A Syrian official has censured the European Union (EU)’s recent extension of sanctions against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, saying the move could be an impediment to efforts for finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
Khalaf Muftah, the head of the ruling Ba’ath Party’s department of culture and information, made the criticism in an interview with Russia’s Sputnik news agency on Friday.
The EU bans are illegal and contradict international law and the United Nations (UN)’s Charter, Muftah said, adding, “These measures hamper the political process, because they increase the sufferings of the Syrian nation and do not promote the creation of conditions for a political dialogue with Europe.”
He further called for the lifting of the economic blockade on Syria, noting that the measure has led the Syrian nation to poverty and misery and forced people to migrate.
“The sanctions contradict the statement that migration has political causes, because the real cause is the economic blockade imposed by Europe,” he said.
The remarks came hours after the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, extended its sanctions against the government in Damascus until June 2017.
The bans include investment restrictions, an embargo on Syrian oil and a freeze on Syrian central bank assets within the 28-nation bloc. They also cover export restrictions on certain equipment and technologies as well as travel bans and asset freezes against more than 200 people and 70 entities.
The measures come as part of an EU decision in December 2014 to continue sanctions against Syria as long as what the bloc calls government repression goes on.
The development comes as some European countries and their regional allies are accused of supporting terrorist groups that have been wreaking havoc in the Arab country over the past five years.
From ministerial offices to barricades on the streets, Europe is in open revolt against anti-Russian sanctions which have cost workers and businesses millions of jobs and earnings. Granted, the contentious issues are wider than anti-Russian sanctions. However, the latter are entwined with growing popular discontent across the EU.
Germany’s vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel is among the latest high-profile politicians to have come out against the sanctions stand-off between the European Union and Russia.
At stake is not just a crisis in the economy, of which the anti-Russian sanctions are symptomatic. It is further manifesting in a political crisis that is challenging the very legitimacy of EU governments and the bloc’s institutional existence. The issue is not so much about merely trying to normalize EU-Russian relations. But rather more about preserving the EU from an existential public backlash against anti-democratic and discredited authorities.
Gabriel, who also serves as Germany’s economy minister, said that relations between the EU and Moscow must be quickly normalized. And he called for the lifting of sanctions that have been imposed since early 2014 as a result of the dubious Ukraine conflict. The EU followed Washington’s policy of slapping sanctions on Russia after accusing Moscow of «annexing» Crimea and interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs. The charges against Russia are tenuous at best and are far removed from the mundane pressing concerns of ordinary EU citizens, who are being made to bear a heavy economic price for a stand-off that seems unduly politicized, if not wholly unwarranted.
Russia responded to the sweeping sanctions by implementing counter-measures banning exports from the EU and the US. The stand-off has hit the European economies hardest, with the Austrian Institute of Economic Research estimating that the trade war will cost the EU over €100 billion in business and up to 2.5 million in jobs. By contrast, the US has scarcely felt a pinch from the trade impasse.
Germany, Europe’s biggest economy with the largest trade links to Russia, has suffered most from the sanctions rift. Up to 30,000 German businesses are invested in Russia, amounting to as many as half a million jobs in danger and €30 billion in lost revenues, according to the Austrian Institute of Economic Research.
In one German state alone, Saxony-Anhalt, the local economy minister Jorg Felgner says that exports to Russia have been slashed by 40 per cent, with the loss of €200 million to his state. Felgner is among the growing chorus of EU voices who are calling for the anti-Russian sanctions to be lifted when the EU convenes in July to decide on whether to extend its embargo or not.
The EU has been reviewing its sanctions policy on Russia every six months since 2014. To extend the measures, a unanimous decision is required among all 28 member states. It looks increasingly unlikely that the EU will maintain its hitherto unanimity. It can be safely assumed that if Brussels were to end the sanctions, then Moscow will respond in kind to promptly resume normal trade with the bloc.
In addition to the country’s vice chancellor, Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has also expressed disquiet with the ongoing EU-Russian tensions stemming from the sanctions. Steinmeier noted that «resistance to anti-Russian sanctions is growing across the EU».
He also reiterated dismay over a fundamental contradiction in EU policy objectives. «How can we expect Russia’s help in solving the Syrian crisis while at the same time imposing economic sanctions on Russia?» asked Steinmeier.
It’s not just Germany that is growing leery with the deterioration in relations with Russia. Hungary and Italy, which have also strong historic trade ties with Russia, are increasingly opposed to the EU’s policy towards Moscow, according to a recent Newsweek report.
Added to the maligned mix is Greece. The country’s six-year economic crisis has been greatly exacerbated by the loss of a once-bustling agricultural export business to Russia. The country’s finance minister Dimitrios Mardas attributed major losses specifically to the anti-Russian sanctions, which have piled on fiscal deficits to the teetering Greek economy. Greece is no isolated problem. It threatens to undermine the whole EU from its chronic bankruptcy.
In France, the National Assembly’s Lower House voted last week by 55 to 44 votes to end the EU sanctions on Russia. The vote is non-binding on the government of President Francois Hollande. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the growing popular opposition to what is widely seen as a self-defeating policy of trade antagonism with Russia.
