Making Government Redundant

A charter for the corporate takeover of the earth is being negotiated by Northern governments, and no one even knows

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 15th April 1997.

For the past four weeks – arguably the past five years – almost every mainstream journalist in Britain has been recruited to the single task of speculating about the election. Entire news networks have been reorganized to cover this event and no other: ITN has destroyed even its canteen in order to create more space. This is, we are told, an unprecedented exercise in democracy, a political dissection so thorough that no one need enter a polling booth unaware of how his or her vote will affect our political future.

But while our stargazers squabble over the portents, none of them seems to have noticed the meteor heading our way. For the real future of Britain is being discussed not here but elsewhere, not in the blinding light of media scrutiny, but in the utmost secrecy. The columnists who have so shrilly defended the sovereignty of parliament from the technocrats in Brussels have so far failed to devote a column inch to the shady deliberations of the EU’s bigger brother.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development is, in essence, a research establishment, providing the world’s richest nations with information about economic trends. Yet, without debate or consultation, unannounced, unguided even by national parliaments, it has been negotiating a treaty which will reduce our representatives to filing clerks. The Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) intends to outlaw all restrictions and controls that national governments might wish to impose on foreign investment. “We are”, one of its leading negotiators has boasted, “writing the constitution of a single global economy.”

The identity of the next government will be immaterial if this treaty goes ahead. Investment, ownership, labour, consumer protection and environmental legislation will be wrenched out of our hands. If the OECD gets its way, the British government will never again be permitted to restrain the rapacity of the private sector.

Multinational corporations will be exempt, for example, from minumum wage legislation, or from requirements to draw their workforce from the neighbourhood or even the nation. Government attempts to prevent sudden capital flight to avert a balance of payments crisis will be forbidden. Governments will not be permitted to address foreign ownership of the media; to hold controlling shares in privatized utilities; or even to insist that foreign companies whose relocation they have sponsored remain in the country.

The MAI, in conjunction with the World Trade Organization, could forbid nations from discriminating, or even distinguishing, between sustainably and unsustainably harvested timber, or organic and conventionally toxic food. It could overrule both the Montreal Protocol – which aims to protect the ozone layer – and the Climate Change Convention.

If corporations find a regulation objectionable, they will be entitled to sue a government or local authority at an international tribunal. There will be no right of appeal. But governments, as the Ecologist magazine points out, will have no reciprocal right to sue a corporation on the public’s behalf. This is, in other words, a charter for multinationals. It accords them absolute rights without a shred of responsibility.

If the results are likely to be devastating here, they will be catastrophic in much of the developing world, which, while barred from the negotiations, will be “invited” to sign the treaty. Already, OECD negotiators are talking darkly about membership of the MAI being seen as a “certificate of good conduct”, without which a nation could expect no substantial foreign investment. Nations which sign up will find themselves facing punitive sanctions if they refuse to surrender their resources as foreign companies demand.

So who are these faceless bureaucrats, signing away our sovereignty? Campaigners who have secured an audience with MAI negotiators report that the fiercest proponent of the treaty is Britain’s Department of Trade and Industry. Without consulting parliament, while deliberately misleading both the Department of Environment and the ODA about the content of the talks, the DTI has been secretly surrendering our legislative independence.

It is playing a devious game. Britain cannot, the DTI tells us, afford special measures to protect its workers, consumers or environment because other countries, with lower standards, would outcompete us. Yet the same department is secretly insisting that such standards be lowered worldwide. With an eye, perhaps, to the future it is engineering, the DTI already behaves as if it is mandated not by parliament but by corporations.

The negotiators tried to rush the agreement through by May, but the discussions have, for the moment, stalled. We now have the merest twinkling of an opportunity to try to stop this monstrous treaty. If we fail, we may as well forget about the election, or any other with which this paper and the rest choose to entertain us. When the constitution of the global economy has been agreed, then the task of every parliament on earth will be reduced to mere ratification.