I’ve always been a little baffled by that word “technocrat”. There is something both chilling and comforting about it. It can bring forth an image of someone aloof, yet better educated and less vain than a politician fixated on image and poll ratings.
Mario Monti is, if headlines are to be taken literally, the quintessential technocrat. It is beyond dispute that he is not tainted by the corruption with which Silvio Berlusconi, his predecessor as Italy’s prime minister, became synonymous. But does that make Monti less political? An analysis of his track record indicates he has an ideologically-driven desire to transform Europe and not necessarily for the better. To argue that he is not a compromised figure would not appear accurate, either.
Monti is admired among some federalists for his work as Europe’s competition commissioner between 1999 and 2004. He is best known for blocking a merger between General Electric (GE) and Honeywell, much to the chagrin of that wealthy marauder Jack Welch.
With all the publicity that Monti’s decision received, you would assume that he would be wary of taking a job with GE when his stint at the European Commission was over. Yet while Monti didn’t go to work with GE directly, he became chairman of a “think tank” that was funded by it in 2005. The 2006 annual report for Bruegel, the economic policy outfit in question, lists GE as one of its “corporate members”.
In that role, Monti pursued an agenda designed to make Europe dismantle its welfare states and morph into a “purer” capitalist economy like the United States. True, he was subtle in his pronouncements and he hinted at understanding the importance of social policy. But it is hard to see how he had any other real objective in mind.
Assault on public services
In one of the earliest articles he wrote wearing his Bruegel cap, Monti praised a 2005 blueprint for “reform” signed by André Sapir, one of his colleagues at the think-tank. In it, Sapir upbraided most EU governments for “relying on strict employment protection laws at a time when old jobs and practices are no longer warranted.” He then bemoaned the “lack of progress” with introducing the EU’s services directive, contending that “continued rigidities in services tend to discourage foreign direct investment as the effectiveness of business services is a key factor in the location of multinational enterprises.”
Monti, it should be recalled, was a member of the Commission team which formally proposed the services directive (though it is usually associated with his Dutch colleague Frits Bolkestein). That legal measure was designed to open up the services sector generally to competition; its original draft contained no real guarantees that the essential purpose of healthcare would be to cure the sick, not to line the pockets of pharmaceutical or insurance executives. It also contained clauses aimed at making sure that firms are subject to the laws of their country of origin. As a result, an employee hired by a firm in an EU state with inadequate worker protection law would still be subject to that law if he or she was transferred to work in another EU state with higher protection standards.
Just as the term “technocrat” baffled me, I have to confess that I used to be under false illusions about “think tanks”. Like many journalists, I have often phoned think tank representatives for quotes when writing news stories or features. Because they tend to have titles like “research fellow”, I was led to believe that they were akin to academics, who could be relied on to think independently.
Now, I realise that think tanks are corporate cheerleaders in disguise. They are engaged in what Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman called “manufacturing consent”. The papers they pump out diligently are presented as contributions to public debates. In reality, those pithy pamphlets are furthering an agenda that will only benefit the affluent.
Big tobacco and think tanks
The European Policy Centre, for example, hosts discussions on the future of healthcare every so often. Yet the very notion that the EPC has altruistic motives falls asunder when you learn of its strong links to the tobacco industry. A 2010 report by the organisation Action on Smoking and Health detailed how the EPC’s founder, the recently deceased Stanley Crossick, was a lobbyist for British American Tobacco (BAT). That firm was one of the main players in the EPC’s “risk forum”. In 2003, the Commission bowed to pressure from the forum to agree that it would consult cigarette makers about any measures affecting their industry.
Firms that sell cancer in a box merit contempt, not consultation. Indeed, the only industry that rivals tobacco in causing human misery is the arms trade, which also has think tank “experts” championing its bloody cause.
A few weeks ago, the European Council on Foreign Relations published a paper lamenting how military budgets are shrinking. The paper was written by Nick Witney, former head of the European Defence Agency, an institution set up at the behest of weapons manufacturers. Unless steps are taken rapidly to improve Europe’s military capabilities, the EU’s defence policy will “by the end of 2012 be ready for its final obsequies,” Witney warned.
We should take Witney’s warning seriously, albeit not for the reason he advocates. The militarisation of Europe is obscene and it must stop. Our political “masters” must be pressurised into combating poverty, instead, and to stop pretending that technocrats have the solutions.
●First published by New Europe, 21 November 2011.