Is Britain better off in or out of the EU?

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Brexit Scrabble

We interviewed two of Britain's most lucid voices on the EU-Brexit debate in an effort to both inform and impassion anyone yet to decide how they'll be voting on 23 June.

With just over a week until polling day, the national debate has been littered with misleading statistics and abstract arguments. These two short interviews offer the progressive case both for and against UK membership of the EU, whilst also aiming to offer a better understanding of how the EU works.

Part one features Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion. Part two features John Hilary, Executive Director at War on Want.

Part one

Part two

RELATED: Should Britain leave the European Union? Kelvin Hopkins and Caroline Lucas go head to head in our May New Internationalist magazine

How Britain helped create this refugee crisis

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Freedom House under a Creative Commons Licence

I was one of the 2,000 passengers stuck on the Eurostar outside Calais on Tuesday night, as the refugee crisis forced its way onto Europe’s front pages.

Contrary to media reports of passengers being prepared to smash windows in anger, the people in my carriage remained quiet throughout the 5 hours we were held in the dark outside the tunnel.

Many had young families with them, and I listened as parents tried to explain to their children just why we were being prevented from getting home.

In all the words I heard spoken, there was a quiet acknowledgement that any temporary inconvenience facing people on the train could never compare with the desperate situation of those outside it.

It is heartening that this basic sense of human compassion now seems to be the dominant public reaction in Britain as a whole.

Many people condemned David Cameron’s initial response to the crisis, and despite his recent climbdown, it is important to underline just how appalling the official British reaction has been in comparison to that of other countries around Europe.

Yet there is as yet little recognition that Britain has a deeper responsibility towards refugees fleeing the expanding conflict in the Middle East, given that successive British governments have been the ones to cause it.

The crisis that has led 4 million people to flee the fighting in Syria, and 10 million to leave their homes in Iraq, is a direct result of Britain’s interventions in that region over the past 15 years.

Once the occupation of Iraq had run into the ground and local resistance began to intensify, the coalition authorities whipped up a storm of sectarian violence in order to turn the Iraqi people against one another.

The forces of what is now Islamic State moved in to take advantage of the chaos, and then expanded into Syria once that country had imploded in turn. Their advance is what drove the family of Alan Kurdi to flee as refugees from Kobane, costing his life as well as the lives of countless others.

Islamic State now boasts thousands of trained fighters in the field, and jihadist forces from West Africa to Indonesia have pledged their allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliphate.

The crisis our strategists created has become an ever-expanding nightmare for those communities living with its consequences. The genie is out of the bottle, and the West is powerless to put it back in.

Nor has this come out of the blue. The CIA warned from the outset that the strategy being followed in Iraq would lead to a ‘blowback’ far greater than that caused by the West’s support of the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

The Arab mujahideen who returned home after their victory over the Soviet occupation devoted the next decade to bloody campaigns in Egypt and Algeria, where tens of thousands died in the ‘dirty war’ between Islamist and state forces.

Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the USA, and the subsequent bombings in Madrid and London, were ripples from that same wave.

And it is not just Iraq and Syria where British intervention has resulted in humanitarian crisis. UK and US aircraft began their bombing of Libya on 19 March 2011, 8 years to the day from the first bombardment of Iraq.

Now that country is also condemned to the horrors of civil war, and refugees from Libya are adding to the numbers fleeing to Europe.

Palestinians still make up one of the largest refugee populations in the world, prevented from returning to their homes by an Israeli state that refuses even to acknowledge their existence.

Yet the British government continues to provide political and military support for Israel’s ongoing policy of ethnic cleansing in Palestine, and next week will see David Cameron welcome to London his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, as if nothing was amiss.

We have an absolute duty to provide safe haven to refugees fleeing the horrors of war, and War on Want is proud to be one of the organizations supporting the Refugees Welcome Here rally on 12 September.

But we have an even greater responsibility towards those refugees who are fleeing from conflict situations which our own government caused in the first place.

Beyond our duty to provide safe haven, we must put an end to Britain’s imperialist interference in the lives of people around the Middle East, or anywhere else in the world.

Only this will provide the basis for a proper resolution of the refugee crisis into the future.

John Hilary is Executive Director at War on Want.