The cancellation last year by the Hollande government of the Mistral dual helicopter-ship contract with Moscow epitomizes the self-inflicted pain on French workers. The cancellation – cajoled by Washington – cost the French government revenues of over €1.5 billion and has put thousands of shipyard jobs at risk. Paris claims to have since directed the ships’ order to Egypt, but that remains doubtful.
The economic losses from anti-Russian sanctions have rebounded severely on French farmers too. Dairy, meat, vegetable and fruit exports to the once lucrative Russian market have been pummeled. Hollande recently vowed to release €500 million in state aid to placate angry farmers. The absurdity is not lost on the French agricultural sector that such state handouts would not be necessary if the Hollande government hadn’t sabotaged Russian markets in the first place by following US hostility towards Moscow, as in the case of the Mistral fiasco.
France’s economic problems, as with the rest of Europe, are not entirely related to the downturn in relations with Russia. But there seems little doubt that the issues intersect and are compounded. And the public knows that.
Hollande – the most unpopular French president since the Second World War – is ramming through draconian labor reforms. The president and his truculent prime minister Manuel Valls claim that the retrenchment of workers’ rights will boost the economy and reduce France’s soaring unemployment rate of 10 per cent nationally and 25 per among French youth.
In opposition to the French government’s deeply unpopular assault on workers’ rights, the country is to observe nationwide strikes this week. The protests have been going on now for several months and seem set to escalate, as Hollande’s administration digs its heels in and refuses to relent.
Among students and farmers joining France’s nationwide strike are workers in the transport sectors of road haulage, rail, shipping and airports. With exports to Russia slashed due to the French government-backing of EU sanctions, the transport sectors are among the hardest hit. The Hollande government’s attempt to force through labor cuts, purportedly to reinvigorate the economy, is seen as it trying to offload responsibility for economic woes on to workers and businesses. If Hollande did not pick a fight with Russia – at Washington’s goading – then the country’s economy wouldn’t be under such duress.
Across Europe, the popular revolt against economic austerity is bound up with the EU’s self-defeating sanctions on Russia. And it is leading to a crisis of authority among EU governments who are held with increasing disdain by their citizens. More enlightened political leaders like Germany’s vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are obviously aware of the geopolitical connection that citizens are making.
As Europe’s economic crisis deepens, the policy of anti-Russian sanctions is tantamount to the EU cutting off its nose to spite its face. The growing public disaffection is also fueling the electoral rise of anti-EU political parties in Germany, France, Britain, Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and other member states.
Mainstream EU parties like the ruling coalition government in Berlin realize that the EU’s trade war with Russia is simply becoming untenable. It is an ideologically driven and dubious antagonism that the EU can ill-afford. That policy speaks to EU citizens of a political leadership that is losing legitimacy from its fundamentally wrongheaded and anti-democratic governance. As well as from slavish pandering to American hegemonic ambitions.
Brussels, in following Washington’s hostility to Moscow, is inflicting further economic pain on the bloc’s 500 million citizens. Something has to give way if Europe is not to implode, or explode, from popular fury. Normalizing relations with Russia is not the whole solution to Europe’s economic and political crises. But such a move would certainly alleviate. And is long overdue.
EU governments are thus facing a stark choice. Are they to continue on the path of destruction at Washington’s reckless behest, or can they find an independent policy of pursuing mutual relations with Russia? Undoing the crass anti-Russian sanctions is taking on an urgency – before such a policy leads to the undoing of the EU itself.
The ability of Israel to continue its illegal settlement on Palestinian land is wholly dependent on profits from its bilateral trade with the EU which is the single most important factor that fuels the illegal occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights by the Right-wing Likud government.
Without the extraordinary agreement that allows a non-European state (in the Middle East) to freely exploit the European Single Market, the policy of expropriating Palestinian land would not be possible and the Israeli government would be forced to sue for peace.
It has been long established that the Israel lobby exerts considerable influence over the European Parliament’s decisions to not only offer Israel free access to the single market but also to make research grants of billions of euros to the Israeli defence industries that currently export arms to regimes worldwide.
There are many factors that will influence Britain’s decision to leave the EU but the ability to break away from the hold of the Israel lobby on EU trade is of prime importance to both the safety of Europe and to world peace.
The United Kingdom should no longer be associated with a European Union that has already seen the delivery by Germany of a fleet of high-powered, Dolphin 2-class AIP submarines to the Israeli navy that were designed for and subsequently retrofitted with, undeclared cruise missiles (SLCMs) with a minimum range of 1500km and carrying 200kg nuclear warheads.
This astonishing fact has provided Israel with an offshore nuclear second strike capability that has now made it the 3rd most powerful nuclear-armed entity in the world after the US and Russia. It is not known what Chancellor Merkel was thinking when she made Germany itself, and the entire European community with its 750 million inhabitants, vulnerable to an offshore nuclear threat from the Mediterranean or what pressures were applied to the German government that enabled this extraordinary act of apparent negligence that has irrevocably changed the balance of military power in the region.
BREXIT cannot rectify the failure of the EU to have ensured the safety of the 500m citizens in its 28 member states but it is beyond time that Britain now extricates itself from such a dangerously infiltrated, political union.
