The "Millennium Round"

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by Christian de Brie (Le Monde Diplomatique, May, 1999)

Sheltered from the hubbub of war and crisis, Europe, the United States and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) are devising agreements that will remove the final obstacles to the free play of "market forces" and require countries to submit to the unfettered expansion of the multinationals.

Learning from the failure of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), big business and technocrats are trying to force through a decision before the end of 1999.

The corpse of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) hardly had time to get cold in the vaults of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (1) before the ultra-liberal Dr Jekylls led by Sir Leon Brittan, the outgoing European Commission vice-president and Thatcherite die-hard, have tried to clone it, excitedly hoping to see new Draculas emerge from their test tubes by the year 2000.

This urgent work is being carried out in two secret laboratories with "Keep Out" signs to deter anyone not wearing a lab coat: the Transatlantic Economic Partnership (TEP) and the Millennium Round of the World Trade Organisation.

The first of these, which opened on 16 September 1998, is dedicated (though it will not admit it) to that favourite project of the British and the Americans - seeing the European Union dissolved in a free trade area with the United States. Following the failure of the first attempt in 1994, a rehashed version presented by the European Commission on 11 March 1998 under the name NTM (New Transatlantic Marketplace) was thrown out by the foreign ministers of the Fifteen on 27 April.

As he had done before, Brittan went back to his drawing board (without seeking a mandate) to come up with a disguised version of his pet scheme. If the 27 pages of the Commission recommendation on the negotiation of agreements in the field of technical barriers to trade between the EU and the US (2) are anything to go by, the outcome promises to be instructive. (An abbreviated version was approved by the Council, empowering it to negotiate on behalf of the member states, then by the European Parliament in September and November 1998).

On the pretext of removing "technical barriers to trade", which include health, social and environmental protection regulations, the ultimate aim is to "reach a general commitment to unconditional access to the market in all sectors and for all methods of supply" of products and services, including health, education and public contracts. In the inimitable jargon of the Commission, states and local authorities are required to make all derogations explicit in the form of "a negative freedom" given that the agreements negotiated apply to all the territory of the parties, regardless of their constitutional structures, at all levels of authority. This is very restrictive for the local authorities of the European countries, but of little risk to the US, where the federated states are not bound by Washington's signature in the matter.

The aim is gradually to draw up common minimum regulations "based on the recommendations of enterprises" in order to "create new outlets" for them - all this in "a spirit of conviviality". Involved in the TEP talks from the outset, the multinationals have greatly influenced the content thanks to a powerful lobby that has been institutionalised for four years: the Transatlantic Business Dialogue (TABD) bringing together the upper crust of big business on both sides of the North Atlantic. Its last two-yearly meeting took place in Charlotte (North Carolina) in November 1998.

Big business to call the tune

In order to allay suspicion, they are trying to rush through the establishment of a Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, a Transatlantic Labour Dialogue and a Transatlantic Environment Dialogue for consumers, trade unions and ecologists respectively, who will have to stay firmly within the bounds set by big business in the TABD. The latter has no intention of giving anything more than a half-hearted commitment to optional codes of conduct with no sanctions attached.

Thus "hemmed in", talks proceed behind closed doors, using salami tactics to avoid alerting public opinion, so that everything can be sewn up by December 1999. Industrial goods, services, public contracts, intellectual property, etc, in a dozen fields, slice by slice; "mutual recognition agreements" (MRA), apparently technical but in fact political, seek to reduce standards and regulations to the lowest common denominator. The outcome is that the safeguards that Europe has built up, in food, the environment and health in particular, are being dismantled.

Once agreement has been reached, governments will be obliged to abolish any laws that conflict with the MRAs. And it is no surprise to find that the procedures will consist of meetings "at cabinet level in order to maintain political impetus" and between "top officials assisted where necessary by ad hoc or specialist groups" who will take care of everything together with consultants from the world of business.

