I don’t have the answer to that question. But I do feel a sense of déjà-vu when I scan the headlines. Iran is capable of assembling a bomb within a year, Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, told CBS News recently. Though not as outlandish, his “warning” carried a chilling reminder of Tony Blair’s claim that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.

One especially unsavoury aspect of the debate around Iran is how it is being driven by “public relations” professionals, who try to dress up their bloodlust in respectable clothing. Without exception, these “opinion-formers” are supporters of Israel, a state founded on ethnic cleansing, wedded to apartheid and addicted to war. Followers of Zionism, a racist ideology, are unable to offer objective analysis; yet few in the media bother to question the motives of such people or highlight the egregious double standard of demanding robust action against Iran’s nuclear “ambitions”, while keeping mum about the nuclear warheads that Israel has already amassed.

Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress (EJC), issued a comical statement in December last. It referred to “reports” – the source of which went unmentioned – that Iran may be preparing to strike Germany in response to an American attack on Iranian nuclear installations. “Whether or not these reports are valid is beside the point, we know certain facts and they are that Iran sees much of Europe as its enemy,” he added.

Can someone who makes a big hullabaloo about new “reports” and then argues it’s irrelevant if they are accurate be regarded as credible? Of course, he can’t. Yet Kantor enjoys the kind of access to political leaders that most lobbyists can only dream of. His organisation’s website tells of how he has spent years bending the ears of senior figures in all of the European Union’s institutions about the “threat” from Iran.

It should be emphasised that the EJC does not represent all Europe’s Jews, despite how it purports to do so. I have a number of Jewish friends and acquaintances who disagree sharply with its agenda.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is another Zionist hawk who has carved out a niche for himself as an “Iran expert”. Formerly the Brussels director of the American Jewish Committee, he now works for the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, a neoconservative outfit that includes Richard Perle, a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq, on its board of advisers.

“Israel might act alone”

In a recent article for Standpoint magazine, Ottolenghi asked: “Is Israel’s air force – the one that bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and the Syrian one in 2007 – gearing up for the most daring airstrike in aviation history?” He concluded his piece by arguing that the “international community” (translation: the US and its cronies) has until the Spring of 2012 to “stop Iran”. After that, Israel might act alone.

I am tired of reading about how David Cameron risks leaving Britain isolated in Brussels. The truth is that the UK has an unhealthy level of clout in European and international affairs and shows no sign of repenting in any meaningful way for its blood-stained history.

The “experts” who are so adamant that democracy be brought to Iran usually neglect to remind their readers and listeners that it was Britain and the US which destroyed democracy in Iran. In 1953, Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s elected prime minister, was overthrown in a coup staged by the West. The reason why he was toppled was simple: Britain felt it owned Iran’s oil and could not tolerate Mossadegh’s decision to nationalise this resource.

Fast forward to December 2011, when George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was guest of honour at the Conservative Friends of Israel annual lunch at a plush London hotel. Osborne was interviewed onstage by the right-wing pundit Danny Finkelstein, who asked his views on the “threat” from Iran. “Well, first of all I think Israel is right to identify this as one of the greatest threats to peace and human life in the world at the moment,” Osborne replied, before speaking of “this government’s determination to use all the tools at our disposal to stop Iran getting a nuclear weapon.”

Stop macho posturing

Pause for a moment and consider those lines. Osborne thinks Israel is right to identify Iran as one of the greatest threats to world peace. If he believes his own baloney, he should brush up on world affairs. Iran is not occupying the land of another people. By contrast, Israel occupies the West Bank and Gaza, as well as parts of Lebanon and Syria. Iran’s most recent war was with Iraq in the 1980s. Israel attacked Gaza as recently as the past few weeks.

Iran may be less than candid about its nuclear ambitions but it has signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel has not.

True, Iran’s human rights record is deplorable. It was the world’s second highest user of the death penalty in 2010. But invoking that as a casus belli would be grossly hypocritical, when one considers that the US was at number five on the global executions table.

My (sadly unrealistic) wish for 2012 is that Europe’s leaders stop their macho posturing towards Tehran and that they address a bigger threat to world peace. The name of that threat is Israel.

●First published by New Europe, 9 January 2012.