Secrets or Lies?

The Department of Trade and Industry is misleading us about the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, some time in 1998

Lord Clinton-Davis, Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, dispatched a furious letter to the Guardian last week. He was outraged by an article about the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), the treaty being negotiated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The Guardian had argued that the MAI would lead to the regulation of governments by corporations. It would allow transnational companies to sue democratic states over legislation they found unacceptable, regardless of public interest.

“I can assure your readers,” Lord Clinton-Davis thundered, “that your assertions are nonsense. The MAI will weaken neither environmental regulation nor worker protection”.

How charitable should we be to Lord Clinton-Davis? He has, after all, been at the DTI for only nine months. Could it be that he simply doesn’t understand what’s going on? Surely he couldn’t have succumbed already to the cynical synthesis of fact and fiction which has become the DTI’s trademark in international negotiations?

There is, he claims, nothing to be alarmed about. “The provision for investors to take disputes with host governments to international arbitration is by no means new”. Strange then, that Barbara Roche, also a minister at the DTI, boasted to the Commons: “It will be the first binding multilateral agreement with provisions for dispute settlement”. The OECD has said precisely the same thing.

“If there are particular matters on which an MAI party wishes to retain the right to discriminate on the basis of the nationality of the owner,” Lord Clinton-Davis informs us, “that government can take an exception.” But the OECD report on which the negotiations are based is unequivocal: “The only exceptions to the obligations permitted are those listed when adhering to the agreement”. The United Kingdom has requested among the fewest and least exceptions of any negotiating country: unlike the United States, for example, it has asked for no measures to protect local authorities from the voracity of multinational corporations.

So what about those claims concerning environmental regulation and worker protection which so incensed the minister? Organisations opposed to the agreement argue that it could override not only national law, but also international treaties, such as the protocol protecting the ozone layer. The OECD retorts that there is nothing to worry about, as it has introduced safeguards of its own: the “Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises” it approved in 1976. The only problem is that these recommendations, unlike the MAI, will remain voluntary. For 22 years, corporations in OECD countries have been expected, among other restraints, to “respect the right of their employees to be represented by trade unions” and to introduce “a system of environmental protection at the level of the enterprise as a whole.” It’s not hard to see how effective the guidelines have been.

Lord Clinton-Davis is not the only minister at the DTI to offer blandishments in public while privately selling the country down the river. Since 1995, ministers have assured us that the agreement is a purely technical matter about stimulating investment, with no adverse effects for consumers, workers or the environment. The department told us precisely the same thing about the World Trade Agreement. Since then, the US company Monsanto has used it to force the European Union to drop its ban on beef and milk treated with growth hormones, to the horror of consumers, farmers, vets and even Tory politicians. And this is just the beginning. At every level of government, the vampires are swiftly purloining the keys to the bloodbank.

The Single European Act was conceived and nurtured not by politicians but by the European Roundtable of Industrialists. Its vice-chairman until last year was the head of BP, who complained that “Industry is hampered by cumbersome rules and an increasing burden of employment regulation.” Lord Simon is now Minister for Trade in Europe at the DTI. It was he who engineered the UK’s acceptance of the European Patents Directive, granting corporations exclusive rights over our genetic material.

This is the new world order, in which governments are captured and colonised by the businesses they are supposed to regulate. Lords Simon and Clinton-Davis know precisely where the power lies: when it comes to a contest between the interests of the electorate to whom they owe nothing and the corporations on whose behalf they seem to govern, you and I don’t stand a chance.