Two very powerful Americans – let’s call them VPAs – have been welcomed to Brussels by the EU’s grovelling grandees over the past month.
The first of these visitors was Barack Obama. Displaying his usual charm, the president received a lot of attention when he declared his love for Belgian beer and chocolate.
By contrast, the second visit of a VPA went largely unreported. It was by Tom Donohoe, head of the US Chamber of Commerce. Last week, he met top-level representatives of the European Commission.
The low profile nature of his trip belies Donohoe’s influence.
The US Chamber of Commerce boasts of being the world’s largest business association. It has spent more than $1 billion on lobbying since 1998.
Donohoe, who commands a $5 million annual salary, was in town to discuss the planned trans-Atlantic trade and investment agreement.
Nothing to hide?
While Donohoe was chatting with Karel de Gucht, the EU’s trade commissioner, their meeting took place behind closed doors. De Gucht’s spokesman refused to give me any details about what was discussed, replying with a bland comment about how it was a “stakeholder meeting”, rather than a formal negotiation. That was despite how de Gucht claimed not long ago that he has “nothing to hide”.
As it happens, de Gucht has many things to hide. And he has good reason not to be transparent. Because if de Gucht was really candid about what he and his colleagues are doing, they would probably face mass public resistance.
The truth is that de Gucht is conniving with big business to destroy or dramatically weaken health, environmental and labour standards and democracy itself.
The US Chamber of Commerce was the American pressure group most consulted by officials working for de Gucht in 2012 and 2013. The proposals which the EU side has put on the table for the trans-Atlantic trade talks closely resemble the chamber’s wish-list.
Tom Donohoe is an ideological extremist. Under his leadership, the US Chamber of Commerce has vigorously opposed all attempts to make health insurance more affordable. Any regulation that puts the interests of ordinary people before corporate profits will be fought “with every resource at our disposal,” he has said.
Even though he has been at odds with Obama on medical care, Donohoe has pledged his support for what he recently described as the “aggressive trade policy” now being pursued by the Obama administration. Both the US and the European Union have the potential to set the “gold standard” for twenty-first century agreements on trade and investment, he said last week.
Karel de Gucht has been saying pretty much the same thing, while trying to give the impression that he is standing up for the interests of ordinary people.
Towards the end of March, de Gucht launched a “public consultation exercise” on one particularly controversial idea. This idea involves setting up a specialised court system that corporations could use to sue governments and demand financial compensation for laws and policies that harm their bottom line. In trade jargon, the idea is known as “investor-to-state dispute settlement”.
The public consultation exercise is a sham.
De Gucht remains committed to having the specialised court system introduced. He has done nothing more than to promise that the idea will be handled a little differently than it was in the 3,000 other international trade agreements in which it has been included.
Until now, for example, the judges – or arbitrators as they are called – who assess cases brought under such systems have often been corporate lawyers. De Gucht has made a commitment to introducing a code of conduct designed to guarantee the impartiality of these judges.
The questionnaire which de Gucht has invited members of the public to fill in as part of the “consultation” exercise does not grapple with the most problematic aspects of the proposed system.
It does not address how the system would help perpetuate inequality. Only corporations would have access to this system. The rest of us would have none. The system has been designed almost exclusively for the 1%, to use a term made popular by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Earlier this year, de Gucht stated that he understood why there was much concern about how the tobacco industry had availed of the “dispute settlement” provision in previous investment accords to challenge anti-smoking initiatives.
Philip Morris, the cigarette-maker, is exploiting an agreement between Uruguay and Switzerland to seek a $2 billion payment over losses it allegedly incurred after Uruguay became the first Latin American country to ban smoking in public places.
More recently, the same Philip Morris has begun proceedings against Australia over a law requiring that cigarettes be sold in plain packages, with graphic images of suffering and disease.
What de Gucht neglects to mention is that the whole concept of having these specialised investment courts set up through a trans-Atlantic agreement can be traced to the tobacco industry.
The tobacco industry has quite literally drafted some of the key proposals for the planned accord.
Back in 1995, both the EU and US authorities formally tasked a corporate club called the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue with providing advice on how trade between the two sides could be increased. British American Tobacco and Philip Morris have been intimately involved in this lobby group, which has since been renamed the Trans Atlantic Business Council. For much of its history, the group’s Brussels office was run by Jeffries Briginshaw, a former representative of British American Tobacco.
Not surprisingly, this group wants the kind of “robust mechanisms” included in the trans-Atlantic deal that have enabled Big Tobacco to challenge health legislation in other parts of the world.
The US Chamber of Commerce has close connections with Big Tobacco, too. It has tried to thwart an American government effort to have a clause inserted in another planned trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would recognise that tobacco is a special product requiring stringent regulation to protect human health.
Given the secret nature of their conversation, we don’t know if Karel de Gucht upbraided Donohoe last week for supporting an industry that deliberately aims to get children and adolescents hooked on its lethal products. But I very much doubt that he did.
For all his promises to defend the public interest, de Gucht has been happy to shine Big Tobacco’s shoes.
David Cronin is the author of the new book Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War published by Pluto Press.
A version of this article was first published by EUobserver.