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Monday, November 26, 2012

How Europe courted Israel's arms industry on eve of Gaza attack

Haneen was 10-months-old; Omar 11 months; Ibrahim one year. For the offense of being reared in Gaza, these infants were killed with the aid of Israel's "precision-guided" missiles.

A few days before their deaths, the European Commission sponsored the "second international homeland security conference" in Tel Aviv. More of a bazaar than a talking shop, the event featured exhibits by Israel's top weapons companies. Shimon Peres, the state's president, gave the closing address, using this august occasion to boast of how, as a youthful arms dealer, he was "part of founding Israel's defense industries." Peres said he was "delighted to see the innovative technological developments which are leading the world in homeland security" and expressed pride in heading "a nation with creativity and wisdom, courage and chutzpah."

As far as I can see, the EU's involvement in this exhibition went unnoticed by the media. That is deeply disturbing. It suggests that the Commission can endorse firms which profit from dropping bombs on Palestinian babies without anyone batting an eyelid.

The officials who rubber-stamped the EU's participation in the Tel Aviv fair cannot claim it was unrelated to the latest offensive against Gaza. Both provided an opportunity for the arms industry to advertise its wares: in one case in a conference centre; in the other case on the "battlefield." DefenseNews, a popular magazine among weapons traders, has reported that Rafael, the Israeli state-owned weapons company, "initiated emergency, round-the-clock operations" to meet rising demand to supply Iron Dome, a missiles "interceptor" system that is a recent addition to Israel's arsenal.

Subsidies for war

Nor is this an isolated case. EU institutions are regularly represented in fairs where Israeli weapons manufacturers can show off their latest "innovative technological developments", to quote Peres. In September, for example, the European Defence Agency lent its support to the ILA -- an air show near Berlin -- at which the aforementioned Rafael had a stall. In June, numerous Israeli firms took part in Eurosatory, an arms fair in Paris; so did delegations from the EU and NATO.

Rubbing shoulders with war profiteers is not in itself reprehensible. But awarding subsidies to the same profiteers amounts to acquiescence in the human rights abuses on which their bottom line depends. At present, Israel is taking part in some 800 EU-sponsored scientific research projects, with a total value of €4.3 billion ($5.6 billion). Israel is eyeing an even bigger share of Horizon 2020, the Union's next pot of research money.

It is interesting that the Tel Aviv fair earlier this month focused on how surveillance equipment can be used for major sporting events like the Olympics. When London hosted the games during the summer, the EU financed the trial of a new security system in Heathrow airport. Elbit, a maker of drones that have been heavily used over Gaza's skies in recent days, was one of the "partners" in this trial.

Sordid irony

There is a sordid irony behind how the EU is turning to Israel for advice on how to make our airports safer. In 2001, Israel destroyed Gaza's only airport. It had been constructed with €9.5 million worth of EU aid. Yet Chris Patten, the Union's external relations commissioner at time, refused to sue Israel for this damage. He tried to justify his inaction by contending that once cheques were handed over to the Palestinian Authority, the EU no longer owned them.

Around this time last year, the Commission published a list of 82 EU-funded facilities that had been destroyed by Israel. Officials estimated that the loss incurred to the Union as a result was almost 30 million euros. Still, the Brussels bureaucracy would not take legal action in order to hold Israel accountable; when Israel last conducted a major offensive against Gaza in 2008 and 2009, the EU released emergency funds to repair harm inflicted by Israel, with the help of American and European weapons and components.

Why is the EU so eager to court Israel's war machine? One clue can be found in the "action plan" for a "competitive security industry" that Antonio Tajani, the EU's enterprise commissioner, published in July. It noted that the "global security market" was worth €100 billion per year in 2011 -- a tenfold increase on its value in 2001.

Brussels officials know that Israel is the world's sixth largest exporter of "security" goods. Cooperating with Israel is necessary, they say, in order to develop Europe's own "security" industry. By sucking up to Benjamin Netanyahu's government, they can help win lucrative contracts for European firms. Italy's Finmeccanica, for example, bagged a $1 billion deal to supply training jets to Israel earlier this year.

And when Europe lacks weapons it calls on Israel. Frontex, the EU's border agency, has been toying with the idea of buying Israeli drones to monitor asylum-seekers. Denmark is reported to have bought Israeli bombs as its own stockpile became depleted while taking part in NATO's war against Libya.

Next month the EU will be formally awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. We will be told of the Union's commitment to human rights and other "values". The spectacle will surely be nauseating. The EU's unerring support for Israel proves that the "values" that are truly cherished can be quantified in monetary terms. Why else would the Union court those who stand to gain from putting Haneen, Omar and Ibrahim in tiny graves?

