Wednesday, November 6, 2013

John Bruton: from prime minister to puppet

One of Dublin's quirks is that its banking district sits beside a harrowing memorial to those who perished in a nineteenth century famine.

Ireland's International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) hosts offices for banks and hedge funds whose feckless behaviour has caused not one but several crises.

The effects of one crisis remain palpable. Mass emigration is haunting Ireland again like it did at the time of the Great Hunger, as the famine of the 1840s is known. Our ability to keep in touch via Skype and Facebook doesn't make the fact that young people can't find decent jobs at home any less scandalous.

But there is another crisis with which we are less familiar. JP Morgan and HSBC are both present in the IFSC. These two banks have been involved in a frenzy of speculation on basic foodstuffs. The consequent increase in grocery prices has exacerbated the problem of global hunger. It is partly because of this speculation that the extreme poverty we, Irish, associate with the time of the great hunger is a daily reality for 1 billion people worldwide.

Revolving door

John Bruton, the IFSC's president, epitomises the phenomenon of the revolving door between big business and politics.

Bruton is a former taoiseach (Ireland's prime minister), who went on to become the European Union's ambassador in Washington. Since stepping down from the latter post in 2009, Bruton has not been short of job offers. He has signed contracts to work for the Brussels-based consultancy Cabinet DN and for several other firms.

Cabinet DN has a number of large companies on its roster. They include the New York Stock Exchange and Rupert Murdoch's Sky Broadcasting Group.

When Bruton writes opinion pieces for newspapers or takes part in TV and radio broadcasts, he gives the impression that he is now an independent thinker. Yet the arguments he makes generally chime with the interests of those captains of industry for whom he has become a puppet.

Bruton, for example, is a staunch supporter of the proposed trade and investment agreement which is under negotiation between the European Union and the United States.

According to Bruton's website, such a deal is necessary to "remove barriers and inefficiencies that prevent Americans and Europeans from realising their full economic potential."

Bruton has not bothered to explain that the "barriers and inefficiencies" he wants to remove can be essential to protect human health and the environment.

The trade negotiators from both sides of the Atlantic scheduled to meet for a new round of talks on the planned agreement next week are pursuing an agenda drawn up for them by major corporations. A core objective of that agenda is to achieve "regulatory convergence".

Regulatory convergence is a fancy term for destroying the things that distinguish Europe from America.

For example, we have stronger food safety standards on this side of the Atlantic than they have in the United States.

This year the EU authorities have issued temporary bans on several pesticides that have been linked to the rapid decline in bee numbers.

Some of the world's largest chemical and biotechnology firms, including Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow, have recently complained that the EU is more willing to take precautionary measures against pesticides than the US. These companies want the EU's scope for taking such measures to be restricted as a result of a new agreement on trans-Atlantic trade.

Recipe for conquest

The argument these companies constantly use is that policy-making should be guided by scientific proof. At first glance, that may sound sensible. In reality, it is a recipe for corporate conquest.

Nearly all substances that Monsanto manufactures would be allowed on the market, if this argument was stretched to its logical conclusion. Monsanto, let us remember, manufactured the key ingredients to Agent Orange, a toxic cocktail that caused devastation in Vietnam. Fifty years later, the Missouri firm still insists that the links between this weapon and certain diseases has not been "conclusively demonstrated".

There has been some speculation lately that the revelations of US snooping on Angela Merkel's phone conversations would have adverse consequences for the trade talks. Unfortunately, I do not think this is likely.

The Federation of German Industries (BDI) is pushing for an agreement to be reached. Merkel may be genuinely irked that her mobile is being monitored. But I doubt she is irked enough to disobey the diktats of her country's most influential business group.

One thing that could derail the trade talks is mass resistance. It is by no means fanciful to predict that a huge international campaign could upset the carefully prepared plans of the world's most powerful corporations. Such opposition has thwarted other pernicious economic accords, notably the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in the 1990s and, more recently, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).

We, Irish, often take pride in our bonds to the US. We seem to take pride even when it leads to nauseating spectacles of subordination - such as when the taoiseach visits the White House with a bowl of shamrock each Saint Patrick's Day.

John Bruton has built a career around that subordination. He has benefited handsomely. The rest of us have not.

•First published by EUobserver, 6 November 2013.

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