The European Union's Corporate-led Global Trade Agenda
by Erik Wesselius
Today, the European Union is reshaping European societies to become 'internationally competitive' and actively promoting economic globalisation through bilateral and global trade deregulation. Sweetened by "globalisation is good for all" rhetoric, the European Union's international trade and investment policies are propelled by the imperative to open new markets outside the EU for transnational corporations based within the EU.
Decision-making on international trade and investment policies is arguably one of the areas where the European Union's famous democratic gap is most pronounced. The European Commission has the initiative in setting the agenda, and it negotiates on behalf of the EU member states in fora like the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The Commission's proposals on trade and investment are decided upon in the powerful and secretive "133 Committee" which consists of trade officials from member states and Commission representatives. The European Parliament has no real say over EU trade and investment policies: even after the latyest Treaty revision in Nice, the European Parliament has only the right to be informed. On the other hand, the member state parliaments generally fail to control effectively what happens in the secretive 133 committee or during the Councils of EU Trade Ministers, often due to a lack of timely information.
In short: an ideal environment for corporate lobbying. Lacking a real democratic constituency, the European Commission has actively invited corporate lobby groups to give direction to EU trade and investment policies. The Commission has even created or encouraged new business groupings to support EU proposals for a broad WTO Round to further liberalise trade and investment globally.
The first steps towards such relatively novel 'public-private partnerships' were taken during negotiations on the WTO Financial Services Agreement in 1997. At that time, the EC worked in tandem with an industry coalition called the Financial Leaders Group.
In the run-up to Seattle, the European Commission coordinated its campaign for investment negotiations in the WTO with the Investment Network, an "informal network" of business representatives initiated by the EC in 1998. The Investment Network, representing Fiat, ICI, Daimler-Benz, Carlsberg, British Petroleum, Rhône-Poulenc and some 50 other corporations, was set up to identify the priorities of large European corporations for a WTO investment agreement.
The Commission also encouraged European corporations in the services sector to set up a European Services Forum (ESF), consisting of over 50 corporations and 36 industry federations, to "advise European Union negotiators on the key barriers and countries on which they should focus on in these negotiations." The EC's deregulatory approach and strong focus on offensive industry interests concerning the WTO services agreement (GATS) is disturbing. The GATS negotiations, which started in Geneva in February 2000, could cover sectors ranging from tourism, energy, water and food distribution to culture, health care, education and social services.
By closely cooperating with business interest groups, the Commission can present the EU member states with a negotiating strategy 'pre-approved' by European industry. This lends extra momentum to the Commission's initiatives and reinforces its position vis-à-vis member state governments. The close cooperation between the Commission and business is covered up by a highly publicized parallel process of much less concrete 'dialogues' with civil society.
Such close liaisons between the European Commission and corporate interest groups, coupled with exercises in 'virtual democracy' are the direct result of the structure of the European Union and its institutions. Its centralistic and technocratic tendencies are diametrically opposed to Switzerland's tradition of direct democracy. The Swiss people should think twice before joining this corporate superstate.
member of the Europe Corporate Observatory, Co-auther of EuropeInc. Regional and Global Restructuring and the Rise of Corporate Power, London, Pluto Press, 2000