FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Wrecking the Welfare State in Secret

A golden staircase greets guests to De Warande, an exclusive club in central Brussels.  Built in the late eighteenth century, this mansion was acquired in 1907 by François Empain, a banker who helped his royal chum Leopold II loot the Congo.  With its historical association to imperial conquest, it is surely an apt venue for furtive talks on how to reorder Europe.

On 8 March 2010, Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s “president”, dined here with 10 business leaders.  The select grouping mulled over how they could exploit the ongoing economic crisis to the benefit of the ultra-rich.  Among those invited were board members of Volvo, Nokia, Nestlé and Philips.  Fittingly, Umicore – a firm set up to exploit Congo’s mines (which it still does) – was represented, too.

I have obtained Van Rompuy’s speaking notes for the occasion.  He began by likening his role to that of a chairman of a holding company, who doesn’t have shares in the individual firms belonging to it. After that apparent witticism, he claimed that all EU governments agree on a “familiar” list of priorities for raising productivity: “innovation, higher quality of human capital through education, pension reform”.

To achieve these objectives, Van Rompuy briefly presented a vision for greater economic coordination. It would consist of reducing the number of targets set for EU governments and turning “peer pressure into genuine pressure”.

The dinner was hosted by the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT), which brings together about 50 powerful entrepreneurs.  It was one of several  such confabs between Van Rompuy and the ERT in his current role.  Though he is supposed to be a public servant – not the chairman of a holding company – Van Rompuy and his team have not published any details of these meetings.

Fancying himself as a philosopher and a poet, Van Rompuy was not crude enough to say that he wanted the pursuit of profit to trump all other goals. But that is the effect of his argument – particularly on pension “reform”.

Van Rompuy conceded in his comments that politicians who propose raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 will have a tough job being re-elected. So he and others in the Brussels bureaucracy are discussing how this can be done without voters obstructing their plans.

And this isn’t purely a matter of addressing what policy wonks call the demographic “time-bomb” (surely an ageist phrase) caused by rising life expectancy.  Pensions are one of many advances won through workers’ relentless struggle that the ERT – one of the most influential lobby groups in Europe – wants to reverse.   The ERT’s push for pension reform didn’t begin with the current crisis: it first described the pension entitlements that are integral to the entire concept of the welfare state as an “economic threat” in 2000.

One month before the 2010 soirée in De Warande, Van Rompuy received a letter from the ERT stating that “urgent transformation is necessary”.  It was signed by Leif Johansson, then of Volvo, and Gerard Kleisterlee, then of Philips.

The kind of “transformation” desired has been elaborated on in a series of ERT briefing papers.  One key recommendation was that all legislation viewed as incompatible with the bosses’ agenda should be “reviewed” – a coded way of saying “gutted”.  The impact of new laws on business would have to be “screened”.  An impact assessment procedure “must send back” laws that hamper profit maximisation, the ERT argued.

The ERT’s repeated calls for greater investment in education should be treated sceptically.  In 2011, Johansson – now representing Ericsson – sent a detailed list of demands to Van Rompuy.  Johansson insisted that the EU “mainstream competitiveness” into all its policies.  “Competiveness” is a synonym for corporate dominance.

Special emphasis was placed on opening up services to the private sector.  Reading between the lines, it was clear that Johansson wished such services to include health, education, water and public transport.  All of these are essential to social justice; Johansson is pushing for them to be handed over to corporations.

In a reply to Johansson, one of Van Rompuy’s advisers stated the president “agrees to a great extent with your recommendations”.  Bolstered by that response, the ERT went even further last year by urging an “immediate halt” to new regulation “which has no proven immediate effect on economic growth”.

The call is not being made in a vacuum.  Under the watchful eye of Edmund Stoiber, a bigwig in Bavarian politics, an EU group of “experts” is already preparing a bonfire of laws that the captains of industry don’t like.  Everything from commitments on climate change to the rights of people with disabilities is being attacked by these “experts”.

The “competiveness” that the ERT espouses habitually should not be confused with competition.  In its discussions with Van Rompuy and other “important” figures, the ERT has been urging that the EU become more relaxed about controlling mergers between large companies.   It is clear what the result of this hands-off approach would be:  power would be concentrated in fewer corporate hands  than is now the case.  This is a recipe for oligopoly, not for dynamism.

What is going on here?  Democracy is being eroded by a dozen or so individuals who meet in private clubs.  They are all rich, white and male.  They have nothing in common with 99% of the world’s population.  They are our enemies: so let’s start fighting them.

David Cronin’s book Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War will be published in August.  It can be pre-ordered from Pluto Press (www.plutobooks.com).

A version of this article was originally published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

A version of this article  was first published by EUobserver.

April 24, 2018
Carl Boggs
Russia and the War Party
William A. Cohn
Carnage Unleashed: the Pentagon and the AUMF
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
The Racist Culture of Canadian Hockey
María Julia Bertomeu
On Angers, Disgusts and Nauseas
Nick Pemberton
How To Buy A Seat In Congress 101
Ron Jacobs
Resisting the Military-Now More Than Ever
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Left, Syria and Fake News
Manuel E. Yepe
The Confirmation of Democracy in Cuba
Peter Montgomery
Christian Nationalism: Good for Politicians, Bad for America and the World
Ted Rall
Bad Drones
Jill Richardson
The Latest Attack on Food Stamps
Andrew Stewart
What Kind of Unionism is This?
Ellen Brown
Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising
April 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
In Middle East Wars It Pays to be Skeptical
Thomas Knapp
Just When You Thought “Russiagate” Couldn’t Get Any Sillier …
Gregory Barrett
The Moral Mask
Robert Hunziker
Chemical Madness!
David Swanson
Senator Tim Kaine’s Brief Run-In With the Law
Dave Lindorff
Starbucks Has a Racism Problem
Uri Avnery
The Great Day
Nyla Ali Khan
Girls Reduced to Being Repositories of Communal and Religious Identities in Kashmir
Ted Rall
Stop Letting Trump Distract You From Your Wants and Needs
Steve Klinger
The Cautionary Tale of Donald J. Trump
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Conflict Over the Future of the Planet
Cesar Chelala
Gideon Levy: A Voice of Sanity from Israel
Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
William Blum
Anti-Empire Report: Unseen Persons
Lawrence Davidson
Missiles Over Damascus
Patrick Cockburn
The Plight of the Yazidi of Afrin
Pete Dolack
Fooled Again? Trump Trade Policy Elevates Corporate Power
Stan Cox
For Climate Mobilization, Look to 1960s Vietnam Before Turning to 1940s America
William Hawes
Global Weirding
Dan Glazebrook
World War is Still in the Cards
Nick Pemberton
In Defense of Cardi B: Beyond Bourgeois PC Culture
Ishmael Reed
Hollywood’s Last Days?
Peter Certo
There Was Nothing Humanitarian About Our Strikes on Syria
Dean Baker
China’s “Currency Devaluation Game”
Ann Garrison
Why Don’t We All Vote to Commit International Crimes?
LEJ Rachell
The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail