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Monday, October 29, 2012

Merkel's real agenda: mugging the poor

Why has Angela Merkel cast herself as the empress of austerity?

The consensus among pundits seems to be that she is focused solely on her political career. To have any real hope of being re-elected next year, the pundits say, she cannot show mercy towards Greece.

Undoubtedly, there is some truth in the argument. But I'm not convinced it encapsulates the full story.

A clue to Merkel's real agenda can be found in a speech she gave to the College of Europe in Bruges during 2010. Opening the academic year at this elite institution, Merkel bragged of how she had persuaded German politicians to take "unusual and previously unimagined routes in order to help Greece and thus to ensure the stability of the eurozone as a whole". It was vital, she added, that the "rescue package" for Greece was accompanied by "ambitious reforms" in order to "insist that countries which caused such a crisis will have to take action themselves in the future".

Those few short lines are riddled with fallacies. The predatory lending of German banks was a far bigger cause of the crisis than public spending in Greece, Spain or Ireland. And Merkel has some chutzpah in claiming to "help" Greece, when she is destroying it.

Weakening welfare

Perhaps, though, it is her reference to "unusual and previously unimagined routes" that is most telling. Merkel contended that these steps were necessary to realise "the vision of a union that enjoys enduring success through a way of life and social model which unite competitive strength with social responsibility".

During the campaign leading to her election as chancellor in 2005, Merkel's economic advisor was Paul Kirchhof. An advocate of radical tax cuts, Kirchhof has been actively involved in the INSM, the initiative for a new social market economy. Financed by trade associations representing the metal and electronics industries, the INSM was set up in 2005 to push for a weakening of the welfare state.

Merkel's scope for implementing the policies favoured by the INSM was limited in her first term in office. She led a coalition with the Social Democrats, who were averse to Kirchhof's recommendations.

Circumstances were to change dramatically after she was re-elected in 2009. Not only was Merkel able to form a government with the right-wing Free Democrats, the troubles besetting the eurozone presented her with the chance to go down "unusual and previously unimagined routes".

As it happened, the routes had been "imagined" before then by the INSM and its kindred spirits at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), a "foundation" affiliated to Merkel's Christian Democrats. In November 2009, the KAS organised a conference with the grandiose title "60 years of social market economy: formation, development and perspectives of a peacemaking formula". The daunting 272-page report on the event's proceedings attributes the term "social market economy" to a 1946 paper by the economist and anthropologist Alfred-Müller Armack.

Pushing an open door

An attempt to achieve "seemingly conflicting objectives, namely economic freedom and social security", the concept has been described by KAS as a "new variant of neo-liberalism", an ideology which holds that the most important purpose of the state is to defend private property rights. A simpler way of summarising this thinking is: governments should hold back and let the rich get richer.

What is particularly striking about the KAS paper is that it presented the current economic crisis as an opportunity to "renew" the "principles and fundamental ideas" behind the social market economy. Far from confining this debate to Germany, it urged that the concept be applied globally to "reinvigorate the philosophical and economic standing of liberalism in general".

The KAS evidently feels like it is pushing an open door. Its publications emphasise that the Lisbon treaty commits the EU to develop a "competitive social market economy". As part of its proselytising, the KAS has produced a video where three good-looking flatmates explain the core ideas using fridge magnets. "Basic provisions, fair play, everybody is happy," one of them concludes.

The use of the word "social" is a form of sugar-coating for what amounts to a full frontal assault on hard-won rights. The INSM fulminates regularly against minimum wages and demands that health insurance be opened up to greater competition. This can only be interpreted as an attempt to make life more difficult for the poor and unemployed. In a decent society, every individual should be entitled to the same level of health care. The INSM wants to base the quality of medical service we receive on our ability to pay for it.

Merkel has also been reported to have obtained informal advice from Jeffrey Gedmin. A former big-wig of the American Enterprise Institute, Gedmin has spent much time trying to convince Europe to become more like the US. In a 2005 opinion piece for The Financial Times, he wrote about the "employed and unemployed alike happily indulging themselves" by sipping "over-priced café lattes". He mused about whether a changing economic situation might give "people the swift kick they apparently need".

If it's true that he was counselling Merkel, then she appears to have paid attention. Like a schoolyard bully, the chancellor has taken delight in kicking the weakest. The jobless and the elderly in Greece definitely did not cause the crisis she has blamed on their nation. Yet she keeps mugging them to put in place an extreme plan long in the making and dusted down when the time looked right.

•First published by New Europe, 28 October - 3 November 2012.

Monday, October 22, 2012

America's meaningless election

It was a moment to savour when a helicopter whisked George W Bush away from Washington in early 2009. On the ground beneath him, Barack and Michelle Obama waved gracefully. Millions of us felt that some of the world's problems would disappear into that serene sky.

We were wrong.

Over the past four years, Obama has extended the war against Afghanistan, started another one in Libya, and threatened to attack Iran. He has ordered drone strikes against Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. He has increased military aid to Israel. He has kept Guantanamo Bay open. He has incarcerated Bradley Manning for spreading the truth about America's crimes. He has supported a coup in Honduras and a dictatorship in Egypt. He has approved weapons sales to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. He has refused to act decisively against global warming or the power of Goldman Sachs.

Has he done anything positive? Apart from supporting the right to gay marriage and ushering in minor improvements to the health insurance system, I am struggling to think of examples. His withdrawal of troops from Iraq is hardly praiseworthy, considering the devastation inflicted on that country. And please don't ask me to endorse the execution of Osama bin Laden. It is never excusable to kill an unarmed suspect, who could have been apprehended and put on trial.

Worse than Bush

Obama has in some respects been worse than his predecessor. Bush lied about Saddam's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. But there was a general honesty to Bush's aggression. Bush never purported to be anything other than a vulgar oil merchant, who referred to the captains of industry as "my base" and patently didn't care about black folk left homeless in New Orleans. Obama had worked with deprived communities in Chicago and befriended the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. Even if he was no radical, he still offered the prospect of change - or so we believed.

We were wrong.

Every time I hear Europeans talk about how important it is that Obama gets re-elected, I want to scream.

The question of whether the Democrats or the Republicans are in power matters to some Americans. Democrats tend to be marginally smarter and less inclined to say offensive things about rape victims than Republicans. Democrats do not tend to give as many tax breaks to the super-rich as Republicans do. In that sense, it might be preferable to have Obama running the show, instead of Mitt Romney.

Little difference for Europe

On this side of the Atlantic - and in most of the world - it makes little difference who sits in the Oval Office. Both of the main candidates are beholden to corporate donors. Both think that the US may intervene in other nations' affairs whenever it sees fit. Both are believers in American supremacy, an ideology as toxic as any that deems one group of people to be more important than another.

Whichever man wins, he will hear the same advice from the CIA and the State Department. The Pentagon will still see NATO as a vehicle for projecting US power. The International Monetary Fund - an institution largely controlled by the US - will continue to demand that Ireland scraps its minimum wage and Greece robs its pensioners.

The European Union will still be expected to act as a lapdog for an imperial leviathan. Belgium will continue to store some of America's nuclear weapons. The US Air Force will still operate in Italy. Germany will retain the dubious honour of hosting the US command for Africa.

The granting of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU doesn't alter reality. Some of us thought that Barack Obama might behave slightly less belligerently after he picked up that same award.

We were wrong.

Change does not come from the top. It comes from gatherings in town halls and city squares. It comes from the Occupy! movement. It comes from the protests against the Keystone XL pipeline and the tar sands that neighbouring Canada hopes to use in accelerating climate change. It comes from Codepink and Students for Justice in Palestine. It comes from the nuns who fought the poverty-increasing budget championed by Paul Ryan. It comes from trade union activists in Wisconsin and Illinois.

Dissent works

Sure, you can quibble with the list I have just compiled. You can point to how those hardy souls who camped out near Wall Street this time last year are now tucked up in warm beds. You can argue that DIY placards are worthless when confronted with the tasers and pepper spray of the police.

But dissent is seldom futile. Declassified papers show that Lyndon Johnson ruled out a nuclear strike on Vietnam because he was petrified of the public outrage it would engender. Why has Obama tried to keep reams of information about today's wars secret? The only plausible explanation is that he is too cowardly to incur the wrath of his people.

Rather than trying to decide the outcome of the election on Facebook, the best thing us Europeans can do is to build alliances with the decent Americans struggling for real change. Regardless of what happens on polling day, America will be the world's only superpower for some time to come. If you think handing the White House to the guy you like better makes the US any less dangerous, then please reflect on something all of us should have been learned over the past four years. We were wrong.

•First published by New Europe, 21-27 October 2012.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Kicking the car industry out of the driving seat

Imagine a band of brigands so depraved, it steals food from the poor and gives it to the better-off. Imagine that the band has been condemned by all kinds of "respectable" organisations but waits for several years before making any amends.

The European Commission is that band of brigands. Since 2007, the EU executive has been committed to ensuring that biofuels power 10% of all road journeys in the Union by 2020. The Commission has stuck by that target, even as the World Bank and World Food Programme amassed evidence that the use of agricultural crops to fill petrol tanks was exacerbating global hunger.

It is only now that the goal is finally being revised. Over the coming days, the Commission will formally announce plans that the proportion of road journeys fuelled by food crops should be no higher than 5%. The Wall Street Journal has described this as a "radical change" of policy. That is nonsense. Far from being radical, it is a belated and inadequate gesture.

A truly radical change of policy would involve ditching the clique of advisers which advocated that the disastrous 10% objective be set in the first place. Yet a look at a related initiative - known as CARS 21 - shows that the Commission is still relying on the same clique.

CARS 21 is a "high level group" originally assembled by Günter Verheugen, then the EU's enterprise commissioner, in 2005. Dominated by corporations, it pushed for the greater use of biofuels from an early stage, arguing that they offered much potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Two years ago, the group was relaunched by Verheugen's successor Antonio Tajani. He is currently putting the final touches to an "action plan" guided by its recommendations. Almost certainly, the plan will accord a higher priority to the narrow desires of vehicle makers than to the future of the planet. The group has advocated, for example, that the EU should take a more bellicose line towards "emerging economies". Regulations perceived as hostile to Europe's vehicle-makers should be scrapped as a result of any new free trade agreements that the EU signs, the group has argued. It also wants African and Asian countries to be told that their natural resources must be placed at the disposal of major corporations. Heaven forbid that the resources could benefit anyone else.

Flexible pollution

Examining recent comments from Europe's car manufacturers, one could be forgiven for thinking they are in danger of extinction. Sergio Marchionne, head of Fiat, moaned earlier this year about "how very few companies make any money in Europe". To help out these metal bashers (his description), Marchionne urged a "flexibility pact", which would give car firms greater leeway in "meeting regulatory deadlines in troublesome times".

Just how much flexibility do these guys want? In July, the European Commission issued proposals to limit the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) pumped into the atmosphere by the average car to 95 grams per kilometre by 2020. (The average level for 2011 was 135.7g/km).

Whenever pollution threshholds have been suggested in the past, car-makers have held out against them, constantly warning that jobs will be lost if industry is pushed too hard. In early 2006, DaimlerChrysler reacted with horror when it emerged that EU officials were considering a mandatory limit of 120 g/km. Erich Klemm, then the company's boss, predicted he would have to lay off 65,000 workers in Germany as luxury cars would no longer be viable. His scarmongering worked: the Commission came forward with less ambitious targets.

Was Daimler punished for this act of sabotage? Far from it. Dieter Zetsche, Daimler's present chief executive, was invited to join the revamped CARS 21 group.

It is too late for flexibility. Unlike most other sectors of the economy, the car industry is increasing its greenhouse gas emissions, not reducing them. Overall, CO2 emissions from road transport rose by 36% between 1990 and 2007. Cars account for 14% of all the EU's emissions.

Reclaiming our cities

And exhaust pipes release a lot more than CO2. In September, the European Environment Agency published a study concluding that 81% of the EU's urban population is exposed to levels of particulate matter higher than air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organisation. Chronic exposure to particulate matter can contribute to heart and respiratory problems and lung cancer.

Instead of a plan to save the car industry, we need one to reduce its influence dramatically. Cities that have sizeable pedestrian or car-free zones are a lot more convivial than gridlocked ones. Why can't we have a plan for an EU-wide network of car-free cities? Or why can't a group of progressive mayors get together and collectively introduce congestion charges?

Cutting car use should not necessitate large-scale job losses. There is no divine law saying that BMW can't be transformed into a tram or bicycle firm. Realising that vision would require confronting powerful vested interests head-on and the likelihood of the European Commission doing so is miniscule. That's why a mass movement to reclaim our towns and cities is needed.

Darrin Nordahl's book Making Transit Fun! argues for a new approach to urban planning with the aim of putting some joy into public transport. He sings the praises of a planned San Francisco station that "drips with sex appeal". Fruit-shaped bus shelters in Japan are another fave. All these ideas could prove infectious and help to kick the car industry out of the driving seat.

●First published by New Europe, 14-20 October 2012

Monday, October 8, 2012

The euro: an inhuman project

Here we go again. The Greek government has "agreed" - at gunpoint, let's be frank - to cut another 13.5 billion euros from public spending. And it's still not enough for the tyrannical troika.

Olivier Blanchard, chief economist and clairvoyant for one of these tyrants, the International Monetary Fund, is now telling us that the difficult times will last for at least six more years. This is the latest public comment from a man who outed himself as a sadist in March, when he described the pain being inflicted on Greece as "fair".

Blanchard maintained that "shared sacrifices" are being made between Greece and its lenders. It would take someone with a twisted sense of humour to contend that German banks are suffering as much as the elderly or jobless in Athens and Thessaloniki.

I don't buy the explanation from EU and IMF officials that the economic situation leaves them with no alternative than to demand austerity measures with devastating consequences. The reason why I don't buy the explanation is that I have been studying the history of the euro and discovered that plans now being implemented have been under discussion by the currency's "architects" for some time.

The most important thing I have learned is that the euro always was an inhuman project. Looking at who laid the foundations for the euro, it could not have been anything else.

Sniffing an opportunity

In 1987, the Association for the Monetary Union of Europe (AMUE) was officially formed. According to the official narrative, it was the brainchild of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president, and Helmut Schmidt, the former German chancellor. Only a moist-eyed federalist could believe that version of events. A document held by the French national archives indicates that the steering committee for the association was set up in 1986. Far from being a response to a polite request from two statesmen, the AMUE was comprised of corporations that sniffed an opportunity to fight and ultimately win a class war.

The membership of the AMUE hailed exclusively from the owners of industry. Headquartered in the eight arrondissement of Paris, the association was composed of 400 private firms or trade associations. They included Goldman Sachs (of course), Deutsche Bank, Total, Siemens, Volkswagen and British American Tobacco. The employers' confederation UNICE (now called BusinessEurope) was there, too.

In 1988 the association came forward with an action plan for monetary union. Many of its points were recycled by Jacques Delors, then the European Commission, when he presented his "vision" on this topic the following year. Delors' call for the complete liberalisation of capital movements read like an answer to a banker's prayer. And that is exactly what it was.

Right until it eventually decided that its mission had been accomplished and to dissolve itself in October 2001 - a few months before euro notes and coins started filling cash registers - the AMUE engaged in a process of what the propagandist Walter Lippman called "manufacturing consent". On average, it organised 250 conferences per year at which the advantages of a single currency were accentuated and the pitfalls - as far as I can gather - ignored. A significant amount of this "public relations" (a more polite term for propaganda) was funded by grants from the European Commission - in order words, by the taxpayer.

Spawning a monster

Several of the association's staff members continue to dispense their "wisdom" at various forums. As its director of research, Stefan Collignon appears to have been the most prolific analyst in the AMUE. A few years after leaving that post, he wrote a 2002 paper for Harvard University in the US. In it, he advocated giving the European Commission the power to instruct national governments what their budgets should contain.

Collignon does not deserve any kudos for prescience or for individual thought. He was proposing ways of ensuring that the euro project helped the people it was always supposed to help: the bankers. And the fact he was talking about these ideas a decade ago illustrates that Herman van Rompuy, the EU's unelected president, was less than candid when he claimed earlier this year that responding to the euro crisis was like "building a life-boat at sea". The more plausible truth is that it involved embarking on a voyage that had long been pre-planned.

Collignon has lately been hired to advise the European Parliament on "competitiveness" (another concept originating with corporate lobbyists). His 2012 study for the Parliament concludes that there should be a "much more aggressive debate" about economic governance. The focus of this debate should be on wage restraint, he adds. Despite the turgid nature of his prose, the essence of his argument is clear: economic policy must primarily serve the interests of capital, not of workers. Class war is being waged, with the euro's architects stoutly defending the class we have come to know as the 1%.

Etienne Davignon, the Belgian politician turned banker, served as the AMUE's chairman at one stage. Last year Davignon stated that George Papandreou, then the Greek prime minister, had responded sensibly to the economic crisis but "ended that course of action by calling a referendum".

Those few words reveal everything. The euro was conceived by an unaccountable elite. The elite spawned a monster that stomps around Europe, robbing pensioners, workers and welfare recipients wherever it goes. "Sensible" politicians are told to keep mum as the monster devours the last vestiges of democracy.

•First published by New Europe, 7-13 October 2012.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Racial profiling firm gets slice of EU "terrorism" scheme

Why is a company involved in racial profiling part of a European Union team dedicated to monitoring “terrorist content” on the internet?