Britain needs to make urgent plans for the future defence and security of its own people, which is the primary duty of any government and one that supersedes even that of trade and jobs, for without security there is no future.
Russia has not and will not get into discussions on criteria to lift sanctions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The West has introduced several rounds of sanctions against Russia since 2014, accusing Moscow of meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs and fueling the conflict in the southeast of Ukraine, however Russia denies the allegations and has responded to the restrictive measures with a food embargo.
“As for the future of these restrictions, this question should be directed to those who initiated the sanctions spiral. We have not and will not discuss any conditions or criteria for lifting these restrictive measures,” Lavrov told Hungary’s Magyar Nemzet newspaper.
“The European Union has linked this to Russia fulfilling the Minsk agreements,” the minister said. “Such a connection is absurd, because our country, as is well known, is not party to the conflict in Ukraine. Such a stance only encourages Kiev to sabotage the Minsk measures without any consequences.”
Unilateral Sanctions Unable to Force Russia to Sacrifice National Interests
Russia will not give up on pursuing its national interests due to attempts to pressure it through unilateral sanctions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
“It is clear that attempts to pressure Russia through unilateral sanctions will not force us to abandon our principled line or to sacrifice our national interests,” Lavrov told Hungary’s Magyar Nemzet newspaper.
The left and the right generally have few topics they agree upon, especially in struggling, immigrant-immersed Sweden. Surprisingly, an “unholy” alliance between the Left Party and the far-right Sweden Democrats may sink the controversial NATO deal, on which Sweden’s government has been pinning its hopes.
In most contexts, the Left Party and the Sweden Democrats regard each other as sworn enemies, yet they have recently opened up to a temporary alliance against a “greater evil,” as both intend to uphold Sweden’s time-tested policy of non-alignment. This week, Sweden’s parliament is set to decide on the so-called Host Nation Support Agreement (HNSA), which would allow NATO forces to conduct exercises on the country’s territory and come to its aid in times of crisis.
Critics of the agreement suggest that the country is simply attempting to enter the North Atlantic Treaty through the back door. Earlier, Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist of the ruling Social Democratic Party, an ardent supporter of stronger ties with NATO, dismissed such opinions, calling them the “undergrowth of the debate.” Hultqvist is also known for brushing aside the public’s concern regarding NATO’s eventual deployment of nuclear weapons. “It is not Moscow that governs Sweden’s security policy,” Hultqvist said, as quoted by Svenska Dagbladet.
However, the NATO agreement’s critics fear that if it is voted through, it would represent the final nail in the coffin of Swedish neutrality and non-alignment. The government proposal clearly declared that Sweden would unequivocally support an EU country (the majority of which are NATO countries) in the event of an attack.
“International security must rest on international law, cooperation and a strong global regulatory framework under the UN leadership. The Left is strongly critical of how NATO struggles to take over a larger role at the expense of the United Nations. Instead of contributing troops to the EU’s and NATO’s forces, Sweden should prioritize enhancing the UN’s peacekeeping efforts,” Stig Henriksson of the Left Party wrote in an opinion piece in Göteborgs-Posten.
Another notable aspect of the NATO agreement is the weight that is placed on the regulatory framework for the construction of NATO bases in Sweden. This is equal to a green light to NATO’s military infrastructure, wherefrom military operations against Russia may be conducted.
“Future NATO forces stationed on Swedish territory would only increase the tensions and thus the risk of war in our region,” Stig Henriksson wrote.
Meanwhile, the NGO No to NATO has been gathering signatures to stop the controversial agreement and organizing rallies advocating non-alignment. A demonstration in central Stockholm on Saturday gathered thousands of campaigners, including high-profile politicians such as former Defense Minister Thage Petterson, a notable opponent of NATO.
“The fall of the Berlin Wall kindled hopes that we would no longer worry about a new war in Europe. One lesson we drew from the Cold War was that Sweden strengthened peace in Europe by staying outside of NATO. Now, tensions in Europe have increased, which is not something we dreamt about. Instead, we dreamt of peace and detente,” the former Social Democratic Defense Minister told the audience.
Petterson argued that Sweden’s continuous involvement with NATO would only increase tension in Europe, whereas the much-debated Host Country Agreement could serve as a springboard to full membership.
Of late, pressure on Sweden to join NATO has been intensifying due to a relentless campaign of the government and mainstream media, urging Swedes to embrace NATO as the only defense against “aggressive” Russia.Last week, NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg called the formally still neutral Finland and Sweden “NATO’s closest allies,” stressing the importance of the two countries’ contribution to the security of the Baltic Sea Region.
In July, Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist is set to join the NATO Summit in Warsaw. The idea was obviously to show that Sweden is delivering according to plan. Now there will be no fun trip to Poland.
Europe has suffered ten times worse than the US in terms of trade with Russia since the onset of anti-Russian sanctions, according to Stephen Szabo, the Executive Director of the Transatlantic Academy, and the “Western unity” remains crucial to the allies’ relationship with Moscow; however it will be seriously tested in the months to come.
“The European economies have suffered ten times the losses in trade with Russia than has the United States,” Stephen Szabo acknowledges in his introduction to the recent report of the Transatlantic Academy, entitled Russia: A Test for Transatlantic Unity.