Talks conducted behind closed doors without democratic control aim for a hastily signed final agreement: the TEP follows the same aims as the MAI - to hand over all human activities to capital, without let or hindrance, thereby stripping the EU, member governments and local authorities of their ability to pursue their own policies, be they economic, social, cultural or environmental.

But the document signed at the London transatlantic summit on 18 May 1998 has another aim: to establish a US-EU condominium capable of imposing its will on the rest of the world, and in particular the countries of the South in the talks due to open at the WTO in December. The war being prosecuted, with the support of their governments, by transnational corporations on both sides of the Atlantic for the conquest and domination of world markets is becoming increasingly brutal and has no regard for laws. Witness America's extraterritorial Helms-Burton and D'Amato-Gilman acts that are contrary to international law; the banana war lost by the EU despite the LomT agreements that are no longer worth the paper they are written on; the disputes over hormone-contaminated meat and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that contravene health regulations, to name only a few recent examples that have made the headlines.

For example, the US food industry organisation Grocery Manufacturers of America has decided to challenge the European "eco-labelling" directives and other consumer protection legislation said to reflect "local cultural values" and be discriminatory in terms of international competition (3). It is precisely the role of the MRAs negotiated under the TEP to settle such disputes in the best interests of business, even if the agreement makes an ass of the EU (4).

Encouraged by the work of his first laboratory, the insatiable Brittan, far from being content to deal with the outgoing Commission's current business, is actively preparing for the success of the second: the Millennium Round. The idea is to convert the meeting of the ministerial conference of the 131 WTO member countries in Seattle in December 1999 into an enormous globalisation fair, where the removal of the final obstacles to capital's freedom of action would be negotiated pell-mell. Without any prior decision to that effect, public contracts, competition, product controls and investment would be added to the initial agenda for the revision of the 1994 Marrakesh accords on agriculture, services and industrial property. In other words, it is the MAI Dracula.

In the case of intellectual property and farming, for example, this would mean absolute compliance with patent rights in seed, especially soya and transgenic rice, in which American corporations hold a monopoly, and strict limits on member countries' rights to hold buffer stocks against the risk of famine. In the case of public contracts, foreign firms would have the same rights as national ones for all local, regional and national public contracts, with the contract going to the most "efficient". In competition matters, countries would no longer have any control over public purchase offers and mergers. In the name of trade facilitation, controls in ports and airports would be restricted to one sample or container. For investment the proposals are the same as the MAI, except for arbitration.

The multinationals intend having their way in everything: apart from the Transatlantic Business Dialogue and the European Round Table of Industrialists, a new lobby , the Business Investment Network, is hard at work. The Seattle meeting looks set to be a Millennium Merry-Go-Round; come next June, the International Chamber of Commerce will be rallying public opinion in its support, while Sir Leon Brittan will be touring Southeast Asia, trying to win over such recalcitrant countries as India, Pakistan and Indonesia. But, crisis-stricken and closely dependent on the International Monetary Fund (IMF), most countries of the South will put up little resistance. The scene seems to have been set in advance for the US and the EU to call the tune.

The WTO's negotiating methods and practices lend a hand here. Countries are supposed to submit their lists of requests, concessions and requests for debate by the end of June 1999. After that, the WTO's executive body, the General Council, will work behind closed doors planning the content and proceedings of the ministerial conference. The details of the agreements will be worked out in a large number of informal meetings (not even the list of participants will be published) and the silence of the weakest countries will be taken to signify acceptance.

"Transparency", "deregulation", "liberalisation", "opening of markets", "good governance" are only matters for countries and their citizens, never for large corporations. There is no draft international agreement to put an end to what is common practice in the jungle of big business: secret agreements and cartels, dumping and transfer price manipulation; speculation and insider dealing; financial crime, tax evasion and money laundering; spying and piracy; surveillance and exploitation of workers, banning of trade unions; plundering and embezzlement of collective resources and common property, endemic corruption of economic channels, major markets and state machinery.

