Running on MMT

The Multilateral Agreement on Investment will force governments to poison their citizens

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 13th August 1998.

Three weeks ago, something happened in Canada. It couldn’t have been a very important thing, because hardly anyone on this side of the Atlantic is even aware that it took place. A total of four column inches in the British newspapers was devoted to the event. The handful of people who bothered to read them would have learnt that a company no one has heard of, which makes a product whose name no one can pronounce, received some money from the Canadian government and an assurance that it could continue making the product. It is the butterfly’s wing over North America that will cause a hurricane in Europe.

The company is called the Ethyl Corporation, and the product it makes is a chemical called methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl, or, and let us thank God for acronyms, MMT. MMT is a fuel additive, which is mixed with petrol in order to prevent engine knocking. Many scientists believe it is also a dangerous neurotoxin. Manganese entering the body through the lungs causes nerve damage which can lead to psychosis, memory loss, and early death.

Until last year, Canada was the only country on earth in which MMT was bought and sold. It is legal to sell it in most parts of the United States, but surveys suggest that no suppliers there will stock it, not least because it also appears to damage car engines, causing them to release other pollutants. Canadian MPs began to question why their citizens were exposed to this peculiarly unpleasant species of pollution. After a long and intelligent debate, parliament voted to ban it in April 1997.

Had the vote taken place three years earlier, the Ethyl Corporation would have had to abide by the decision. A sovereign parliament had decided to protect its citizens from a deadly poison, and that, you would imagine, would have been the end of the matter.

But, since 1994, corporations in Canada, the United States and Mexico have enjoyed a new and astonishing power over elected authorities. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) entitles companies to sue governments which, they believe, raise unfair barriers to trade.

Ethyl sued the Canadian government for the “expropriation” of its “property” (namely its anticipated profits) and the “damage” to its “good reputation” caused by the parliamentary debate. It took its suit to NAFTA, where a secret tribunal whose records are not disclosed and whose decisions cannot be appealed, began to assess the case. Last month, the Canadian government, realising that its chances of success were approximately zero, settled with Ethyl. It agreed to allow the corporation to resume its sales of MMT in Canada. It agreed to pay Ethyl US$13 million, by way of compensation. It agreed, too, to lie to its citizens. Upon settling the suit, it announced that “MMT poses no health risk.”

So what has any of this got to do with us? Well, the NAFTA rules that allowed the Ethyl Corporation to sue the Canadian government are almost identical to the provisions of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment which, if passed, will allow corporations to sue the governments, such as Britain’s, which sign it. This is hardly surprising: the MAI was modelled on NAFTA, in order to “harmonise” investment standards in the rest of the world with those of North America.

For the past year and a half, British ministers have been assuring us that the MAI does “not affect the rights of signatories to carry out normal regulation”, that it will “weaken neither environmental regulation nor worker protection” and that it contains “nothing … that gives investors the right to be compensated for lost profits”. Far from undermining domestic legislation, it simply establishes “that foreign investors should be treated no less favourably than domestic investors.”

Yet MMT was banned in Canada irrespective of who produced it: the rules were precisely the same for foreign and for domestic investors. This, as campaigners predicted, offered no protection at all to the sovereignty of the Canadian parliament.

In March this year, a ragged band of voluntary bodies and direct activists won an extraordinary victory against the MAI. By exposing the monumental threat to democracy it posed, they forced the governments engaged in secret negotiations to postpone the agreement. Now Britain and the other negotiators are trying again. Again they will tell us that it presents no threat to the democratic process. Again they will tell us that it will not undermine the protection of workers, consumers or the environment. And again they will be wrong.