“For example, total EU trade in goods with Russia fell from €326.5 billion ($368,4 bln) in 2013 to €210 billion ($237 bln) in 2015,” he says, “while the total US trade in goods with Russia dropped from $38.2 billion to $23.6 billion during that period.”Therefore the transatlantic cooperation and the “Western unity” will remain crucial to the allies’ relationship with Moscow.
However, Szabo adds, it will be seriously tested in the months to come, when “major changes in key western governments occur over the next year and a half.”
“A new US Administration will take office in January 2017, with key elections in France and Germany following later that year. Sanctions will be up for a number of renewals over that period and Western resolve will be tested,” he says.
The Executive Director of the Transatlantic Academy however does not mention that the sanctions have already been challenged by a number of the European countries, which demand the soonest lifting of the imposed measures.
Thus, a wide array of politicians and businessmen in Germany and France are saying that the anti-Russian sanctions have already weighed heavily on their countries’ political and economic sectors.They accuse the United States of using financial pressure to prevent them from abolishing these restrictive measures,
Hungary, Greece, Austria and Italy have also begun to oppose the punitive measures against Russia,
In Italy, the Council of its North-Eastern region of Veneto, with the administrative center in Venice, is set to vote on Wednesday on the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia and on lifting the sanctions.
Germany’s top diplomat, Frank-Walter Steinmeier also recently said that when the EU’s anti-Russia sanctions expire this summer, it will be far more difficult for the bloc to find common ground on the issue, as more of its members are now resisting the prolongation of the restrictive measures.
A court in Hamburg has issued a preliminary injunction banning 18 of the 24 verses in a German comedian’s satirical poem lampooning Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for being “abusive and defaming.”
The court order issued on Tuesday applies to the whole of Germany, Reuters reported.
“Through the poem’s reference to racist prejudice and religious slander as well as sexual habits, the verses in question go beyond what the petitioner [Erdogan] can be expected to tolerate,” the Hamburg court wrote.
The court said the decision was necessary to balance the right to artistic freedom and the personal rights of Turkey’s leader, but added that its ruling could be appealed.
Violating the decision could result in a fine of up to 250,000 euros ($282,000) or administrative detention of up to six months, Germany’s Spiegel Online reported.
Erdogan’s lawyer said he was content with the ruling, RIA Novosti reported, while the comedian’s defender stressed that the poem must be considered as a whole, claiming its verses had been taken out of context.
The poem, which was recited on German television by comedian Jan Boehmermann in late March, has become a bone of contention for Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as European audiences and the media.
After Erdogan demanded that German authorities press charges against the comedian for allegedly insulting him as Turkish President, Merkel allowed her prosecutors to pursue the case against Boehmermann.
A separate complaint being dealt with in the western German city of Mainz is still being processed, with prosecutors saying it is as yet unclear when a decision is to be made on whether to go ahead with the case, according to Reuters.
© Flickr/ sualk61
The United States is contemplating investing into additional propaganda efforts targeted against Russia as mainstream Western media does not seem to be doing a very good job of getting Washington’s message across to Europe and preventing the continent from getting closer to Russia, former US diplomat Jim Jatras told RT.
The analyst was referring to a recent initiative aimed at establishing a new federal agency that will be tasked with countering Russian and Chinese “propaganda.”
The bill, known as Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016, has been in fact designed “to insure that there is no corrective to the information put out by [the US] government and then dutifully picked up by the Western media,” Jatras observed.
American media outlets, he added, “pick up like bulletin boards from government agencies very uncritically and just simply put it out there. And no other points of view are really entertained.”
The initiative is primarily focused on Europe and its warming relations with Russia, he added. US policymakers are apparently concerned that Europeans are increasingly disappointed in Washington’s stance on Russia, with some urging to lift the restrictive measures that were imposed on Moscow following the outbreak of the Ukrainian civil war.
“What I think the fear is, especially if you look at the changing mood in Europe towards, for example, the sanctions on Russia, I think that the people here in Washington feel they are losing that argument,” Jatras said.
The US policymakers’ logic, according to the analyst, is the following:
“Rather than reexamine their policy and think: ‘Well, maybe there is something wrong here, maybe we should change our course,’ they are saying: ‘They just don’t understand us well enough. We just have to make our propaganda better than it has been.'”
The bill, introduced by Senator Rob Portman, has been referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations. If passed, it would create the Center for Information Analysis and Response, armed with a $20-million budget for 2017 and 2018.
“This is especially, it seems, targeted toward Europe where there will be a $20 million over the next two fiscal years made available in the form of grants to unspecified people in Europe that one assumes in the European media to carry a story that is more in line with US policy,” Jatras explained.
The violence in France today might be organized provocation, said Bruno Drweski, Nat. Inst. of Languages and Eastern Civilizations. It is easy to manipulate people’s discontent, especially in the current situation of hopelessness, he added.
A number of French cities were hit Thursday by violent protests over government plans to reform labor laws.
RT: Do you think the government will be forced to listen to the peoples’ demands?
Bruno Drweski: You really don’t know what the government will do. Anyway we have in France very strong discontent. To a certain extent the way the manifestations are unorganized, it’s helping the government in a certain way. There is no organized movement, organized strong social movement and organization against the law on labor regulation, which is very unpopular. So I don’t exclude the government is using violence as a pretext to force its policies.
