TRADE: Free Trade Is Not So Free After All

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Picture: EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht | Credit: Wikimedia CommonsBy Julio Godoy*

BARCELONA (IDN) - International negotiations on so-called “free trade agreements” have always had something surreptitious about them. In the late 1990s, the industrialised countries represented at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) wanted to pass a “multilateral agreement on investment” (MAI) with the alleged goal of facilitating – liberating, so to speak – international investment. But, for all the good that such investment was supposed to bring about across the world, the OECD managed the negotiations in a most clandestine way.

With good reason: Only thanks to the extraordinary work of civil rights activists and journalists, it was revealed that the MAI draft constituted a carte blanche for corporations to commit all kind of violations of national legislation on social and environmental matters. MAI would annul national legislation if it were to represent an obstacle to international investment. In other words, the MAI would downgrade environmental and social standards to the lowest common denominator, to sustain international investment. The MAI would also allow international corporations to sue governments which would maintain high environmental and social standards.


These revelations forced the French Socialist government of the time to withdraw its support for such botch, and with it the MAI was apparently dead. Actually, it became a zombie, reappearing once and again, to make civil activists to jump again and again.

These days, the MAI comes as a free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States. Given the quality of environmental and social standards reigning in the promised land of neoliberalism, it is quite understandable that European activists are paying attention to whatever kowtow the EU is ready to perform before the temple of free trade.

The first thing they realized was that European governments say one thing but do quite the opposite. The German ruling coalition of Christian and Social Democrats, for instance, agreed in their official government programme that they oppose genetically modified organisms (GMOs). However, at the European sessions to allow or veto the cultivation of genetically modified maize in the continent, Germany abstained. Since the German vote was crucial to obtain the necessary majority to veto the import of U.S. produced GMOs, its abstention meant that the maize passed a first European hurdle.

The German government has characteristically ignored all protests by environmental activists against the abstention. Angela Merkel’s coalition uses the typically German government method of ‘aussitzen’ – to adjourn a decision or debate until the public interest has faded away so that nobody ever cares about the former problem.

Only that the “free trade agreement” with the U.S.A. is a European problem, and people across Europe are watching whatever the European Union does. For instance, the activists at the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), a Brussels-based watchdog group that specialises in disclosing the sometimes unlawful relations between European private companies and the EU bureaucracy.

Under the EU's freedom of information law (FOI), CEO several months ago demanded the European Commission to release documents related to the present negotiations it is carrying out with the U.S. government. But, while the EU Commissioner Karel De Gucht claims that "there is nothing secret" about the EU-US trade talks, the CEO has found that notes of Commission meetings with business “have been heavily censored”.

As the CEO puts it, “The documents show that De Gucht's officials invited industry to submit wish lists for 'regulatory barriers' they would like removed during the negotiations, but there is no way for the public to know how the EU has incorporated this into its negotiating position – or even what has been asked for and by whom – as all references have been removed.”

This is a typical EU method: Whenever it has something to decide, the EU contacts large private corporations and ask for policy formulations. It was so during the 1990s, during the huge campaign of privatisation of public services in Eastern Europe: French private companies such as Lyonnaise des Eaux and Compagnie Generale des Eaux, the main profiteers of privatisation of water services across the world, provide the blueprint for EU policy. It has been so again, during the recent negotiations with India and African countries, on free trade agreements.

Absence of transparency

CEO obtained 44 documents about the European Commission's meetings with industry lobbyists as part of preparations for the EU-U.S. trade talks – TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. In a communiqué released mid-February, the group says: “Most of the documents … are meeting reports prepared by Commission officials. The release of these documents might sound like a generous act of transparency on the side of the Commission, but that is hardly the case.”

On the one hand, the documents arrived almost ten months after the FOI request was tabled. On the other hand, 39 of the 44 documents are heavily censored. Additionally, the CEO says that the “44 documents cover only a fraction of the more than 100 meetings which De Gucht's officials had with industry lobbyists in the run-up to the launch of the TTIP negotiations.”

