A Stealthy Truce

A new, unnoticed trade agreement will destroy the laws protecting human health and the environment.

By George Monbiot. Published in The Guardian 9th April 1998.

There are two words without which no government minister is permitted to travel: “partnership” and “devolution”. “Partnership”, which took the place of the rather more verifiable “stakeholding” soon before the general election, is vague enough to mean almost anything the government wants it to mean, whether engaging communities in the fight against crime or mortgaging the national infrastructure to construction companies. But “devolution” is surely unequivocal. This government’s key constitutional project, Mr Blair and Mr Prescott have repeatedly assured us, is to hand back to the people the power so ruthlessly concentrated by the last administration. There is little for which they would like to be remembered more than their establishment of a Scottish parliament, regional assemblies and an elected authority for London.

There is no reason why we should not take them at their word: they have, in this regard if in few others, so far broken no promises. So it seems strange that, simultaneously, and with scarcely a murmur of publicity, the same government is cheerfully engaged in a transfer of political power from ordinary people so momentous that the new elected bodies it has worked so hard to install will have little left to discuss.

Last week the European Council of Ministers quietly decided to proceed with discussions about something called the New Transatlantic Marketplace. The NTM would consist of a free trade zone, or single market, comprising the European Union and the United States. The European Commission would like to see it happen by 2010.

The EC and its member governments hope the NTM can deliver two things. Reasonably enough, they would like to eliminate the special taxes, or tariffs, levied on certain European goods and services sold in the United States. But they would also like to remove what they describe as “differences in the legal and regulatory systems” between the two trade blocks, in order to achieve what Margaret Beckett, President of Britain’s Board of Trade, calls “mutual recognition and alignment”. In plain English, no law governing public health, environmental standards or workers’ rights will be allowed to stand in Europe which does not also stand in America. If either trading block further reduces its regulatory standards, the other will be forced to do the same.

Already the European Commission is helpfully furnishing examples. The United States’ Nutrition Labelling and Education Act, for instance, is an unfair barrier to trade, because it “requires certain products to be labelled as to their content”. Doubtless American negotiators are also ogling similarly oppressive European legislation. The guardians of international free trade have failed, once again, to distinguish between protectionism and protection.

Margaret Beckett says the plan has “nothing against it and everything to recommend it”. She has promised that making progress on the NTM will be a priority for Britain during the remainder of our presidency of the European Union. Like her predecessors, she treats trade negotiations as if they were a purely technical matter, of generating economic growth by removing economic obstacles. When she spoke about trade at the Mansion House on Tuesday, you could have believed that the economic and political life of a nation occupied different spheres.

But when decision-making is removed from national government and handed instead, as the EC would like, to remote, unelected committees orchestrating a rootless, deregulated, corporate economy, then political choice is effectively shut down. We will, if Beckett’s plans come to fruition, be able to vote only for the proxies of power: the pompous but impotent factors for an absentee laird. This is how Britain is turned into Airstrip One, the naked appendage of Orwell’s transnational superstate.

The poverty of discussion about this initiative is shameful. Like the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which was due to have been concluded by the end of this month but is now falling apart, NTM negotiations have been conducted so far in convenient obscurity. Tory Eurosceptics, so pugnacious when challenging such draconian impositions as the Social Chapter or the European Convention on Human Rights, have responded, as they always do towards anything of which big business approves, with obedient silence. Resistance, instead, has been left to a ragged band of non-governmental groups and grassroots movements, such as People’s Global Action and the Corporate Europe Observatory, bravely confronting the most powerful states on earth.

They need all the help we can give them. For when the leviathan of the third millennium opens its jaws, there will be no St George, rebranded or otherwise, to ride to the rescue.