RT: Following weeks of protests the French government still managed to survive a no-confidence vote, does that mean support for President [Francois] Hollande is still in a reasonable state?
BD: I think the government is forced to a certain extent to introduce this law because of the European Union laws. The French government has no real power anymore – it’s decided at the Brussels level. So they will be forced to organize that process of desocialization of the working laws. In that situation violence is helping them to a certain extent.
I don’t exclude even that quite a lot of that violence is a kind of organized provocation. And it is not only limited to France. Two or three years ago I met suburban militants, which were trained in the US by [George] Soros foundations to fight against what they call ‘French police violence’. So in a certain sense it has already been planned for a long time.
RT: And if it is working, do you think violence could escalate?
BD: Yes, of course it can escalate, because it is to a large extent an unorganized movement. And with an unorganized movement it is very easy for a provocation group to do what they want. You have a lot of people, and especially young people, which are strongly discontent about the situation in France. They tempt to violence.
It is very easy to manipulate their discontent, especially in the situation of hopelessness. And we are in a situation of hopelessness, because it is obvious that the French government doesn’t lead the policies in France. France is part of the globalization; France is part of the EU process; people know that the different political parties existing now in France are not able to change anything.
The most obvious approach to look at how European care for the elderly will evolve is to project technological trends and the costs of people living longer as diagnostic equipment, drug treatments and other medical science continues to improve. This kind of projection shows a rising cost to society of pensions and health care, because a rising proportion of the aging population is retiring. How will economies pay for it?
I want to point to some special problems that are looming on the political front. I assume that the reason you have invited me from America is that my country has been doing just about everything wrong in its health care. Its experience may provide an object lesson for what Europe should avoid (and indeed, has avoided up to this point).
For starters, privatization is much more expensive than European-style Single Payer public health care. Monopoly prices also are higher. And of course, fraud is a problem.
America’s Obamacare and health insurance laws have been written by political lobbyists for special interests. So has the TTIP: Transatlantische Handelsabwollen. Since George W. Bush, the U.S. Government has been prohibited from bargaining for low bulk prices from the pharmaceutical companies. Most Americans think that Health Management Organizations (HMOs) are rife with corruption and billing fraud. The insurance sector has made a killing by spending a great deal of money on bureaucratic techniques to reject patients who seem likely to require expensive health care. Doctors need to hire specialists working full time just to fill out the paperwork. Error is constant, and any visit to the doctor, even for a simple annual checkup, requires many hours by most patients on the phone with their insurance company to correct over-billing.
The dream of U.S. “free market” lobbyists to shift the costs of health care onto its users instead of as a public program. According to current plans backed both by the Republicans and by much of the Democratic Party leadership, these user costs ideally would be paid by pre-saving in special “health savings” accounts, to be managed by Wall Street banks as a kind of mutual fund (with all the financial risks this entails – the same kind of risks that are troubling most U.S. pension funds today).
The reason why the U.S. discussion of health care for the elderly is so relevant for Europeans is that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that President Barack Obama pushed on German Chancellor Angela Merkel two weeks ago poses a far-reaching threat to European policies.
The agreement has been drawn up in secret, and has only been available to Congressmen in a special room as a read-only copy. Not even Congressional staff have been permitted to see the details. The reason is that the terms of the TTIP are so awful that it could never be approved by voters. That is why the lobbyists for banks, insurance companies, drug companies, oil and gas companies and other special interests that wrote the law are trying to bypass democratic government and are going directly to Brussels – and in the United States to the Executive Branch of government.
The aim of the TTIP is to replace the application of national laws with special courts of referees nominated by the special interests. This includes the organization of health care. Last week Britain’s main labor union, Unite, warned that the TTIP would mean that the National Health Service would have to be wound down and privatized. Although “Austria, Germany, Greece and Italy do have explicit reservations in the TTIP text to protect existing rules relating to healthcare,” the privatization lobbyist strategy is to have the treaty “provisionally applied” to force matters, by backing compliant politicians. Objections will be sidestepped as the “provisional’ law becomes a fait accompli.
I think that the best perspective that I can give you is to discuss how the various interest groups are working to shape political decisions regarding the public and private role of health care. This is an area I have been involved with for forty years. In 1976, I contributed the economic section for two reports by The Futures Group in Glastonbury, Connecticut for the National Science Foundation analyzing the economic and financial consequences of life‑extending technology: When We Live Longer: Prospects for America (with Herb Gurjuoy et al., 1977) and A Technology Assessment of Life-Extending Technologies (Vol. 5: Demography, Economics and Aging, 1977). I believe these were the first reports to pinpoint the implications for the Social Security system of an aging population and its inter-generational financial tensions.
American politicians and economic futurists were concerned with the effect on public health budgets of a rising proportion of the population able to live out the maximum present human lifespan of 125 years (called “squaring” the life expectancy curve). What is the best public response to what should be a dream being realized? More to the point, how should governments cope with special interests seeking merely to profiteer from such breakthroughs – and use their promise in an extortionate manner?