TTIP – now it gets political

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No TTIP train to Brussels, Belgium. Lobbying the European Commission. Belgium. Global Justice Now under a Creative Commons Licence


Debate is hotting up over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the notorious trade deal cooked up in secret between the EU and the United States.

With the official talks already in trouble, TTIP is now coming under renewed scrutiny from parliamentarians on both sides of the Atlantic.

In a series of forthcoming votes, the European Parliament and US Congress are turning their attention to an agreement that is becoming more toxic with every passing day.

The TTIP negotiations were launched in 2013, and there are several years before any deal could come up for final ratification.

Yet the new European Parliament elected last year is now set to hold its first plenary vote on an interim TTIP resolution during the week of 8 June, with a preliminary vote due to take place in the parliament’s trade committee as soon as this Thursday.

The schedule could still slip, given the level of controversy surrounding the resolution; the timetable has been set back once already by the blizzard of 898 amendments that were entered by other parliamentary committees in protest at the first draft.

As is now widely recognized, TTIP is not a traditional trade agreement aimed at reducing border tariffs, which are already at minimal levels between the EU and USA.

Instead, TTIP focuses on dismantling the ‘barriers’ to corporate profit that exist behind the border, namely the social standards, labour rights and environmental regulations that we hold most dear.

The impacts will be socially and ecologically disastrous: official estimates predict TTIP will cost at least one million jobs in the EU and US combined, while the resulting surge in US shale gas exports to Europe will lock us in to fossil fuel dependency for decades.

Most outrageously, TTIP is set to grant US corporations the new power to bypass domestic courts and sue European governments for potential loss of profits in a parallel judicial system available to them alone.

This so-called ‘investor-state dispute settlement’ mechanism (ISDS) would allow US companies the opportunity to demand compensation wherever they felt that their ‘legitimate expectations’ had been upset by the passage of new laws or regulations.

According to the official British government’s assessment commissioned from the London School of Economics at the beginning of the TTIP negotiations, taxpayers will be forced to pay billions if the new power is approved.

For these and many other reasons, popular opposition to TTIP is running at unprecedented levels.

The European Citizens’ Initiative against TTIP has secured close to two million signatures from across Europe in just eight months. The EU’s own public consultation on ISDS saw a record 150,000 responses, all but a tiny handful rejecting the idea of granting transnational corporations this new power. The message from the European people is loud and clear.

Yet the unelected bureaucrats of the European Commission are oblivious.

I met with Cecilia Malmström, the EU Trade Commissioner responsible for TTIP, in her private office earlier this year and asked her whether she was bothered that the people of Europe were up in arms against her.

Her response came back icily: ‘I do not take my mandate from the European people.’

Malmström’s handling of the ISDS question reveals all too clearly her contempt for democratic legitimacy.

Rather than respect the public’s rejection of her plans, the Trade Commissioner is determined to press ahead with a ‘new and improved’ version of ISDS, which singularly fails to address the fundamental issue raised in the consultation: why would we wish to give US corporations something that Malmström herself has characterized as a ‘VIP line to justice’?

As one MEP remarked caustically on being shown the new proposal: put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.

Yet some parliamentarians are all too happy to go along with the fiction that Malmström’s reforms have answered the critics.

For most liberal and conservative MEPs, support for TTIP seems to transcend any belief in democracy or national sovereignty.

For many social democratic MEPs, including Labour parties from across the continent, the desire to be seen as trusted allies in the neoliberal capitalist programme overrides any commitment to the European social model they might once have held.

Small wonder that they find themselves increasingly out of favour with European electorates.

If the European Parliament passes a resolution that is supportive of TTIP in the face of such unprecedented public opposition, it will open up a new phase in our understanding of the institutions of the EU.

While the Commission has long been known to be unaccountable, and the Council of Ministers is too remote to influence, the Parliament is at some level supposed to represent the will of the European people.

That argument will dissolve into thin air if MEPs vote against the public mood on TTIP. As Britain prepares for its forthcoming referendum on EU membership, people are unlikely to forget or forgive such a momentous betrayal.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Congress is going through its own TTIP contractions. The US debate centres on the special ‘fast track’ powers that President Obama needs to secure if he is to be allowed to negotiate TTIP to its conclusion without referring every line to Congress for approval.