It is as if “no notes (were) taken during closed-door meetings with corporate lobbyists from, for example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the German industry federation BDI, chemical lobby groups CEFIC and VCI, pharmaceutical industry coalition EFPIA, DigitalEurope, the Transatlantic Business Council, arms industry lobby ASD, the British Bankers Association, and corporations like Lilly, Citi and BMW,” CEO complaints.

The group has also complained to the European Commission's top civil servant Catherine Day and demanded the full release of all documents related to meetings with lobbyists on TTIP.

As the group explains, the De Gucht bureaucracy removed large parts of text, marking them as “non releasable” or “not relevant”, and by 'whitening' or 'blackening' the parts it wants to keep from public scrutiny. “In some cases, like a meeting with lobbyists from Fertilizers Europe, every single word has been removed from the document,” CEO says.

The EC defends this secrecy arguing that “Release of … information could have a negative impact on (European industries’) position on the U.S. and other markets. It would therefore undermine the protection of commercial interests of a natural or legal person.”

For the CEO, such arguments “are highly flawed.” It recalls that De Gucht in December 2013 in a letter published in the British newspaper, The Guardian, promised that “there is nothing secret about this EU trade deal” and that “our negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are fully open to scrutiny”. Evidently, this is “blatantly untrue,” as the group says. “Not only is the text of the EU's negotiating position secret, the public is even denied access to sentences in meeting reports that refer to the EU negotiating position. This is especially problematic as these are minutes from meetings with industry lobbyists who were clearly given information about the EU's negotiating position in the TTIP talks, unlike the public. “

The group concludes that “Sharing information about the EU's negotiating position with industry while refusing civil society access to that same information is unacceptable discrimination.” Yes indeed!

Curious, don’t you think, that free trade must be discussed behind closed doors, with access restricted to large private companies, and not in the open, as freedom is supposed to mean, and that the hypothetical common good its defenders claim it will bring about must be concealed from society.

This EU behaviour is a disgrace, but it is also routine. For instance, during the recent vote on whether the EU accepts that the genetically modified Pioneer GM maize be cultivated in European territory or not: During the vote, February 11, 2014 a record number of 19 EU countries – out of 28 – declared themselves to be against the cultivation, and only five countries said they were in favour (among them the UK, Spain and Sweden). The rest abstained.

This ratio roughly represents the popular will in Europe: Most people oppose genetically modified agriculture.

And yet, given that four governments, in particular Germany’s, abstained, the clear majority against authorising the GM maize still did not have enough weight to reach what is called a 'qualified majority' in the EU's complex decision-making processes. Germany is a case in point: Officially, the German government opposes genetically modified agriculture. It says so in its government programme of November 2013.

But at the moment of truth, Germany abstained, knowing that by so doing it would actually vote for the GM maize. For, as the CEO, again, explains, “abstaining basically translates into being in favour because it prevented a qualified majority from stopping the authorisation.” After the vote, which constituted a sound slap on the face of the majority of people in the EU, Commissioner Tonio Borg admitted that the result meant that the Commission was legally forced to go ahead and authorise the maize.

By the way: the global privatisation of water services supported by the EU in collusion with a couple of private companies, resulted in higher prices, decaying quality, and lack of investment in the services. After some years, communities from Paris to Buenos Aires and Berlin decided it had been a bad idea to privatise the services, and restarted a re-municipalisation of them, in a trend that continues until today.

*Julio Godoy is an investigative journalist and IDN Associate Global Editor. He has won international recognition for his work, including the Hellman-Hammett human rights award, the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Investigative Reporting Online by the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists, and the Online Journalism Award for Enterprise Journalism by the Online News Association and the U.S.C. Annenberg School for Communication, as co-author of the investigative reports “Making a Killing: The Business of War” and “The Water Barons: The Privatisation of Water Services”. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 26, 2014]

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