Every interest group has its own perspective. Most politicians in the United States are lawyers, and they worried that the Social Security, pension and health care contracts were a legal right that could not be broken or modified. President Eisenhower had called Social Security the “third rail” of American politics – meaning that any politician or party that sought to downgrade its promises would quickly be voted out of office.
It was obvious that a population living longer would receive more Social Security and pension payments, and that a rising proportion of national income would be spent on their health care. Some of the politicians I talked to were so pessimistic about the costs involved that one said that he was sorry that kidney dialysis procedures had been invented, because with so many people having kidney problems, it would cost a fortune to provide this service to everyone who medically needed it.
Some politicians sought ways to not to fund expensive medical technologies – on the ground that if these were developed, the government might have an obligation to supply the most expensive technologies (especially dialysis and organ transplants) to the population at large. The costs of doing this would absorb nearly all the economic growth.
One set of futures envisioned that the more costly medical treatments might become available only on islands – in the Caribbean, for instance. After all, did not Hippocrates practice on the island of Cos?
As forecast decades ago, health care is the most sharply rising cost in the United States. What none of us were cynical enough to forecast was the corrupt role played by special interests in maximizing the costs by treating each element of health care as a profit center – indeed, as an opportunity to extract monopoly rent.
Privatization of health insurance under Obamacare has been a bonanza for the financial sector and the insurance industry. Initially a Republican “free market” proposal, it required the Democratic Party in power to disable popular pressure for “Medicare for all” in the form of single payer public health care. No discussion within Congress was even permitted to favor public health care. (I was economic advisor to Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, whom the Democratic Party leadership blocked from even discussing a public option in the Congressional debate.)
The enormous power of lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industry bought the loyalty of politicians who blocked anti-trust laws from being applied against the drug companies. As I noted earlier, these lobbyists even succeeded in blocking the government from negotiating directly with the drug companies over prices.
I mention these points because the U.S. solution should serve as an object lesson for what European and other countries should avoid in managing their care for the elderly. This is especially important to Europe, because its neoliberal policies favoring the financial sector imply a slow economic crash squeezing household and employer budgets. Five concerns are paramount.
Triage: restricting the most expensive health care only to the wealthy
Lower incomes lead to shorter lifespans as a result of worse health, and also suicides. Marriage and birth rates also are lower as economies polarize and growth slows. Russia, Ukraine, Latvia and other post-Soviet states show this – and it may be a forecast of European experience. This raises the ratio of elderly to working-age populations. A slowly growing labor force must support more and more retirees.
Studies in almost every country have shown that health standards and lifespans are polarizing between wealthy and poor. A recent U.S. study notes: “The life-expectancy gap between rich and poor in the United States is actually accelerating. Since 2001, American men among the nation’s most affluent 5 percent have seen their lifespans increase by more than two years. American women in that bracket have registered an almost three-year extension to their life expectancy. Meanwhile, the poorest five percent of Americans have seen essentially no gains at all.”
This has important implications regarding recent proposals to raise the retirement age at which people can qualify for Social Security. Only the well to do are living longer, not blue-collar labor. Raising the retirement age would deprive the latter of the retirement years that better-paid individuals enjoy as a result of their healthier lives.
I mentioned above one scenario drawn by futurists: that the best medical care might only be available in “medical islands” or their equivalent in the United States, called “Cadillac health insurance plans.”
Blaming the victims for their unhealthy environment as the problem were their “personal responsibility.”
George W. Bush recommended that the poor simply should go to hospital emergency wards when they get sick. This obviously is the most expensive approach. Prevention is by far more economical. But public moves along this line are being fought tooth and nail by the tobacco and soft-drink industries, and other purveyors of bad health.
Better health and longer lifespans are achieved not only by advanced medical technology, but by better public health standards, and personal diets and exercise. The most serious behaviors impairing health and longevity are smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and eating junk foods to the point of obesity. In the United States, childhood diabetes is rising sharply, especially among racial and ethnic minorities, and the poor in general.
An obvious way to keep down health expenditures is to lead a more healthy life. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg sought to ban the sale of large sugar-drink servings. Lawyers for the junk-food industry, supported by fast food restaurants and movie theaters, blocked his initiative. And an even more powerful legal tool to block public health warnings is contained in the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement and its European counterpart, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. These proposed treaties follow the earlier North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in levying enormous fines on government who warn populations of the dangers of smoking or other unhealthy behavior that is highly profitable to cigarette companies, soft drink “sugar water” makers, and fast food restaurants selling food-like substances that give little nourishment. Under the proposed neoliberal agreement being put in the hands of Brussels politicians by American lobbyists, government warnings of the health hazards of smoking will require these governments to pay the tobacco companies what they would have earned if cigarette sales had not declined as a result of these warnings! Fines already have been levied against Australia for seeking to improve public health by requiring such warnings on cigarette packages. A recent Australian report concludes:
Tobacco policies implemented in the past have been effective at decreasing overall rates of smoking, but new and innovative interventions will be needed in the future to affect change in all populations.
