Hear No Evil

Why is parliament so worked up about Europe, but not about the graver threats to its sovereignty?

By George Monbiot. Published in House Magazine, December 2000

Here’s a mystery. We have an opposition which claims to be fiercely opposed to further European integration, which it sees as a threat to national sovereignty. Yet the same party has been exploring the possibilities of joining the North American Free Trade Agreement, at whose negotiations we were not even present. We have a government struggling with the same European questions, yet whose ministers are blissfully unaware of the derogation of their own powers to global bodies. Why is one kind of integration so controversial, while others are not even discussed?

This question began troubling me in 1998. The British government had been negotiating a “Multilateral Agreement on Investment”, or MAI. The MAI would have allowed companies to sue governments for the removal of laws protecting the workforce, consumers or the environment which restricted their ability to make money. The agreement, its chief negotiator announced, would form “the constitution of a single global economy”. Parliamentary sovereignty has seldom been so threatened.

On April 29th 1998, as a result of an international campaign, the MAI was spectacularly stalled. On April 30th, , Jack Straw appeared on Question Time. A member of the audience asked him whether he supported the MAI. “MAI?”, Mr Straw replied. “I don’t know what that is.” The questioner explained what it would do. “When I find out about it,” Jack Straw answered, “I’ll let you know”. Mr Straw was in good company. When the MAI was debated in the House of Commons in February 1998, the Conservative benches were completely empty.

Such a blithe disposal of their own powers has characterised front bench responses to most of the major trade treaties to which the United Kingdom is party. Ours was the only nation in the EU, for example, not to contest the the World Trade Organisation’s attempt to force European consumers to eat US beef contaminated with six injected hormones, one of which has been identified as a potent cause of cancer in children. Our government supported a European position paper which, had its recommendations been adopted in Seattle last year, could have forced the eventual privatisation of the NHS.

But no surrender of sovereignty compares to the scheme Tony Blair cooked up with Bill Clinton. In May 1997 Blair agreed that the US and EU should start to establish a single, transatlantic market. Any product or practice approved in one place would become acceptable in both. The lowest standards in either trading bloc, in other words, would be applied universally. The French government objected in the strongest terms, describing the proposal as “indecent” and “absurd”, and the plan was dropped.

But at the next EU-US summit, in May 1998, an almost identical scheme was approved by Bill Clinton, Jacques Santer and, as President of the European Council, Tony Blair. The Transatlantic Economic Partnership would, like the plan it replaced, work towards the “mutual recognition and approval” of regulations throughout the trade zone. As a result, laws protecting human health, human rights and the environment are already being dismantled on both sides of the Atlantic.

These plans, for a single market incorporating Europe and North America, are being implemented not by governments or the Commission but by another body, a gathering of around 100 chief executives from Europe and the US called the Transatlantic Business Dialogue. The group’s purpose, according to the US Under-Secretary of Commerce, is “to identify those barriers to trade or opportunities for liberalization on which both business communities could agree as targets for government action. We should put the business ‘horse’ before the government ‘cart’.”

So what on earth is going on? Why should both government and opposition be so complacent about the delegation of their own powers to unelected global bodies? To solve the mystery, you have to understand that national sovereignty is a red herring. The debate we?ve heard does not concern the impact of regional or global rules on our democratic autonomy, but their impact on big business. When supranational agreements are business-driven and deregulatory, they are not contested. When they are driven by concern for consumers, workers or the environment and are regulatory, they are fiercely opposed.

In truth, neither the government nor the opposition is really concerned about our ability to govern ourselves. Both seem happy to allow companies and the institutions they control to do the job for us.

George Monbiot’s book, Captive State, the corporate takeover of Britain, is published by Macmillan at £12.99.