The bill preparing this Trade Promotion Authority has just managed to stutter its way through the Senate, but there are huge doubts that it will pass the House of Representatives – not least because the same power would also apply to the parallel Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that the USA is negotiating with Asian and Latin American nations, which is seen as an even greater threat than TTIP.

Obama will not risk a vote that he might lose, and the clock is ticking on his presidency. Time is not on his side.

Popular resistance is making the passage of such legislation increasingly implausible, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The global day of action held on 18 April this year saw 750 actions in protest at the new wave of free trade deals that threaten to give transnational corporations new powers over society throughout the world.

Just as previous attempts to bring in such powers were successfully defeated in the 1990s and 2000s, TTIP is sure to be defeated too. The only question for EU and US parliamentarians is how many of them will go down with it.

John Hilary is Executive Director of War on Want. His introductory guide to TTIP, available in a dozen European languages, has now been republished in an updated 2015 edition, and can be freely downloaded from waronwant.org/ttip.

The unwelcome return of development pornography

Save the Children advert

In June 1981, New Internationalist published ‘Merchants of Misery’, a seminal article by Danish aid worker Jorgen Lissner that launched a blistering attack on the use of images of starving black children in NGO fundraising materials. The piece accused aid agencies of ‘social pornography’ in stripping individual children of their dignity and presenting them to the Western viewer as helpless objects isolated from any social or historical context, and called for an end to the racist distortion that this perpetuated in people’s conception of the Majority World. Lissner also noted that the use of such pictures was already considered unacceptable when fundraising for children’s charities at home. How could aid agencies get away with such double standards just because their images depicted children from other parts of the world?

The impact of the article was far-reaching. By the end of the decade, the General Assembly of European NGOs had adopted a code of conduct that instructed all aid agencies to refrain from using ‘pathetic images’ or ‘images which fuel prejudice’ in their depiction of the Majority World. An updated code adopted in 2007 affirmed that all future communications by international development NGOs must be based on core values of human dignity, respect and truthfulness. Similar guidelines have been introduced in other countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand/Aotearoa.

The distress dealers: an Action Against Hunger advert.

Despite this, recent years have witnessed the return of the starving black child as a stock image in the fundraising communications of far too many aid agencies. NGOs that should know better have reverted to type, calling up disaster images from the 1970s in a desperate attempt to increase their organizational income, whatever the cost. A battle which we thought had been won many years ago clearly needs to be fought afresh.

Matters came to a head last year when a formal accusation was brought against Save the Children for using degrading imagery of children in its television fundraising, in contravention of the code of conduct. One advert in particular, showing a number of children in varying states of emaciation, had been widely condemned as unethical. Yet Partos, the association of Dutch international development NGOs that heard the complaint, failed to take any action. In its final decision, the complaints committee noted that NGOs were encouraged to abide by the European code of conduct, but that there was no binding requirement on them to do so.

As Jorgen Lissner noted all those years ago, international NGOs have a choice. They can continue to act as merchants of misery, misrepresenting the Majority World and perpetuating their cycles of aid and despair. Or they can embrace active forms of solidarity with those movements around the world that are rising up to challenge the forces responsible for their oppression. Whatever choice NGOs make, one thing is clear. Colonial images of helpless children awaiting salvation from the hands of Western donors have no place in the 21st century, and we must be prepared to challenge them wherever they appear.

John Hilary is Executive Director of War on Want. His book, The Poverty of Capitalism: Economic Meltdown and the Struggle for What Comes Next, is published by Pluto Press.

Is the European Union damaging to democratic rights?

John

I consider myself a true European, both culturally and politically, and I have no time for petty nationalisms of any stripe. However, having spent much of the past 15 years fighting for fairer policies within the European Union, I now have a profound distrust of its institutions. Bitter experience has taught me just how great is the democratic deficit at the heart of the European programme.

The EU’s supreme policymaking forum, the Council of Ministers, meets in camera without any form of external oversight. The powerful but unelected European Commission closely follows the steer given to it by the tens of thousands of corporate lobbyists who operate within the Brussels bubble. The European Parliament (EP) remains a toothless wonder, even after the recent Lisbon Treaty reforms.