Six chapters were identified with potential to limit governments’ ability to implement tobacco control policies. The key chapters are: investment, particularly the ISDS mechanism; rules related to trademarks in intellectual property, regulatory coherence, cross-border services and technical barriers to trade. … Multiple chapters may also interact with the potential for amplified effects on tobacco control. Various provisions in these parts of the TPP may provide the tobacco industry with greater influence over policymaking and more avenues to contest tobacco control measures, as well as preventing governments from introducing new policies.
Last week the European Court of Justice upheld the 2014 Tobacco Products Directive against challenges from British-American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris. Like similar laws in other countries, the European law called for public warnings on cigarette packs telling smokers that nicotine kills. But the tobacco companies vowed to fight back, and the TTIP is now their major hope.
Dangers of privatization of health law under the TTIP
A recent British article lays out the problem:
A salient goal of TTIP is to shadow the Investor-State Dispute Settlement system (ISDS), an instrument of public international law granting firms the right to raise an action in a tribunal on the basis that a state’s policies have harmed their commercial interests. … The economist Max Otte has called ISDS ‘a complete disempowerment of politics’. The tribunals are confidential, as is usual in arbitration. Negotiations over ISDS within TTIP are also secret, the aim being to get the ink dry on the agreement before it can provoke opposition by being made public. …
As the Economist put it, ‘if you wanted to convince the public that international trade agreements are a way to let multinational companies get rich at the expense of ordinary people, this is what you would do.’
Dangers of financialization
The most efficient way to finance care for the elderly – and pensions – remains pay-as-you-go planning. This is becoming difficult in a neoliberal political environment with shrinking economic growth and consequent demographic shrinkage. The horror story today is a Ukraine-like situation where the labor force has fled, leaving the elderly to be supported without much of a social budget. That is becoming the post-Soviet model, from East Germany to the Baltics.
The American situation is worse, because Social Security, Medicare and pensions are front-loaded by being financialized – paid for in advance. For decades, savings have been set aside in the form of stock and bond purchases. The problem is that when more workers retire than are contributing to the pension plan or similar plans, their prices will decline. This will leave the retirement plan under-funded.
As interest rates have been reduced to nearly zero since 2008 by Quantitative Easing by the U.S. Federal Reserve and now European Central Bank, pension funds and insurance companies have become desperate to meet their statistically required targets. They have turned to gambling on complex financial derivatives – and have lost heavily, because their managers are no match for Wall Street sharpies.
It may be appropriate here to note the monetary madness of the eurozone not having a central bank to monetize budget deficits to spend into the economy to help it grow. That is the proper function of a real central bank, from the Bank of England to the U.S. Federal Reserve System. European voters are being frightened by junk economics claiming that only commercial banks should create money and credit, not central banks. The reality is that central banks can create the money to fund health programs without inflating the economy. What would inflate health care costs, especially proper care for the elderly, would be privatization and a relinquishing of health policy to the large corporations best in a position to profiteer.
Danger of trade agreements raising the cost of drugs and medical technology
The technological medical revolution involves high rent-extracting opportunities, especially in treating the elderly. The Australian study cited above notes the dangers posed by the TPP (and hence also by its European version) to public health expenditure, especially health costs for the elderly. Designed largely to protect “intellectual property rights,” the proposed treaty aims to increase monopolyrent extraction by the pharmaceutical sector.
Provisions proposed for the TPP that have the potential to limit implementation of new food labelling requirements in Australia include the ISDS mechanism; the regulatory coherence chapter and technical barriers to trade chapter. Provisions in these parts of the TPP have the potential to restrict policymakers to regulate using the most effective public health nutrition instruments. For example, the food industry could argue that introduction of mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling would be a technical barrier to trade. Without strong compensatory intervention to improve consumer awareness of the relative healthfulness of foods, it is likely that there will be no change to current high rates of obesity, metabolic syndrome and non-communicable diseases. This would have a negative impact on health, particularly for vulnerable populations.
For starters, the trade agreement limits the ability of public or community pharmacies to bargain for lower drug prices. Also, any attempt at anti-monopoly legislation would require governments to pay the foreign producers or investors as much money as they would have earned if no “interference with markets” (that is, regulation of monopoly prices) had existed. This would sharply increase the cost of healthcare, and “many TPP provisions proposed during the negotiations are likely to be harmful to health.”
There is sufficient evidence which show that increases in the cost of medicines lead to greater patient copayments through the PBS, and that increases in patient copayments lead to lower rates of prescription use. Changes to prescription costs impact particularly on vulnerable populations who have less capacity to accommodate increased out-of-pocket expenses such as women, elderly adults, cultural and linguistic minorities, and low-income populations; people with chronic disease; geographically remote communities; and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations.
Many provisions proposed for the TPP had the potential to increase the cost of medicines. These were identified in leaked drafts of the intellectual property chapter; the healthcare transparency annex; and the investment chapter, which includes an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism. These provisions, if adopted, could be expected to lead to an increase in the costs of managing the PBS by delaying the availability of generic medicines, and constraining the ability of the PBS to contain costs. An increase in the cost of the PBS to government would be likely to lead to higher copayments for patients.
European sponsors of U.S.-style neoliberalism pose a threat of transforming European politics, and with it the structure of economies and society. Enormous sums of money are being spent on public relations, and to support politicians willing to shepherd corporate monopoly power against that of democratic government and voters. The most serious threat to European health care and care for the aging population in general is pressure from U.S. firms and diplomats to ram through the TTIP.