•First published by New Europe, 25 November 2012 - 2 December 2012.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Tobacco lobbying: the sleazy path to success

There was something marvellously sleazy about the controversy that led John Dalli to resign as the EU's health commissioner. Combining hints of secret payments and improper access and a proven burglary, the whole affair demolished the myth that Brussels is boring.

It was especially satisfying to see solid evidence - some produced by Dalli himself - that the tobacco industry is willing to grease the palms of those lobbyists who can provide it with one-on-one contact with the powerful.

The most proper response to this scandal would be for the EU institutions to collectively decide that all representatives of cigarette and snus companies are personae non gratae. Corporations that make and sell weapons of mass destruction should have no role in determining public policy.

By definition, every cent that lobbyists receive from the tobacco industry is dirty money. So why are some of these grubby guns for hire treated as respectable "experts" on European politics?

Ireland's self-proclaimed leading "think tank" on EU policy - the Institute of European Affairs - is chaired by Brendan Halligan. A former grandee in the Irish Labour Party, Halligan regularly hobnobs with the political and business elite in both Dublin and Brussels. The institute's glossy brochures are crammed with photographs of him dining with presidents and EU commissioners.

Halligan's history as a flunky can be found in a treasure trove of documents released because of litigation against cigarette makers. A 1983 memo from the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers' Advisory Committee details how Halligan, then a recent addition to the European Parliament, undertook to "definitely push" a proposal that the cigarette industry had made on saving duty free shops within the European Community. The lobby group was pleased with Halligan's commitment as it distinguished him from others in the assembly's Socialist group, "which tends to be ill-disposed to duty free facilities", the memo added.

Right to kill?

After Halligan stepped away from frontline politics, he was rewarded for his loyalty to Big Tobacco with lucrative contracts. His firm, Consultants in Public Affairs (CIPA), advised the Confederation of European Community Cigarette Manufacturers (CECCM), over how to court the Brussels institutions. During the 1990s, he spent a great deal of time trying to prevent the harmonisation of taxes on cigarettes and the introduction of a ban on tobacco advertising. In a discussion paper that he wrote for cigarette makers in 1995, he expressed concern about how public unease with smoking by children could lead to revulsion against the whole industry. "The antis are taking advantage of these trends and are using the children issue to attack the industry across a broad front," he wrote. "Measures are proposed under the guise of protecting children but the real objective is to leverage limitations on the adult market. This latest piece of social engineering has a high potential for success. It gives the antis an emotional fire power, which is difficult to counter."

A letter to the European Commission that Halligan drafted for the trade association in 1998 stated: "as manufacturers of a legal product with nearly 100 million consumers, we believe that we have a right, as well as a duty, to be part of the policy-making process and to be consulted whenever our interests are at stake".

The European Policy Centre (EPC) - one of the best known "think tanks" in Brussels - helped further that agenda by setting up a "risk forum" financed by British American Tobacco (BAT). In 2003, the Commission accepted the risk forum's chief recommendation: that cigarette makers would be consulted about activities affecting them. Today, the EPC regularly organises debates on health policy. I recently put it to Annika Ahtonen, who runs the centre's health programme, that it was ironic for the EPC to pose as a champion of public health, when it had been funded by the cigarette industry. "That was a long time ago," she said. Ahtonen might like to peruse the EPC's latest annual report. On page 19, it lists BAT and Philip Morris as two of its current funders.

Deception

Seven pages later, Pavel Telicka is named as one of the EPC's "senior advisers". Telicka was appointed the Czech Republic's first EU commissioner in 2004 and was given partial responsibility for health policy. He wasn't long in that job, however, before he was hired by the aforementioned BAT. According to that firm's website, he is still heading its "social reporting process" - an initiative designed to ensure that a firm's "ethical and environmental performance" is accounted for "in a similar way" to its financial performance.

Telicka does not appear to have been chastised in any way for embracing an industry he was tasked with regulating. On the contrary, he remains an official adviser to the Commission as part of its "high level group" on the "reduction of administrative burdens".

Meanwhile, the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue (TABD) was asked by the European Commission in 1995 to facilitate contacts between chief executives and politicians in both the EU and US. Its Brussels office was until recently run by Jeffries Briginshaw, who campaigned hard against moves by Australia to require that cigarettes are sold in plain packages. In his letters to the Canberra authorities, Briginshaw has neglected to mention a salient fact: he used to work directly for BAT and that company is one of the most active participants in the TABD.