I believe this situation to be so serious that we now need to re-examine our support for the EU itself. Our democratic rights are under real threat, yet there is hardly a mention of the problem outside the xenophobic ravings of the nationalist Right. The current crisis sweeping Europe has shown just how devastating the EU’s interventions can be. Surely we need to be able to control the monster we have created?

Carlos

I have a naturally different point of view on the institutions. While the Council may not be collectively accountable, its members (Ministers) are nationally accountable to their own parliaments and, in some cases, these have developed strong control mechanisms. As for the Commission, demands for action come also from national governments and civil-society actors; in this respect, initiatives result from a pluralistic process, even though there remain important questions on accessibility. As for the EP, it has now reached the position of co-decider jointly with the Council.

I believe that some of the forces of globalization (such as, for instance, the unlimited capacity for action of the financial markets) pose the real threat to our democratic rights and the EU could be, precisely, a response to these forces. While citizens may cherish their small states, none of them can afford in isolation the kind of policies and responses that a quickly changing world demands. Naturally, there is a severing of the link between citizens and policies which derives from size and complexity. In my opinion, this is a price worth paying which requires improved transparency and accountability mechanisms.

John

It would be great news indeed if the EU acted as a force of resistance to corporate power in the global economy. Yet the reality is that the institutions of the EU have consistently sided with capital at the expense of workers’ rights, environmental standards and social cohesion. The EU’s policies on trade and investment, for instance, which I have fought against for years, have been relentlessly and exhaustively pro-business. In my experience, it is precisely because the EU is so anti-democratic that it can get away with such a flagrant disregard for people’s rights.

So you are right to say that the link has been severed between the people and the policies of the EU. But you are surely wrong to believe that this is a price worth paying. The transfer of power to Brussels signals the end of democracy in Europe, and no amount of transparency will bring it back. If we agree to such a Faustian pact, experience shows clearly that the only ones to benefit will be the financiers and their corporate friends.

Carlos

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The question is whether nation-states are better dams against the forces of globalization. Do we seriously think that nation-state democracies can contain these forces? If the response is ‘yes’, I guess that those providing that response should be prepared to leave the Union immediately. If the response is ‘no’, then the question is how to improve EU policies and their democratic quality.

While you may be right that there is a pro-market bias in the EU (inherent to the common market logic), I don’t believe that the EU itself has eroded (as you seem to suggest) workers’ rights, environmental rights and social cohesion. Let’s remember: the EU has campaigned for equal payment without discrimination (a revolution in some member states), it has created environmental standards for the EU (with member states retaining their own if superior) and, finally, it has championed territorial cohesion by means of structural policies. Maybe we have not done enough, but this is not the same as to say that the EU causes a diminution in rights. We need a proper identification of the source of our problems, rather than finding an easy bogeyman (or woman) for them.

John

Algerian women’s rights activist Salima Ghazali addresses a high-level conference on human rights at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Yves Logghe / Press Association Pictures

I believe that the only true hope of resistance against the forces of globalization will come from the peoples of Europe and the wider world. That is why the popular uprisings of the past year are so important historically, from the Arab revolutions to the occupations being staged today in hundreds of cities worldwide. These are a clear signal that people wish to take back control over their own lives, and that our élites ignore us at their peril.

By contrast, we have seen the EU’s true colours with the formation of the shadowy Frankfurt Group. This cabal of just eight people have taken it upon themselves to dictate the future of our continent, without any reference to the peoples of Europe. Unelected and unaccountable, they represent the logical conclusion of the EU’s pro-business and anti-democratic tendency.

Whom should we trust? I would argue that there is only one sane choice, and that is to join the wave of popular resistance against those who would destroy our common future. Anything that takes power away from the peoples of Europe is a threat to democracy. The EU represents one of the gravest of these threats.

Carlos

I agree that the uprising and movements all through the world derive from a huge sense of malaise, although I am reluctant to say that we can interpret their demands coherently. In some cases, they ask for jobs and bread; in some other cases, they have more developed demands and these do not necessarily coincide with one another. In all cases, though, they address politicians and business élites (including bankers). Even if the EU disappears, it is very unlikely that the reasons for these protests and their object (politicians) would also disappear. Hence, your diagnosis is wrong (let’s remember that protesters in London, for instance, marched against university fees, not EU policies). In an analogy, it is as if the Spanish government was doing very badly and, hence, the people would ask for the elimination of the Spanish state...