It is much more than a free trade agreement. Its “investor dispute” mechanism threatens to disenfranchise governments. The intent is to block them from protecting Europe’s economy, population and basic social philosophy that has developed over the past century of social democracy.
That is why so many of us in the United States also are fighting against this agreement. It has been a major issue in this year’s presidential campaign. Republican nominee Donald Trump has affirmed that the public option is by far the most economic. And Democratic contender Bernie Sanders has opposed Hillary Clinton’s support for her patrons on Wall Street and in the pharmaceutical monopolies. I hope that a similar fight will be waged in Europe.
This is the text of Michael Hudson’s speech to SANICADEMIA, May 9, 2016 in Villach, Austria for the 5th International Congress on Geriatrics and Gerontology = 59th Austrian Convention for Hospital Management, “We’re Living Longer: The healthcare challenges for today and tomorrow.”
 Hazel Sheffield, “TTIP could cause an NHS sell-off and UK Parliament would be powerless to stop it, says leading union,” The Independent, April 29 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/ttip-could-cause-an-nhs-sell-off-and-parliament-would-be-powerless-to-stop-it-says-leading-union-a7006471.html
 Sam Pizzigati, “Inequality Kills: Top 1% Lives 15 Years Longer Than the Poorest,” Naked Capitalism, May 3, 2016, originally published at Other Words. http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2016/05/inequality-kills-top-1-lives-15-years-longer-than-the-poorest.html
 Katherine Hirono, Fiona Haigh, Deborah Gleeson, Patrick Harris, Anne Marie Thow and Sharon Frie, “Is health impact assessment useful in the context of trade negotiations? A case study of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement,” April 4, 2016. http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/6/4/e010339.full. The report notes: “The final agreement also included an optional tobacco carve-out from ISDS, allowing TPP countries to prevent the use of ISDS to challenge tobacco control measures. Yet even these apparent ‘wins’ have some limitations. Unlike tobacco, the health system, food and alcohol were not carved out from ISDS, leaving these policy areas vulnerable to claims by foreign investors. While various safeguards have been included to try and protect public health, experts have raised doubts about whether they will be sufficient.”
 Glen Newey, “Investors v. States,” London Review of Books blog, April 29, 2016. http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2016/04/29/glen-newey/investors-v-states/
Two journalists from Turkey’s leading newspaper Cumhuriyet have been sentenced to five years in prison for revealing state secrets, but the case against them is purely political since the footage they published only confirmed what everybody already knows about Ankara’s activities in Syria, Turkish journalist Zeynep Oral told Radio Sputnik.
Two prominent Turkish journalists, Can Dudar and Erdem Gul, were sentenced on Friday to five years ten months and five years in prison, respectively, for publishing footage that appears to show Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) smuggling arms to opposition groups in Syria.
However, the charges of terrorism and espionage that were levied against them are baseless because the supposed state secret that they divulged has been well known for some time, Zeynep Oral, President of PEN Center Turkey and a columnist for the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, told Radio Sputnik.
“In fact both Can Dudar and Erdem Gul were put on trial for spying and terrorism, for attempting to put down the government and so many things, they were even prosecuted as terrorists, but the court acquitted them of all of these.”
“They are only being punished for what they have written. The court insisted that they have revealed ‘state secrets.’ Those secrets are not secrets; everybody knows about them, there are tons of publications about them, it’s not a secret any longer, this has already been published before.”
Oral believes that the current state of journalism in Turkey is the worst she’s seen in her 45-year career, and has resulted from the government’s political interference in the media and arbitrary use of the court system.
“I have lived through three different military coups and in none of them was it so bad. At least when you had the military coups you knew what you could write, what was forbidden to write, what was not forbidden to write, what was permissible.”
“Now there is uncertainty, you can be prosecuted for anything you write. The same article can be written by different names and one will be prosecuted and the other will not be prosecuted. For me this is a completely political court case, it has nothing to do with justice,” Oral said.
At first the Turkish government claimed the trucks were only taking humanitarian aid to Syria, then changed their story and said they were providing arms for the Turkmen in Iraq.
“Then the Turkmen said no, we’re not receiving any arms from the Turkish government.”
“Then Mr. Erdogan declared, ‘I shall not let them go free, they’ll have to pay for this.'”
“I think the court obeyed the orders of Mr. Erdogan.”
Oral said that while Turkey has a secular constitution, religion has been playing a greater role in political under the current government.”In the last ten years we have made a lot of concessions in the field of secularism. The education is being changed, the law system is being changed. The president of the parliament is saying, ‘we should change our constitution and take away secularism.'”
“All the resonances are becoming more and more religious. Of course, for me, that is unacceptable, not understandable, it’s a counter-revolution I would say.”
Turkey has recently become important to Europe “for the first time” because of its deal over the migrant crisis, but while the EU expresses concern about authoritarianism there, it will not interfere in support of European ideals regarding human rights, particularly freedom of expression, Oral said.
“They are ready to do anything to save their profits, their territory, I won’t say their ideals.”
“Profits and benefits are more important than ideals, these days, for the EU.”