European Democracy: Federalists moving in for kill

25 January, 2002




Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission, this week called for an end to the national veto over EU decision-making.  Speaking in New York, he said that the veto was a “sort of atom bomb that the leader of every EU country carries in their back pocket… We can’t go on allowing each country the power of veto” . Without the so-called veto, which applies to a dwindling number of policy areas, all national control of decision-making would be lost and with it any possibility of democratic influence.

Mr Prodi’s comments were followed by calls from French Finance Minister Laurent Fabius for tax harmonisation in the Eurozone.  In an interview with the UK Independent on Sunday, Mr Fabius said that Eurozone tax rates will “naturally come closer together.  We should not try to hide this fact” (13 January).  He went further than this in an interview on French TV on 15 January, arguing that the euro would lead to “budgetary federalism” and that “We already have monetary federalism because there is a European Central Bank which, liaising with Finance Ministers, defines Europe’s monetary policy.  I believe that faced with this monetary federalism we will increasingly move towards budgetary federalism”

The pro-euro lobby in the UK, Sweden and Denmark, the EU member states which remain outside the Eurozone, has repeatedly denied that joining the euro means tax harmonisation.

Thanks to our friends at the UK euro-no campaign for this story. See http://www.no-euro.com

In the week when the European Commission finally climbed down from the fence and came down firmly on the side of the biotechnology industry, American farmers who have been victims of contamination by GM crops warned the European Union against giving up its moratorium on Genetically Modified Organisms. Percy Schmeiser from Saskatoon, Canada, and Tom and Gail Wiley from North Dakota, USA, explained to a public meeting at the European Parliament building complex in Brussels how they have been adversely affected by GMOs, although they themselves do not grow GM crops. Both have suffered severe financial penalties as a result.

Percy Schmeiser said "What the EU must realise is that there is no such thing as containment of GMOs more than there is such a thing as co-existence between GM crops and conventional or organic due to cross pollination. If the EU will allow GMOs to be grown and marketed in Europe, it will lose the biodiversity that it may now have, because the GM gene will dominate the others. This is what happened in Canada. It is also a myth that farmers use less chemicals after converting to GM crops. They become dependent on chemicals supplied by the seed supplier."

Mr Schmeiser explained hearing how his oilseed rape crop was found to be contaminated with patented genes. The patent holder, Monsanto Canada, successfully sued Schmeiser for illegally using its patented invention. U.S. farmers Tom and Gail Wiley explained how their crop of conventional soya beans was found to be unknowingly contaminated with GM soya, resulting in lost contracts to sell identity-preserved soya.

Jill Evans, Euro-MP for Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, who chaired the meeting said: "This is a bizarre situation. Everybody would expect that conventional or organic farmers whose harvest has been contaminated by GMOs should be able to claim compensation for any financial losses they suffer. In fact, the legal situation seems to be quite different. This raises particular concerns for farmers producing for the organic or GMO-free markets in Wales or anywhere else. It also seems that companies may, on the basis of their GM crop patents, prevent farmers from replanting seeds which are contaminated by a patented GM crop. Farmers who refuse to do so would obviously face massive actions for damages."

Belgian Green Paul Lannoye, who co-chaired the discussion added "We urgently need legally binding measures which effectively prevent GM contamination and therefore ensure the consumers' and the operators' freedom of choice, i.e. the freedom not to use GMOs. Moreover, the example of Monsanto's action against Percy Schmeiser shows once again that patent law simply does not fit when it comes to living organisms."

Unfortunately, the European Commission does not see things that way. According to a speech made on Wednesday by Enterprise and Information Society Commissioner Erkki Liikanen, what the EU needs is more biotechnology, not less. “The time is ripe and we have no time to lose if we are to catch up with other regions of the world,” Mr Liikanen told a press conference called to launch the Commission’s new “comprehensive” biotech policy.

“The potential benefits are huge in areas such as health care, food, industrial uses and the environment. And our estimates of the size of the future size of the biotechnology market in Europe and globally also demonstrates the urgency of Europe becoming a player in this field.”

As usual, the electorate of the member states will have no say in the matter: “The technology exists, and so it is not a question of whether, but how Europe takes the challenge.”

Raising the familiar spectre of US dominance and dynamism in contrast to Europeans’ attachment to old-fashioned nonsense such as democracy, the precautionary principle etc, the Finnish Commissioner said “If Europe is to catch up with this lead by the US, we must act now.”

The first task was to “complete the regulatory framework in the areas of GMOs and pharmaceuticals as soon as possible to ensure …confidence.” Mr Liikanen was referring to the fact that the European Parliament has demanded that three pieces of legislation governing GM food and feed, traceability and labelling of GM ingredients, and civil liability of GM growers be in place before any further permits to cultivate GM crops are given. Six of the fifteen member states, including France and Italy, have echoed this line. No new permits have been granted since 1998, and an effective moratorium continues to be in place, despite warnings from the Commission that it breaches trade obligations under the WTO and other international agreements.

Commenting on the Commission’s newly announced strategy, a spokesman for the European Parliament’s United Left group, which has fought hard with Greens and a few others to keep the moratorium on GMOs in place, said,

“On medical applications of biotechnology we want to see tight control and a significant role for the public sector. There hasn’t been time to study the Commission’s proposals sufficiently to be able to say how our Members will respond. On GMOs, however, our position is quite clear, we are opposed to any approval, in the current state of understanding, of releases into the general environment of genetically modified organisms.  We believe that this is in keeping with the precautionary principle and we see no real benefits to the consumer of GMO products and think the ‘feed the world’ hype is hypocritical nonsense. If, despite our opposition, the moratorium is lifted we will of course seek the most stringent regulatory framework possible, as we believe that GMOs pose a potential threat to human, animal and plant health, to the environment, and to the economic interests of small farmers.”

Two of the measures demanded by the European Parliament are now going through the complex process of becoming EU law. Proposals from the European Commission on “food and feed” and “traceability and labelling” were issued at the end of last year and must now be approved or amended (rejection is theoretically possible, but won’t happen) by the European Parliament and the Council, which represents the governments of the member states. The third, however, on environmental liability, was issued only this week, and first reactions are that it is totally unsatisfactory.

German Green MEP Hiltrud Breyer MEP, a member of the EP Environment Committee, said:

"This should be a happy day for the environment. After ten long years of internal debate, with the publication of a Green Paper in 1993 and a White Paper in 2000 , the Commission has finally managed to adopt its proposal for a directive on environmental liability. But it is rather a gloomy day. As the scope of the long-expected proposal seems so restrictive and the text contains so many loopholes, it is very unlikely that it will be of any use at all."

Ms Breyer also criticises the Commission for breaking the agreement reached between Parliament and Council, when adopting the GMO Release directive.

United Left Group MEP and environment policy co-ordinator Jonas Sjöstedt said “When the Parliament agreed last March to approve the reformed system for permitting the release of GMOs into the environment, it insisted on certain conditions. One was that there should be a specific liability regime covering contamination from GMOs. These proposals contain no such protection and will expose conventional farmers, as well as those specialising in organic crops, to damage, with no real hope of adequate compensation. This is unacceptable, and we will do our best to persuade the European Parliament to send it back to the Commission with a note telling them to propose something serious. I am sure the Greens will do the same, but we aren’t enough together to stop this and it’s important that people put pressure on their MEPs and governments to reject this proposal.”  

The proposed liability directive deliberately establishes a system which will not work. There will be no direct recourse to the courts. Instead, plaintiffs will have to approach whatever each member state defines as its “responsible public authority.” It will be up to the plaintiff, in most cases, to provide proof, and “proving” a link between biodiversity damage and a particular GM crop, for example, will be both scientifically difficult and extremely expensive.

As well as failing to propose an effective liability regime for GMOs, the Commission has also acquiesced to corporate lobbyists who have succeeded in having polluting activities made possible by government permits (issued under an EU directive) exempted from any provisions, an exclusion which Roberto Ferrigo of the European Environmental Bureau described as “nonsense”, adding “If you run someone over it’s your own fault. The fact that you have a driving licence is no defence.