Better citizens’ involvement is badly needed at all levels, starting with the national one. I agree that the EU, like any other governance system, makes large policy mistakes. But I think it is irresponsible to promote the belief that by eliminating a specific governance system (the EU) our problems will be solved. I believe that we are in poor shape today, but I also think that it would be much worse without the EU.

John Hilary is the executive director of War on Want, an international anti-poverty charity based in London.

Carlos Closa is a professor at the Centre for Human and Social Sciences (CSIC) in Madrid. He directs research projects on reconstituting democracy in Europe, and on crimes committed by totalitarian states.

Bad cop, worse cop

The EU joins the other members of the ‘Screw the South’ gang.

PENNY TWEEDIE / PANOS PICTURES / WWW.PANOS.CO.UK

It’s hard for us Europeans not to look down on the United States of America. First up, they’ve got a president who is patently off the wall. Then the US electorate asks him back for a second term of office. When not actually invading third countries, the Bush team promotes a brand of neoliberal economics so patently self-serving that even some neoliberals despair. Frankly, you can’t help feeling superior – the good cop!

But do we have any right to look down on the US when our own house is so far from being in order? Within the World Trade Organization, the European Union (EU) has long challenged the US to the title of ‘most aggressive and self-interested negotiator’. While refusing to sort out its own agricultural subsidies, which condemn millions in the developing world to grinding poverty, the EU has mounted an ongoing offensive, targeting the industrial and services sectors of developing country economies for its own benefit. The EU identified the industrial trade negotiations as a high priority at the beginning of the now somewhat threadbare Doha Round, stating its intention to use the negotiations ‘to achieve commercially significant market access improvements’ for the transnational corporations it represents. It is now generally accepted that such gains will come at the expense of small producers in developing countries, in sharp contrast to the benefits which these countries were promised in the so-called ‘Development Round’. Opening up developing country markets, as the EU demands, will expose infant industries to cheap imports from the world’s most powerful transnationals. The consequences will be disastrous – bankruptcies of local companies, mass unemployment and increases in poverty levels.

Yet the EU has continued regardless. Peter Mandelson, the EU’s hawkish Trade Commissioner, has pressed for the most extreme market access in the current round, rejecting developing country pleas for flexibility and policy space which would allow them to protect local producers and develop their own industrial base. EU representatives publicly attack developing country delegates for resisting attempts to open up their markets, even threatening to block progress on other fronts if their ambitions are not satisfied. Hardly the mark of a good cop.

The same aggression has been evident in the services negotiations. The EU has used the current round of talks to demand extensive liberalization from developing countries, including the now infamous request that 72 countries commit their water sectors to irreversible liberalization under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Developing countries have long complained of the intense pressure brought to bear on them by EU negotiators in the bilateral GATS negotiations, which are held behind closed doors. European negotiators are known for bullying developing countries in these secret meetings, and have earned a reputation in Geneva as the most aggressive players.

Perhaps the most important difference between the EU and US lies not in our official representatives or their corporate sponsors but in the popular movements which oppose them. The Trade Justice Movement in the UK brings together millions of people who reject the free trade mantra of the EU, while continental Europe boasts a broad social movement which is viscerally opposed to the EU’s ‘Lisbon agenda’ of competitiveness (EU codeword for neoliberalism). The Not in Our Name advert taken out in the Financial Times in June 2006 by a coalition of over 70 European groups condemned Mandelson and the EU trade ministers for their continued promotion of a self-serving trade policy.

If there is a difference between the EU and US, it may come down to style. European officials sometimes experience a twinge of conscience employing the open aggression which their US counterparts use in international negotiations, and often try to mask their true intentions behind an image of care and concern. This difference was admirably summed up by one Asian delegate we interviewed about the EU’s tactical approach at the WTO: ‘The EU might be digging your grave, but will be smiling at you. The US will dig the grave, but with a grave face.’

*John Hilary* is a trade campaigner for the British-based NGO War on Want.