Far from being shunned, Big Tobacco is embraced by leading EU policy-makers. This is the real scandal.

•First published by New Europe, 18-24 November 2012.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Gender equality means more than stilettos in the boardroom

At least twice over the past few years, the Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli has created a stir simply by bringing her young daughter to work. The resulting media coverage has filled me with an unpleasant sense of déjà vu.

Back in the 1990s, I was an assistant to an Irish politician, Patricia McKenna, who had a child during her first term in the European Parliament. Once, McKenna was shown on the main evening news bulletin minding her baby and participating in a committee meeting at the same time. For days afterwards, a popular radio talk show in Dublin received numerous calls from irate men (and, if I remember correctly, a few women). Most callers argued that nobody could do a job properly, while simultaneously attending to an infant's needs. Behind their attempts to sound reasonable lurked sexist mindsets. The subtext of the argument was that parliaments are clubs for boys; any girls wishing to join would have to play by rules that the boys had written.

As a bearded bloke, I feel slightly ill-at-ease addressing issues of gender. Yet I'm convinced that feminism is an ideology that merits support from men. Every positive change is incomplete unless the discrimination faced by our sisters and wives is eliminated.

So why am I less than excited about efforts by Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner, to place more women in corporate boardrooms?

Disgraceful

Lest I be misunderstood, I think it is disgraceful that over one-third of large companies in the EU have no women on their boards of directors and that 97% of all large firms are chaired by a man. The culture engendered by these male-dominated groups is likely to be despicable. Since the eruption of the economic crisis, a number of books have documented how sexual harassment was rife on Wall Street and - worse - how little, if any, action was taken against male bankers who sexually abused female colleagues. There is no reason to surmise that the behaviour of high-flying businessmen is more exemplary this side of the Atlantic.

The data I have cited comes from a survey that the European Commission conducted of almost 600 firms. Reding wishes to have quotas introduced whereby there would be a minimum of four women on each board of ten. Assuming the quotas are respected, this means that a total of 2,400 women would be promoted by the 600 or so top corporations.

At most, then, Reding's initiative will benefit a few thousand women but make no difference to the other 250 million women in the Union. Is this something to celebrate?

It's a safe bet that Viviane Reding, personally knows some of the women who would be promoted if her initiative is implemented (at this stage, it is unclear if it will be because a number of Reding's fellow commissioners are opposed). As a wealthy Sorbonne-educated Christian Democrat, Reding appears more eager to help advance women of status, than to help advance the status of women.

Reding's desire to promote women who are already in privileged positions cannot distract from how the institution she represents is causing immense harm to ordinary women through its slash-and-burn economic policies.

Women are frequently the first victims of the austerity agenda that the European Commission is overseeing. In Spain, the ministry for gender equality has been abolished altogether. Spending on child care - a vital service for women working outside the home - has been reduced drastically in Estonia and Bulgaria. In Ireland, the reduction in special needs assistants is placing an extra burden on the mothers of children with learning difficulties. The closure of schools in Greece puts extra strain on women. The gap between women's and men's pay has reportedly widened in Lithuania and the Czech Republic. Studies in Britain have shown how benefit reductions affect young women far more than men. This is particularly the case with cuts to allowances for single mothers as over 90% of lone parents in the UK are women.

A better way

Germaine Greer seems to have attracted more attention lately for her comments about the Australian prime minister's dress sense than anything else. This is a pity as many of Greer's teachings remain as relevant today as they ever were. "If women can see no future apart from joining the masculine elite on its own terms, our civilisation will become more destructive than ever," she has written. "There has to be a better way."

This better way cannot be achieved simply by striving for some kind of equilibrium between the levels of testosterone and oestrogen in the headquarters of corporations. Nor can it be achieved by trying to make capitalism a bit more maternal. It can only be achieved by replacing the rotten system we have at the moment with something more humane.

Feminism is not about women being as tough as men. It is not about Margaret Thatcher declaring war on the Falkland Islands or Angela Merkel wrecking Europe's welfare states. The equality it aims for is an inclusive one, not an equality confined to 600 or so corporations. Feminism is the antithesis of competitiveness, that inequality-widening doctrine enshrined in EU law. By weakening labour rights, competitiveness makes it easier for bosses to exploit women.

It's worth recalling that the feminist movement used to be synonymous with the battle cry "women's liberation". Surely, liberation means more than having a few more skirts and stilettos in the boardroom.

•First published by New Europe, 11-17 November 2012.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Are Ashton's friends using white phosphorous in Libya?

