The New Global Masterplan

The WTO might have failed, but big business has a fallback scheme

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 16th December 1999.

When the world trade talks in Seattle collapsed, British ministers indicated that they would never again try to force the world to accept a regime which threatened democratic government, developing nations and human health. This is the third time they have made this promise: already, for the third time, it has been broken.

Eighteen months ago, when the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) first foundered, the British government assured us that it had learnt its lesson. The new treaty it was brokering would defend the environment and developing countries. When that turned out to be untrue, and the agreement collapsed again, ministers swore that the environment and human rights would be central to any future treaty. Within a fortnight, leaked documents show, European officials had decided to shift the entire MAI agenda to the world trade summit in Seattle. They did so and, exposed and divided at the beginning of this month, they failed. Again, they waited less than a fortnight to launch the next attempt to facilitate a corporate takeover of the world. At the Helsinki summit of European leaders last week the fallback scheme began to be implemented.

European expansion has several potential benefits for the people joining the union – democratisation, human rights and peaceful relations with their neighbours – but these are not the main issues driving enlargement. The growth of the European Union is one of the two central projects formulated and controlled by a shadowy lobby group which has, for the past 15 years, exerted an iron grip on policy-making in Brussels.

The European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT) is an alliance of the chief executives of Europe’s largest companies, whose purpose is to formulate policies for adoption by the European Commission. It has, so far, been astonishingly successful. The Single European Act was framed not by the EC but by Wisse Dekker, the president of Philips and subsequently chairman of the ERT. His proposal became the basis of the EC’s 1985 white paper. The ERT has scheduled and steered the implementation of the act ever since. The enlargement plans just approved by the European heads of government were mapped out by Percy Barnevik, head of the Swedish company Investor AB and chairman of an ERT working group.

The Round Table insisted not only that the European Union be expanded in precisely the sequence agreed at Helsinki, but also that new entrants be forced to deregulate and privatise their economies and invest massively in infrastructure designed for long-distance freight. The EU has agreed to all of its principal demands. Until July this year the British minister responsible for approving these changes was Lord Simon. Before he became a minister, Lord Simon was vice-chairman of the ERT.

The thinking behind these schemes becomes clear when you discover what else the corporate lobby groups have been doing. Since 1995, the European Commission, pressed by the ERT and other trade bodies, has quietly been preparing for a single market with the United States.

The Transatlantic Economic Partnership is a slower and subtler creature than the World Trade Organisation or the MAI. One by one it aims to pull down the “regulatory barriers” impeding the free exchange of goods and services between Europe and America. What this will mean in practice is that once a product has been approved in one part of the new trading bloc, it must be accepted everywhere. If the US government, for example, decides that injecting cattle with growth hormones is safe, Europe will have to adopt that as its regulatory standard.

The masterplan is now falling into place. A greatly expanded Europe will form part of a single trading bloc with the US, Canada and Mexico, whose markets have already been integrated by means of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta. Nafta will grow to engulf all the Americas and the Caribbean. The senate has already passed a bill (the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act) forcing African countries to accept Nafta terms of trade. Russia and most of Asia are being dragged into line by the International Monetary Fund.

Before long, in other words, only a minority of nations will lie outside a legally harmonised neoliberal world order, and they will swiftly find themselves obliged to join. By the time the world trade agreement is ready to be re-negotiated, it will be irrelevant, for the WTO’s job will already have been done. The world will consist of a single deregulated market, controlled by multinational companies, in which no robust law intended to protect the environment or human rights will be allowed to survive.

As the previous failures to impose such plans have shown, schemes like this can survive only in the dark: exposure makes them shrivel and die. If this new global masterplan is to be thwarted, we must drag it into the light.