Britain’s Blairite government has produced a new briefing on the possible timetable for a euro referendum. Having categorically promised a referendum before nailing the lid down on the vestiges of the UK’s democracy by taking the country into the Euro-zone, the Blairites, torn apart by internecine strife and without the usual comfort of a lapdog press (most British newspapers oppose the euro, no doubt for their own not-very-palatable reasons), are stuck with having to have one. The new paper seems to have only two options in mind: get it over with or put the damned thing off for ever: see for yourself at the UK anti-euro “No” campaign’s website, http://www.no-euro.co.uk/timetable.pdf

Meanwhile, Erik Meijer, Euro-MP for the Dutch Socialist Party, which sits in the European Parliament’s United Left Group, has asked the European Commission what the EU authorities intend to do to reimburse what he describes as “unjust charges levied on people changing their Guilders (the Netherlands’ currency replaced by the Euro at the beginning of the year) for Euros.  meanwhile, Belgian consumer group Test-Achats has revealed that prices on a selected group of typical purchases rose by a massive 7% in the six months leading up to the Euro. The association drew particular attention to taxis, car parking, cafes and leisure facilities. Its German equivalent VZBZ also reported huge price rises in the latter half of 2001.  In Britain, independent forecasts commissioned by the finance ministry estimate the cost of Euro-entry at £8 billion.

Left Euro-MPs quiz EU authorities on cost of Israeli terror

Israeli Defence Force terror attacks on the Palestinian territory have been responsible not only for thousands of deaths but for the destruction of buildings and facilities financed through aid from the European Union and its member states. Between them, the EU and the governments of the fifteen countries of which it is comprised are the principal suppliers of aid to Palestine, handing over more than 600 million Euros in the last three years. EU authorities are now trying to estimate the extent of the damage, which persistent Israeli terror adds to each day. So far, it includes something over 9 million Euros for the near-demolition of Gaza airport, over 2 million for three police installations, and smaller sums for an afforestation scheme, a forensic laboratory, the Gaza port and other buildings and installations. Francis Wurtz, the leader of the United Left Group, Joaquim Miranda who chairs the Development Committee, and left Euro-MP Luisa Morgantini of the Italian Communist Refoundation, have put down a question to the EU Council, which represents the member state governments, asking them what they tend to do about this. “These actions seriously affect the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, and conflict with the foreign policy of the EU,” say the three MEPs. “They threaten the EU’s cooperation programme with the Palestinian Authority, which is an essential element of the peace process. At the same time, they have asked the European Commission, which oversees EU spending programmes, to estimate the cost of Israel’s destruction of facilities paid for by the Fifteen. Both institutions are asked how they intend to respond to the aggression.

Turkey’s bloodily repressive government is seeking to take advantage of Bush’s “Crusade” (though they don’t actually call it that in Turkey, you understand) by having domestic opponents labelled as "terrorists”. Kurdish group the PKK and the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front (DHKC) were not included on the EU’s first terror list.  Israel is also complaining that neither Hezbollah nor the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was included. In the long term, Turkey, which is a NATO member and remains committed to EU accession, may prove to have more leverage.  

Two major events for the international left resistance take place in the coming week, with the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, once again deliberately timed to coincide with the World Economic Forum, the big gathering of neoliberal and corporate honchos which has previously always taken place in Davos, Switzerland, but which has this year been moved to New York City.

Euro-MPs from the United left and Green groups will be amongst those taking part, along with tens of thousands of activists from labour movement, human rights, environmental, and other organisations, in the WSF in Brazil, which runs over two days from January 31. The Forum will discuss will discuss the impact of neoliberal economic policies in the last decade, the international situation in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in the US, the link between the fight for social justice and peace and fundamental rights and alternatives to neoliberal globalisation.  The WEF in New York City, meanwhile, is expected to discuss how to continue to screw as much as possible out of working people, how to get rich on the backs of the poor, and how best to project the idea that a system which has produced Argentina’s meltdown, the biggest corporate bankruptcy in history, and rocketing global unemployment is actually working really well.