Freedom now reigns in Libya - or so Catherine Ashton would have us believe.

On 23 October, the EU's foreign policy chief issued a statement congratulating the Libyan people "on the first anniversary of the historic declaration of liberation". While Ashton did profess concern about ongoing violence, the general tone of her comments was triumphant.

Four days later, the television channel RT broadcast horrific images from Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli. The RT report included allegations made by a local lawyer that the militia attacking the city was using white phosphorous munitions.

RT is financed by Russia - like the BBC is financed by the British state - but does that mean its report should be dismissed? Organisations viewed as credible in this part of the world have previously documented the presence of chemical weapons in Libya. A journalist with The New York Times found white phosphorous in a Libyan weapons depot during 2011. According to the journal of record, the depot had belonged to Muammar Gaddafi's regime but had fallen into rebel hands. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, came across white phosphorous at "multiple sites" in Libya earlier this year.

The fact that the white phosphorous allegations from Bani Walid have been ignored by most media outlets does not make them untrue. The mainstream press failed to probe claims that the US bombarded the Iraqi city of Fallujah with white phosphorous in 2004. Fortunately, a number of bloggers kept digging until they had produced proof that the substance had indeed been used. After a year of obfuscation, the Pentagon finally owned up in 2005.

Grievous injuries

White phosphorous can cause grievous injuries. Once it comes in contact with human skin, it can burn deeply through the muscle and into the bone. America's best buddy Israel made extensive use of this substance during its all-out offensive on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. Just as there have been international campaigns, culminating in agreements to ban landmines and cluster bombs, there ought to be a mass mobilisation against white phosphorous.

The militia attacking Bani Walid appear to be on "our" side. Last year Ashton told rebels fighting Gaddafi that "we will be here to support you all the way". Some of those rebels apparently want to teach Bani Walid a lesson because it was a pro-Gaddafi stronghold. The attack was sparked by the death in September of Omran Shaaban, a rebel suspected of capturing and helping to kill Gaddafi. Shaaban had been kidnapped in Bani Walid.

Are the women and children in this city now being exposed to white phosphorous as part of an act of vengeance? I don't have the answer to that question. But surely it requires investigation.

Of course, our governments have a history of only getting upset about Libya when it suits them? Having been told repeatedly that Gaddafi was a "mad dog", I was astonished to pick up a newspaper one day in 2003 and learn of how his rapprochement with the West. Gaddafi bought so much European weaponry over the next few years that he must have amassed a huge collection of loyalty cards from our arms dealers. He even delivered a lecture in the European Commission's press room, encircled by his troupe of female bodyguards. But then he started making awkward queries about how Libya's oil resources were benefiting some corporations more than others. And so he became a "mad dog" again.

Incapable of wrongdoing?

We, on the other hand, are incapable of wrongdoing. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary-general, expressed pride recently about how the alliance "prevented a massacre and helped protect civilians from attack" in Libya last year. How did NATO achieve that feat? By dropping a total of 7,642 "surface-to-air weapons", according to NATO's own data.

Every so often NATO's legal adviser Peter Olson is invited to speak at prestigious conferences on respecting international humanitarian law in modern warfare. Strangely, the same Peter Olson is less enthusiastic about opening up NATO's own record on respecting international humanitarian law to scrutiny. Earlier this year, he wrote to the UN's International Commission of Enquiry on Libya, expressing concern that incidents involving NATO could be treated in the commission's report as being "on a par" with those that "did violate law or constitute crimes". Olson urged that the report "clearly state that NATO did not deliberately target civilians and did not commit war crimes in Libya."

There was something arrogant about how Olson tried to dictate what the findings of an independent enquiry should be. As it happened, the International Commission did express concern about a number of airstrikes carried out by NATO. Its report stated that the enquiry was "unable to conclude, barring additional explanation, whether these strikes are consistent with NATO's objective to avoid civilian casualties entirely, or whether NATO took all necessary precautions to that effect". Amnesty International has cited "credible reports" that some of NATO's attacks killed "at least tens of civilians". And the aforementioned Human Rights Watch declared in May this year that NATO has "failed to acknowledge dozens of civilian casualties" resulting from its 2011 war and has "not investigate possible unlawful attacks".

Leaving aside NATO's direct responsibility, there is a general consensus among human rights monitors that both rebel and pro-Gaddafi fighters carried out indiscriminate attacks. Shouldn't Catherine Ashton, therefore, admit that some of the rebels she supported "all the way" were war criminals? Of course, she should. But I'm not holding my breath.

•First published by New Europe, 4-10 November 2012.