Amsterdam-based Euvision Technologies says that it specialises in “concept detection software”. This sounds innocuous: until you examine how the firm is using this equipment.

According to its website, Euvision has the “exclusive right” to sublicense the Impala video search engine, which was pioneered by researchers in the Netherlands. The company gives an “impressive list” of concepts that Impala can “detect” in digital media. I clicked on the heading “faces” and was intrigued to learn that the technology can help distinguish people based on their skin pigmentation. Impala can be used for “ranking Caucasians”, it says, showing a variety of photographs and screen grabs, including one of Silvio Berlusconi. Although it’s not stated plainly, the underlying message is unmistakable: Impala can just as readily “detect” or “rank” Arabs and Africans.

A similarly implicit message features in the example of “people with beards”. Among the head shots displayed are several brown-hued men, one clearly a Muslim. What’s going on here? Computer-savvy Islamophobia?

Euvision is participating in Clean IT [information technology], an EU-funded project which began last year. Essentially a “partnership” between industry and government, the declared objective of this project is to develop a set of guidelines for “countering illegal use of the internet” from a “counter-terrorism perspective”.

Conflict of interests

The involvement of Euvision raises serious ethical questions. The firm stands to gain by talking up the potential that its products offer to law enforcement authorities. New (or repackaged) thinking about “illegal use of the internet” presents it with commercial opportunities. So surely there is a conflict of interests if it is advising policy-makers about how to snoop on those who frequent internet chat rooms.

Nor can its apparently trail-blazing work on racial profiling be brushed aside. Harassment based on colour or ethnicity is a daily occurrence in the real world. The Equality and Human Rights Commission in Britain recently published data indicating that black people are 28 times more likely to be stopped and searched by that country’s police than white people. Targeting a community in this bigoted way is not acceptable on the streets. Why should it be any more acceptable online?

The organisation European Digital Rights has got hold of a confidential document setting out the key recommendations being assessed by the Clean IT team. Many of these proposals for discussion are an affront to freedom of expression and other basic civil rights. “Knowingly providing hyperlinks on websites to terrorist content must be defined by law as illegal,” the paper says. If implemented, academics and journalists could conceivably be prosecuted for referring to things they have learned about “terrorism” on the internet.

I have deliberately put the word “terrorism” in quotation marks. The starting point of any study on “terrorism” should surely be to outline the problem. As the Clean IT project doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of the problem it is fighting, I looked up the European Commission’s latest thinking. The Commission’s home affairs department has a helpful glossary of the topics in its purview. To my surprise, this glossary also puts “terrorism” in quotation marks.

“In the absence of a generally accepted definition under international law, ‘terrorism’ can be defined as the intentional and systematic use of actions designed to provoke terror in the public as a means to certain ends,” it says. “Terrorism can be the act of an individual or a group of individuals acting in their individual capacity or with the support of a state. It may also be the act of a state, whether against the population (human rights violations such as forced labour, deportation, genocide, etc), or in the context of an international armed conflict against the civil population of the enemy state.”

By favouring this definition, the Commission seems to be signalling an abhorrence of state violence. The reference to genocide is significant. A UN convention on genocide describes it as “a crime designed to destroy a national, ethnic, religious or racial group in whole or in part by, among other things, causing serious physical or psychological harm to members of that group or imposing intolerable conditions of life on them”.

Genocide “made in USA”

The US-led invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya appear to have caused “serious physical or psychological harm” to whole communities. White phosphorous shells dropped on Fallujah in 2004 are continuing to bring misery, according to evidence amassed by Iraqi doctors. Fifteen percent of all new-born babies in Fallujah have congenital defects, by some estimates.

If the US has resorted to genocide more than once in the past decade, then its government can legitimately be described as one of the deadliest terrorist outfits in the modern world. Assuming that the Clean IT folk take the Commission’s glossary seriously, they are obliged to treat anything that the Washington authorities place on the internet as “terrorist content”. Linking to that content would be illegal, if the project’s recommendations are stretched to their logical conclusion.

Sadly, I rate the likelihood of this happening at zero. The financial value of the “global security industry” grew almost tenfold over the past 10 years. As it’s now worth 100 billion euros per annum, fighting the symptoms of “terrorism” – while allowing their causes to fester - has become a massive business. It is a business that embraces odious practices like racial profiling without a second’s thought.

●First published by New Europe, 30 September – 7 October 2012.