For more on the WSF go to http://www.worldsocialforum.org For the Anti-Capitalist Convergence which plans to give a traditional welcome to the WEF, go to this website , here and here

We are told that the average American is “bewildered” by the “allegation” or “insinuation” that their country’s foreign policy was in any way responsible for provoking the kinds of feelings that led to the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. How much more “astonished” this mythical creature must be when its lapdog turns round and bites it. Yes, the bogus war on terrorism, or some parts of it at least, has finally proved toomuch even for Governor Blair and the administration of the 51st state to stomach. Under pressure from the press, foreign minister Jack Straw has actually called into question the Land of the Free’s right to establish a concentration camp, or to redefine PoWs as “illegal combatants”, precisely the term the Nazis used to justify their refusal to treat French Resistance fighters as Prisoners of War. “Stop this brutality in our name, Mister Blair” screamed the usually tame pro-Blair Daily Mirror’s front page earlier this week. But then this is the paper which recently took back into its service John Pilger, and perhaps they have found that the novelty of truth sells papers. “These prisoners are trapped in open cages, manacled hand and foot, brutalised, tortured and humiliated…. We are assured they are cruel, evil men, though not one has been charged, let alone convicted, of any offence…Tony Blair says he is standing shoulder to shoulder with President Bush. Not on our behalf, he isn't.” Rediscovering the once progressive daily’s long-dead radical voice, the Mirror, the UK’s second-largest circulation paper, said that Bush  “is close to achieving the impossible - losing the sympathy of the civilised world for what happened in New York and Washington on September 11.”

Here Spectre would beg to differ. Our sympathy for the people who died in these attacks has never depended on any feeling of solidarity with the oil junta which illegally installed the barely-literate Bush in the White House, after, as the Mirror says “a squalid vote-fix.

To read the rest, go to the Mirror

Help save Cuba’s rich diversity of birds

Conservation group Birdlife International is raising funds to sponsor a project in Eastern Cuba. The aim is to save threatened species endemic to the island. Cuba has extensive knowledge of conservation methods but lacks resources to put this to good work. If you want to make a donation, or find out more about the project, go to this website

Learn Spanish in Cuba

Did you know that for around $6,000 you can spend 6 months in Havana learning Spanish? If you can’t take half a year out of your life, you can do a fortnight’s intensive course for $250, with full board costing $625. Cuba needs your money, and you need to speak the language of the Revolution. Think about it! Or better still, find out more by emailing dpg@comuh.uh.cu

The Australian government is planning legislation that will make it illegal for civilian ships to pick up refugees at sea without permission. Such a law would have prevented Arne Rinnan, captain of the MV Tampa, from rescuing asylum seekers from their sinking boat last August.

Read all about it in Australia’s socialist newspaper, Green Left Weekly, at http://www.greenleft.org.au         

The Green Party of Pennsylvania informs us that the state’s Newspaper Association is holding a debate between candidates for governor on Tuesday, January 29.  Unfortunately, their candidate won’t be taking part. Republicrats and Democans only? Goodness me, no, for that would hardly be democratic now, would it.

Instead, qualification depends on the proportion of voters registered as supporters of your party. Fair enough. Otherwise, any Tom, Dick or Harriet would be able to turn up and declare that he or she was a candidate, and the whole thing would descend into chaos.

So, where would you put the barrier? 5%? 10 maybe?  Any more than that would hardly be fair, especially knowing how hard it is to break that two-party arm-lock.

Well, folks, at least in Pennsylvania it’s even harder than you think. The threshold is, in fact, 35%. Now we know this would be beyond Dubya, Enron’s auditors and other arithmetically-challenged groups, but Spectre’s readers are smart, so we have faith that you’ve already worked it out for yourselves. 35 + 35 + 35 = 105.  

Only two candidates can debate. In fact, if one party became suddenly unpopular, and its registration dropped to 34%, the remaining candidate would have to debate all alone, though admittedly this would make little difference to the range of opinion on offer.

Read more about this splendid example of this wonderfully democratic system at http://www.pagreenparty.org/ 

Pluto Press, the UK’s independent left publishing house, has just produced its catalogue of new titles for the first half of 2002. Catalogue features titles by Greg Palast, Vandana Shiva and Z-Net’s Michael Albert, as well as books on subjects as varied as Marx’s view of the state and revolution, Israel’s global political economy, the Asian community in Britain and recent developments in the US cinema.  Many of these books will be reviewed in Spectre over the next few months. Until then, find out more at www.plutobooks.com