For The Guardian UK
For all those conspiracy cranks and paranoid anti-globalisers who imagine that the planet's corporate elite and government functionaries actually meet to conspire about their blueprint for rewriting the laws of sovereign nations, be advised that the next meeting of the New World Order is being held this week at the Swiss Hotel in Brussels. It is the mid-year meeting of the Transatlantic Business Dialogue.
In 1997, just after Labour's general election victory, the United States commerce secretary, Bill Daley, had a private meeting with Britain's new Trade Secretary, Margaret Beckett, to instruct her on the ways of the world.
According to the US secretary's own briefing notes – obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act – Daley dictated a list of four changes in UK law and policy required to smooth the path of American corporations in Britain. In addition, further guidance would be provided by what Daley described as “the most influential business group advising government on US-EU commercial relations”, the Transatlantic Business Dialogue (TABD). “Your encouragement”, he admonished the Minister, “would be helpful.”
As Butch said to Sundance, who are these guys?
TABD is a working group of the West's 100 most powerful chief executives. When political leaders meet at the World Trade Organisation, this more permanent grouping provides their agenda.
The TABD's system is very efficient. One US bigwig is paired with one European for each sector grouping. For example, Monsanto's Robert Harness and Unilever's Huib Vigeveno are in charge of Agri-Biotech.
The US government and the European Union each assign an official to each industry pair. TABD has privileged access not to small fry, but to top bananas such as Pascal Lamy, the European trade commissioner, and Erkki Liikanen, commissioner for enterprise and the information society.
This week the officials are due to report to their corporate duos on the headway made on the 33 items on the current TABD implementation table. This lists 33 environment, consumer and worker protection laws in selected nations that TABD wishes to defeat or water down. The corporates will render their verdict on what TABD calls the scorecard. This will then be turned over, along with a new implementation table – including agenda items for the WTO – to President Clinton and Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, at their meeting in Portugal later this month.
The 1988 implementation table, one of the first documents obtained, grudgingly, from the Commission under its access to information rules, reveals what's planned for our brave new world.
For example, several of the “tetra-partite groups' (the two-on-two government-business trysting sessions) seek expansion for something called the MRA (Mutual Recognition Agreement), or what the TABD describes as “approved once, accepted everywhere”. It is the globalisers' cruise missile. Here's an example of how it works. Years ago Pfizer manufactured defective heart valves that cracked, killing 165 patients.
Europe became understandably wary of accepting devices merely because they had been blessed by the US Food and Drug Administration. But the MRA brushes aside individual nations' health and safety regulatory reviews – including individual regulation of medical device manufacturing plants.
Given the ill-feeling in Europe about genetic modification, the MRA rules for GM products are devilishly complex, effectively applying only to the developing nations. Does Brazil have a problem with Monsanto's bovine growth hormone? Sorry, approval by the WTO's Codex Alimentarius committee means Brazil must accept the product or face WTO trade sanctions.
The US, too, is a target. TABD's products liability group, under the guise of eliminating “non-tariff” trade barriers, takes aim at the right of US citizens to sue corporate bad guys. One TABD proposal would reverse the $5bn judgment against Exxon in the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Recently the TABD locomotive has been slowed by lambs on the tracks. The demonstrations in Seattle and Washington achieved an effect far beyond anything the demonstrators themselves could have imagined. The first purpose of the WTO meeting was to launch a new round of cuts in import duties and to eliminate more of the rules covering imports, known as non-tariff regulatory barriers. That all went up in tear-gas smoke.
Worse, TABD's deregulation pro gramme was publicly rejected by an erstwhile ally. The implementation table clearly told government officials, on page 17, that “the basic purpose of an MAI [Multilateral Agreement on Investments] should not be undermined by language on labour policy and environmental policy”, dicta adopted by the US and EC.
Yet there was President Clinton, spooked by opinion polls showing support for the demonstrators, telling the Seattle audience weepy-eyed stories of the horrors of child labour in Brazil. Business leaders were infuriated.
Frustration with their former champion, Clinton, burst into the open earlier this month when, at a meeting of the International Chamber of Commerce in Budapest, industrialists shouted down a proposal to “dialogue” with non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International.
“I don't believe that those who were in Seattle represented somebody with a legitimate stake,” fumed Peter Sutherland, head of investment bank Goldman Sachs UK. Sutherland, who jumped to Goldman from his post as director of the WTO, prefers the company of his own kind. “We have to be very careful on engaging in this debate, as those NGOs [non-governmental organisations] should not have a say with government!”
If Clinton has wimped out on business, the Chambers of Commerce have found a new knight errant. “Tony Blair, he was great! He had guts! That's the leadership we need,” Jagdish Bhagwati, an economist and globalisation guru, told the disheartened suits in Budapest. He applauded the British PM for speaking out “against anti-capitalist NGOs”.
Businessmen lobbying their way into government offices is an old story, but the supercharged TABD version – infiltration by invitation – began only in 1995 as the brainchild of Ron Brown, President Clinton's first commerce secretary.
Brown, who died in a 1996 air crash, was the president's Peter Mandelson, architect of the scheme to turn Democrats into New Democrats, the party of business. When Brown died, Clinton's passion for pairing with business passed away too, not uninfluenced by the demolition of the New Democrats in the 1994 congressional elections.
Clinton lopped off the “New” label when his buddies in industry, sensing his weakness, rushed back home to the Republican party. The president still goes through the motions of meeting TABD, as required by commercial realpolitik, but its leaders, such as Jim Wootten of the US Chamber of Commerce, tell me they doubt his sincerity.
But Blair is different. “Blair really believes,” says Bhagwati admiringly of the British prime minister's globalising fervour. And TABD members agree. Blair is a man of convictions. His heart leaps at visions of a flexible labour force, of entrepreneurs liberated from bureaucrats' rule-books, of a new economy relieved of the antique task of bending metal into Rover cars.
In 1997, according to US documents, Blair personally stepped over Beckett to water down regulations permitting Americans to build gas-fired power plants in the UK. He also hopped about to accomplish the other three tasks on the US commerce secretary's favours list.
Don't dismiss this as just a series of tawdry fixes. Blair rolled out the doormat in Downing Street to US companies because he looks on these bold screw-the-rules operators as an entrepreneurial stud pool whom he hopes will breed with and revitalise the hoof-dragging local stock.
It's sad, really. Unlike Clinton, who wised up quickly, Blair confuses the TABD's self-serving wishlist with a programme of economic salvation. But as his poll ratings keep slipping, he will find that, as they say in Arkansas, Tony's been kissed – but he ain't been loved. The Observer
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Gregory Palast's other investigative reports can be found at www.GregPalast.com where you can also subscribe to Palast's column.
Gregory Palast's column “Inside Corporate America” appears fortnightly in the
Observer's Business section. Nominated Business Writer of the Year (UK Press
Association – 2000), Investigative Story of the Year (Industrial. Society – 1999), Financial Times David Thomas Prize (1998).
For The Guardian UK