Friday, September 26, 2014

Karel de Gucht: enemy of the people

Serving lobster, foie gras and roast pigeon behind a gilded façade, La Maison du Cygne is reputed to be one of Brussels' finest restaurants. Karl Marx visited it when he was writing The Communist Manifesto, a tract focused on class struggle. Ironically, it has more recently hosted deliberations about how the power of the ultra-wealthy can be increased.

On 24 March 2011, Karel de Gucht, the EU's trade commissioner, dined there with around 40 representatives of a corporate club called the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue.

An internal European Commission report of the encounter indicates that de Gucht committed himself to pursuing objectives that harmed ordinary people and the world's poor.

Among the topics discussed at this secret nosh-up were ensuring that global health and environmental initiatives did not endanger the monopolies enjoyed by big business. Such monopolies have become known as "intellectual property rights" (IPR) - an anti-democratic concept whereby ideas and knowledge can be privately "owned".

After the electronics firm Siemens commended the EU's trade officials for their work "in a difficult area", De Gucht acknowledged that their policies on "intellectual property" were "not supported by public opinion".

Positive outcome?

De Gucht expanded on this theme in a letter he sent to the TABD, also during 2011. In it, de Gucht referred to an "impression that IPRs may hinder innovation, as well as access to essential goods such as medicines or 'green' technologies." He added: "the public debate around IPR risks putting rightholders on the defensive and it is necessary to reflect on how to change the terms of the public debate".

The same letter illustrates - perhaps inadvertently - why the public is correct.

De Gucht claimed that EU officials "prevented the inclusion" of IPR issues on the agenda for a major UN climate change conference in Durban that year, arguing that was "a very positive outcome".

He bragged, too, of putting pressure on the World Health Organisation not to bother itself with intellectual property.

Telling climate change negotiators they may not address intellectual property may be a "positive outcome" for big business. Not so for the rest of humanity.

African, Asian and Latin American governments had sought an arrangement whereby they would be able to override patents on solar panels, wind turbines and other technology for generating renewable electricity. This was an entirely reasonable request, aimed at making energy clean and affordable.

Yet de Gucht was more eager to help energy firms reap in profits than to avert ecological catastrophes.


His attitude to pharmaceutical patents is equally despicable. De Gucht wanted to ensure that discussions on intellectual property are confined to pro-corporate bodies like the World Trade Organisation, rather than being extended to UN agencies with a mandate to protect public health or fight poverty.

De Gucht and officials working under him have been saying different things in public than in private.

In January this year, de Gucht expressed some understanding over why there is disquiet about the planned EU-US trade and investment agreement and especially the proposal that it allow corporations to challenge laws and policies they do not like. He identified as problematic the tobacco industry's record of invoking similar clauses in previous trade accords to litigate against anti-smoking initiatives.

Yet tobacco firms have been active in seeking that such provisions - known to policy wonks as investor-state dispute settlement - be inserted in the EU-US deal. British American Tobacco and Philip Morris are members of the Trans-Atlantic Business Council (as the TABD is now called). It has been formally tasked by the American and European authorities with advising on how trans-Atlantic economic links can be bolstered and has prepared the groundwork for the current trade talks.

Last year, I asked Leopoldo Rubinacci, a leading EU trade negotiator, about why cigarette-makers were shaping the agenda. "I'm not aware of any specific participation or influence of the tobacco industry in this debate," he replied.

Contrary to what he implied, De Gucht's team has been in contact with individual tobacco companies, as well as umbrella groups to which they belong. In June 2012, his adviser Damien Levie met a representative of British American Tobacco.

Australia's moves to require that all cigarettes be sold in plain packaging - something that the tobacco industry is challenging under another free trade agreement - was discussed. Levie has more recently been working alongside Rubinacci as a negotiator with the US.

Unless she performs badly at her "confirmation hearing" in the European Parliament next week, Cecilia Malmström will soon replace de Gucht as the Union's trade chief.

Pandering to villains

The handover is unlikely to make much difference. Both of these politicians adhere to liberalism, an ideology dedicated to widening inequality.

In her previous role as the EU's home affairs commissioner, Malmström has approved efforts to train warplanes on asylum-seekers. Having sniffed out new opportunities for the weapons industry, she should have no difficulty pandering to Big Tobacco and other villains.

The wealthy will continue to be favoured.

•First published by EUobserver, 25 September 2014.

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