Friday, November 15, 2013

Peter Mandelson: a battering ram for big business

Is it still possible to be shocked by the arrogance of New Labour's architects? I didn't think it was. Then I started investigating Peter Mandelson's stint as the EU's trade commissioner.

In 2007, Mandelson sent a threatening letter to several ministers in the Thai government after it overruled patents on medicines for AIDS and high blood pressure. Taking such steps to reduce the costs of prescription drugs could make Thailand lose foreign investment, Mandelson warned, employing a tried and tested bullying tactic.

Briefing notes prepared for Mandelson by Brussels officials acknowledged that the Bangkok authorities were legally entitled to circumvent the intellectual property "rights" of major pharmaceutical firms on public health grounds. The officials nonetheless advised Mandelson to instruct the Thais that any patent-busting in which they engaged must be restricted to medicines for AIDS. Extending it to treatments for heart disease and other ailments would set a "dangerous precedent", the officials argued.

Those documents indicate that Mandelson's willingness to act as a battering ram for Western multinationals knew few bounds. The idea that a relatively poor Asian country could put the interests of its own citizens before those of the world's top pharmaceutical companies was anathema to his mindset. His attempts to make Thais recovering from heart attacks foot higher medical bills constituted a far more greater affront to humanity than those misdemeanours which prompted him to resign (twice) from the British cabinet.

New extremes

During his four years in Brussels, Mandelson pushed the EU's agenda to new extremes.

In the past, trade negotiators had traditionally focused on cutting or removing taxes levied on imports and exports. A 2006 policy paper called Global Europe - drawn up at Mandelson's behest - pushed for that scope to be enlarged.

It committed the EU to strive towards dismantling a range of "barriers" encountered by firms doing business abroad. Workers' rights and environmental standards across the world would be vigorously challenged if they harmed corporate profits, the paper inferred.

Sadly, this agenda has gained more momentum than Mandelson could have dreamed. I remember quizzing one of Mandelson's team about whether or not the EU wished to sign a free trade agreement with the US. The reply was simple: it wouldn't be realistic to expect a trans-Atlantic deal any time soon.

That was about seven years ago. As I write these words today, an American delegation is visiting Brussels for formal talks aimed at reaching such an accord.

The trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) - as the eventual accord will probably be known - looks set to be a full-frontal assault on democracy. Corporate lobbyists have quite literally set the agenda for the talks - the Trans-Atlantic Business Council, a coalition of British American Tobacco, Deutsche Bank, Microsoft and Pfizer, has been given that task by both the EU and the US authorities.

Among the lobbyists' core demands are that a "dispute resolution" tribunal be formed, in which private corporations can sue governments over laws and policies that hamper the maximisation of profit. Having such a clause would confer greater rights on the denizens of company boardrooms than on every one else: the rest of us mere mortals would have no access to this exclusive court.

It would not be fanciful to predict that part of the deal will be influenced by Kentucky Fried Chicken and similar purveyors of "junk food". Yum!, the owner of the KFC brand, wants to overturn an EU ban on washing chickens with chlorine. Food safety standards of that nature would be suppressed if the trans-Atlantic partnership leads to "regulatory convergence", as many firms have demanded.

Cloaking their intentions

Preachers of the "regulatory convergence" gospel are cloaking their real intentions in technical terms. Ultimately, they wish to destroy a central tenet of EU policy on health and the environment.

Under the so-called "precautionary principle", the Union's authorities and governments can stop substances being used if there are sound reasons to suspect they are hazardous. Earlier this year, for example, the European Commission invoked this principle to introduce temporary bans on a few pesticides linked to the rapid decline in bee numbers.

Banning bee-killers may not be possible in the future. Pesticides manufacturers like Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and Bayer are pressing for the trans-Atlantic trade pact to severely curtail the EU's powers to take precautionary measures.

The bans were put in place after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy, found that certain pesticides posed environmental risks. EFSA, incidentally, does not have a deep aversion to pesticides. Rather, it has a long track record of accommodating agri-food giants.

Not only is it guided primarily by industry-financed research - the impartiality of which is questionable by definition - EFSA's decisions on whether to approve ingredients or products is based on "experts" with strong links to Big Food. A recent study by the organisation Corporate Europe Observatory found that over 58 percent of EFSA's "experts" had a conflict of interests.


I came across a particularly comical - and tragic - case of a lobbyist masquerading as an "independent" scientist. Ettore Capri, a professor at the Catholic University in Piacenza, Italy, sits on EFSA's panel of "experts" on pesticides. He also runs a "think tank" called OPERA, which has been compiling reports on "bee health" that suggest factors other than pesticides could be imperilling Europe's bees. The reports state that they were prepared in close contact with Syngenta, BASF, Dow and Bayer, all of which have a vested interest in downplaying the dangers of the pesticides they sell.

OPERA also jointly hosted a 2012 conference with Syngenta on biodiversity - a subject that is meaningless unless bees and other insects are taken into consideration. Yet when I contacted him during the summer, Capri insisted that his work on bees is not financed by the private sector.

Of course, one could contend that EFSA's acknowledgement of how certain pesticides may be harmful indicates it is not beholden to industry. It is important to emphasise, however, that the aforementioned bans are of a fixed duration. EFSA and other EU bodies will almost certainly face pressure to ensure they are not renewed.

Furthermore, EFSA's policy on the alleged bee-killers (neonicotinoids, as they are known) is slightly atypical. On numerous occasions, the authority has rubber-stamped applications from food giants based on superficial scrutiny. By its own admission, EFSA has only ever delivered favourable assessments of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Secret talks

EFSA has been taking part, too, in a series of secret discussions with biotechnology firms like Monsanto about trying to accelerate the approvals process for GM foods.

Despite EFSA's bias towards biotech, the stance of some EU governments has led to a de facto moratorium on placing GM foods on the market. Monsanto is so frustrated with Europe that it has effectively given up on this continent, if media reports are to be believed.

There is still hope for the Missouri marauder. Monsanto would be given new ammunition to challenge the obstacles it's encountering if the kind of EU-US trade deal now being envisaged comes into effect.

Having set in motion a process aimed at allowing corporations play dangerous games with nature and human health, it is perhaps only logical that Mandelson is now a grubby lobbyist himself. In his current capacity as chairman of two consultancies, Mandelson habitually attends the annual conferences of the Bilderberg Group and other gatherings for the world's political and business elite.

To use his own words, Mandelson always appears "intensely relaxed" when surrounded by the "filthy rich". It is not hard to understand why. He has worked tirelessly to allow Europe be captured by his corporate chums.

•First published by Spinwatch, 14 November 2013.

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