Monday, April 22, 2013

Thatcher inspires trans-Atlantic trade agenda

One unintended consequence of the Boston bombing is that it showed the best side of America. Human kindness overflowed - to paraphrase the songwriter Randy Newman - as emergency services and health personnel responded with great speed and courage. Without them, the death toll would surely have been higher.

A few days earlier José Manuel Barroso appealed to America's worst side. Visiting New York, the European Commission president endorsed the "greed is good" ethos that pervades Wall Street.

Admittedly, Barroso was more subtle than Gordon Gekko, the speculative swashbuckler played by Michael Douglas. Yet the effect of Barroso's comments - delivered at a seminar hosted by Bloomberg - were the same.

Barroso signalled that clinching an agreement on removing "barriers" to trans-Atlantic trade could usher in a "new era of prosperity". The inference here is that a deal emerging from new EU-US trade talks - expected to commence before the summer - will benefit us all. Although the process isn't properly underway, there is enough evidence available to show that Barroso is conniving with the Obama administration to undermine democracy.

A leaked document providing guidance to EU negotiators makes clear that the aim will be to give private companies more rights than actual people. If I moved to the US tomorrow, I would have to wait at least five years before I could apply for citizenship. Yet EU negotiators wish to establish the principle of "national treatment" for corporations: this means that a French company active in California would automatically enjoy the same entitlements as a local one; a reciprocal system would be introduced for American firms in Europe.


Worse again, the document sets the objective of drawing up "state-of-the-art" provisions on "dispute settlement". In layperson's terms, this would give the US greater scope to initiate proceedings against Europe's environmental or labour laws. Individual firms would also be able to sue elected governments if, say, rules limiting the amount of pollutants in the air we breathe hampers them from selling a toxic substance. If the history of free trade agreements is anything to go by, the forum assessing such cases would probably meet in secret and have a pro-corporate bias.

Ron Kirk, the US trade representative, has sounded a bullish tone ahead of the talks. "For us, everything is on the table," he has said.

Everything - in Kirk's view - includes genetically modified (GM) crops. Long frustrated with aversion to artificially tweaked foods among the European public, the US is effectively seeking to force-feed us products that we don't want anywhere near our mouths. We cannot even be sure of being able to identify which items contain GM ingredients. Proposals to require labelling of GM foods are almost certain to be challenged by agri-food behemoths like Monsanto and Syngenta. Consumer information is a "barrier" to trade, after all. (When I say that we could be coerced into eating these foods, I'm not exaggerating. Rules on labelling of GM foods were approved by the EU in 2002; they were strenuously opposed by America).


The idea of having a trans-Atlantic free trade agreement has been around for some time. In the European Parliament, its main cheerleaders have been James Elles, a British Conservative, and Erika Mann, a German Social Democrat who is now a lobbyist for Facebook. Elles has been active in the Trans-Atlantic Policy Network, a coalition of politicians and major companies such as BP, Coca-Cola, Caterpillar, Deutsche Bank, BASF and the aforementioned Syngenta.

A 2011 "strategic vision" paper issued by this network contended that it was "economic folly" that there was no "formal commitment" for integrating the EU and US markets. The paper dropped strong hints that doing so was the only way for the West to withstand competition from China.

Invoking fear of China is a well-worn tactic. During the Cold War, we were supposed to be petrified of the commies ruling "red China". Nowadays, we are supposed to be anxious about the Chinese becoming masters of global capitalism.

The scaremongering conceals the real agenda of trying to make sure that the wealthy become wealthier. The Trans-Atlantic Business Council (TABC) is urging that the eventual agreement reduce the amount of tax which corporations pay. At a time when austerity is making life unbearable for the less well-off, the super-rich are clamouring for tax cuts.

Unholy alliance

The TABC is an unholy alliance of cigarette-makers (British American Tobacco, Philip Morris), the oil industry (BP, Total, Statoil) and financial institutions (Deutsche Bank, Spain's BBVA, Deloitte). Its position papers indicate that it wants an EU-US agreement to avoid "overly burdensome regulatory costs" for peddlers of derivatives. These "products" are fancy versions of casino chips; the absence of tough rules on the gambling they facilitate helped cause the financial crisis.

Meanwhile, a "high level working group" established by both EU and US policy-makers has recommended that the agreement incorporate rules dealing with "state-owned enterprises". This can only be interpreted as an attempt to ensure more privatisation of public services. The paper does not name any services that are too important to be run by firms whose only interest is maximising profits.

Margaret Thatcher set in train a process where British services were sold to the highest bidder. Her compatriots widely recognise that the wave of privatisation she launched has been disastrous, particularly for public transport.

Sadly, this wisdom isn't shared by elites, who remain wedded to Thatcherite doctrine, even though Thatcher is no longer around.

•First published by New Europe, 21-27 April 2013.

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