So there seems to be nothing to prevent the transnational corporations taking possession of the planet and subjecting humanity to the dictatorship of capital. Almost all of them are based in the most powerful countries of the North (the US, Canada, the EU, Japan) where large-scale mergers and concentrations continue apace with the unconditional support of governments and international bodies given over to their cause. Controlling virtually all the means of information and communication, they meet with only localised and sporadic resistance as they compete relentlessly for monopoly control of the markets.

Making people submit to the implacable logic of profit is now the only policy of the great powers and the organisations they control, especially the OECD, IMF and WTO. The havoc they cause is terrible and they do it with impunity: accelerated impoverishment and destruction of the social structures of entire populations, who are deprived of the most basic rights, driven from their homes and left fighting for survival. The weakest states collapse under the weight of structural adjustment policies and debt, unable to guarantee their people's security or provide a minimum of working public services. The consequences are a return to barbarism and ethnic conflict; ever more crises bringing plummeting living standards and soaring unemployment (5); a widespread increase in inequality and poverty, even in the supposedly richest countries, especially that shop window of liberalism, Tony Blair's Britain (6).

In order to crush any thought of organised resistance to the supporters of this new world order, tremendous police and military forces are being used to establish a doctrine of repression: poverty itself is made a crime on the domestic front just as recalcitrant states are internationally vilified (7).

Able in a few hours to find the billions of dollars necessary to save from bankruptcy the few robber barons who have eaten their fill at a speculative fund (LTCM), these new masters of the world cannot spare even one tenth that amount to provide over a billion human beings with clean drinking water, even though 25,000 people die every day for want of it (8). They are streets ahead of the tyrants of the Middle East, the Balkans or elsewhere, against whom we are regularly roused to great humanitarian tirades. "Water is life!" proclaims Vivendi (formerly Générale des Eaux) in a lavish advertising campaign, building its wealth on organising its scarcity.

In the urgency of the situation, resistance is being organised to meet the forthcoming onslaught. Drawing on the experience of the successful fight against the MAI, an international campaign of information and action is being organised and coordinated with the support of the trade union, social and community movements and questions are being asked of elected representatives (9).

The immediate aim is a moratorium on all trade talks with, ultimately, supervision of the transnationals, the establishment of an international economic court of justice and the "deratification" of the agreements already signed. This is not to forget reform of the WTO which operates in permanent violation of the basic principles of democratic societies.

By Christian De Brie of Observatoire de la mondialisation (Globalisation watch)
Translated by Malcolm Greenwood

(1) See "A dangerous new manifesto for global capitalism" by Lori M. Wallach, Le Monde Diplomatique in English, February 1998.

(2) "Recommendation for a Council decision, presented by the Commission" (undated); and "Resolution of the European Parliament", Bulletin of the Communities (COM.98.0125) and "Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee" (CES 1164.98).

(3) Testimony of a leader of Grocery Manufacturers of America to the US Senate trade subcommittee, 28 July 1998.

(4) See Jean-Claude Lefort and Jean-Pierre Page, "Double jeu autour de l'AMI", Le Monde Diplomatique, October 1998; Jean- Claude Lefort, Europe-Etats-Unis: quelles relations économiques?, rapport préliminaire, Assemblée Nationale, rapport d'information No. 1150.

(5) To take just one example, the crisis resulted in 25 million people being made unemployed in East Asia.

(6) "La Grande-Bretagne s'alarme de la pauvreté croissante et introduit le Smic horaire", Le Monde, 31 March 1999.

(7) See Ignacio Ramonet, "Social democracy betrayed", Le Monde Diplomatique in English, April 1999.

(8) According to the World Health Organisation (Le Journal du Dimanche, 4 April 1999)

(9) For more information, see "L'AMI cloné à l'OMC", pamphlet produced by Coordination contre les clones de l'AMI, Observatoire de la Mondialisation, 40, rue de Malte, 75011 Paris.

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