Stealing Europe

The great European dream has been subverted by corporate power

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 20th June 2001

“If people did not sometimes do silly things,” Wittgenstein observed, “nothing intelligent would ever get done.” In a world in which intelligence is banned from public life, baring our buttocks at George Bush is one of the few means we possess of expressing our dissent. We are forced, as protesters, to talk through our bums.

But behind the bottoms lies a profound and complex understanding of some of the dangers the world now faces. The protesters’ concerns about climate change, the expansion of NATO and Bush’s plans to scrap the anti-ballistic missile treaty are now well-understood. But nearly all commentators and political leaders remain baffled by their opposition to the expansion and better integration of the European Union.

The enemies of the European project are supposed to be little Englanders and polluting industries. Why on earth should people who describes themselves as radicals, who want to protect the environment, distribute wealth and defend workers’ rights, seek to oppose the world’s most successful social democratic project? Tragically, though 25,000 peaceful campaigners gathered in Gothenburg for the European summit, their message was killed in the crossfire between a handful of moronic rock-throwers and a thuggish and disorganised police force. Tony Blair was able to dismiss the entire anti-European protest as “an anarchists’ travelling circus that goes from summit to summit with the sole purpose of causing as much mayhem as possible.”

It is easy for people of my generation to forget what an extraordinary achievement the establishment of the European Union was. We struggle to understand that until 56 years ago Europe, like the Balkans today, had been engaged in centuries of almost perpetual war. But nearly all the radicals I know are well aware that the union has shifted wealth from its richer to its poorer members, that it has fought discrimination, promoted fairness at work, raised environmental standards and infuriated the rightwing press by regulating companies. So why are so many of them now fighting what has, by and large, been a force for good? They perceive that the great European dream, of mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence, has been subverted. Integration is giving way to colonisation.

If, like Tony Blair, you believe this claim is groundless, then take a look at a document produced by the the union’s most powerful lobby group, the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT). It’s called “The East-West Win-Win Business Experience”, but the title is a little misleading. All the winners appear to live in the west.

European enlargement, the document reveals, provides an opportunity to solve the “problems” faced by the ERT’s members in central and eastern Europe. New member states can be forced to reduce their taxes, prevent “delays in the privatisation process”, remove the “restrictions on the purchasing of land by foreign companies” and combat the “dominance of national players” (“national players” are local companies). Nations seeking to join the union must “ensure that programmes to privatise and liberalise local infrastructure continue without delay”.

As an example of how the businesses it represents can prosper in eastern Europe, the ERT cites the case of British American Tobacco, which has “invested” in Hungary. BAT’s problem, the document reports, was that “demand for cigarettes in Western Europe, the USA and other developed markets is highly mature. Competition is intense and margins are tight. Growth in profitability and shareholder value must therefore come from other, developing markets. … With the collapse of Communism and the gradual emergence of a free market economy, Central and Eastern Europe represents a major growth opportunity for BAT.” By buying a cigarette factory in Hungary, BAT was able “to gain access to new growth markets, both in Hungary and in other Central and Eastern European countries” and “grow the value of the company.”

The European Round Table is no ordinary lobby group. It has little need to call on governments, for governments call on the round table. For the past 17 years it has been the principal architect of European integration and expansion.

In April 1983 the chief executive of Volvo brought together the heads of 15 other corporations, among them ICI, Unilever, Nestle, Philips and Fiat, to see if they could find a way of “harmonising” trade rules in western Europe. This, they noted, would allow their companies to reach “the scale necessary to resist pressure from non-European competitors.” In January 1985, the ERT presented its proposal to the European Commission. Two months later, the European Council commissioned Lord Cockfield to produce the white paper on which the Single European Act would be based. It was precisely what the lobbyists ordered. The round table became the act’s enforcer, working closely with the commission to ensure that the single European market was completed in 1992. The ERT, Jacques Delors later noted, was “one of the main driving forces behind the Single Market.”

In 1984, the round table published a paper demanding a tunnel under the English Channel, a roadbridge connecting Denmark to Sweden, a European high speed train system and a new, Europe-wide roadbuilding programme. It got everything it wanted. In 1987, it started proposing some of the key components of European monetary union. The schedule for enlargement agreed at the European summit in Helsinki in 1999 precisely mirrors the sequence suggested by the ERT a few years before.

In Nice last year, European leaders agreed, as the ERT had requested, to bypass their national parliaments by handing international treaty-making powers to the European Commission. Future trade agreements will be negotiated not by the member states, but principally by the trade commissioner Pascal Lamy. Mr Lamy is a corporation in human form.

Now the lobby group is seeking what it calls “a minimal regulatory system with the maximum of flexibility”. Having harmonised European regulations so that the same big companies can sell the same goods and services everywhere, its new task is to diminish those common rules, to allow these firms to dump their costs onto the environment and other people. It appears to be winning. According to its website, “every six months the ERT makes contact with the government that holds the EU presidency to discuss priorities.” Its former secretary-general boasted about phoning European leaders whenever he wanted policy changes.

All this has been accompanied by the effective abandonment of future social democratic reforms. Thanks in part to Tony Blair’s efforts, the EU’s proposed “fundamental charter on human rights” appears to have been scuppered. There’s now no realistic prospect of harmonising corporate taxes to prevent companies from threatening to move to another part of Europe if their host nation doesn’t reduce its rates. While the EU still enforces the progressive measures it has adopted in the past, its new legislative programme is, in effect, confined to helping big business to get bigger.

In Gothenburg Tony Blair insisted that protesters “must not and will not disrupt the proper workings of democratic organisations.” That role has been reserved for corporations.