Business doesn't get much bigger than 'The World Business Organization', as the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) styles itself. Its ruling ‘Commission’ is based in Paris but there are branches around the world. One of them is in Belgrave Square, a very smart part of London filled with embassies.
Richard Bate, the Director of ICC UK, is very charming – but even he has his limits. 'We had our offices invaded twice a couple of years ago,' he complains. 'They were young students, and I refused to talk to them. I said – we got the police – "Throw them out!" And they came back to this very room and they sat over there, and they said: "Well, of course, it's very unfair, because you, the ICC, are able to talk to all these organizations. We're not." I said: "Hang on a second! How do you think I get to talk to all these people?" "Well, you've got the..." I said: "I've got nothing! I start off with a telephone directory, and I make a phone call..."'
Is that what he tells his members? I ask.
He hesitates. 'Well, we have got a lot of strong voices. We've got large companies who are very large employers, who fund a huge proportion of individuals' pension schemes, and that sort of thing. So that's why we have a powerful voice.’
Unrestrained competition is surely the watchword of free-market big business. On principle, surely, they shouldn't be able to agree on anything. How do they manage it?
'In exactly the same way as any other large federal organization does,' he says. 'We don't vote for things, but we come to a consensus view... And then we say, right, this is our view on GATS, or whatever.'
Does this mean pushing back the boundaries of public service?
'At the end of the day, yes, it probably does mean that,' says Mr Bate. 'But it's not our job to tell any national state how to do its job... Our role is to try to influence the WTO in making it easier for the business community to carry on what it does best, which is trade, within the rules that the WTO writes.'
Isn't international trade engulfed by language that turns out in the end to be, well... humbug?
The idea, say, that the only alternative to 'liberalization' is 'protectionism'? Basically, that's a load of nonsense, isn't it?
'No it's not!' he says, as if his personal feelings have been wounded.
Isn't the WTO regime itself 'protectionist'?
'No it's not!'
How about Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs, see factfile on TRIPs)?
'No. What the TRIPs is all about is trying to give back to the people who spent millions and millions of dollars...'
To protect their rights?
'Yes, but it's protecting for whoever... And it could be a tribe of Indians in Latin America just as much as it could be ICI or whoever.'
Well, not that often.
'Sometimes it is! I mean, is anybody expected to work for nothing?'
So they need the WTO to protect them?
'No, it is making sure that someone gets fair reward for fair work. I wouldn't say it was protecting. Otherwise, why should anybody sit down in a laboratory and work very hard to find out how something happens? They've got to be paid!'
I’m reminded of my uncle. Ronald Greaves was a Cambridge scientist who, among other things, invented a process for freeze-drying blood serum. It saved many lives during the Second World War. The process was taken over by the food-processing industry – ‘instant’ coffee, for example – and made millions. As far as I know, my uncle never required more than a modest salary from the university before sitting down in his beloved laboratory.
So the argument is less about ‘protectionism’ than about who or what gets protected, is it not?
'Well... The protesters out in Seattle... No, that's a bad argument to use, because most of them didn't know what they were talking about. No, the thinking people behind the protesters in Seattle are saying: "We don't like free trade." Which is not the same as saying we want protectionism... But the answer is, if they don't like free trade, in effect they're saying: "We want to be protectionists!"'
Or maybe not. They might be saying, for example, that they want more democratic control.
'Right! Well then... Let me throw the ball straight back at you! Why don't they say that?'
Maybe they do, only he's not listening? Maybe it's only the ICC who are saying that if you are not in favour of free trade you must be in favour of protectionism?
'No, we're not saying that. But I'm making that assumption. Because if you don't want free trade the other side of the coin is protectionism.'
Or maybe it isn't.
And, with smiles all round, we call it a day.
I find Chris Duffy, a young, clean-cut, laid-back American, in the smart first-floor offices of what looks from the outside like a slightly battered 'safe house' in Brussels. The window behind his desk overlooks a giant wall of smoked glass and milk-chocolate marble. We are in the heart of the European Union's Brussels enclave, a crystal wonderland that would have dwarfed even Nero's Golden Palace in Rome.
Chris Duffy works for the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue (TABD) – an organization that has acquired a legendary reputation among practitioners of the dark arts of 'pressure'. Backed as he is by a familiar collection of transnational corporations, and devoted as the TABD is to applying pressure on both sides of the Atlantic at once, there's hardly a recent piece of corporate power-play on trade that isn't attributed in some way to its influence. How does he account for the legend?
'I'm well aware of it,' he admits. 'But I don't really understand it. We're just a loose, voluntary network, you know, that came together a few years ago partly at the request of politicians themselves, as a matter of fact. They wanted to get a clearer business view. All we're really concerned about is the nuts and bolts of doing business: a zip-fastener regime that's causing undue problems; executives – and especially their wives, by the way – with residency problems. That sort of thing.'
Is this what he tells his members?
'Well, of course, we can provide access,' he says. 'To the politicians, I mean. We got Mike Moore to come to one of our meetings before the Seattle WTO Ministerial. I think he found it quite helpful.'
So business knows what it wants?
'Sure,' he says. 'Of course we know what business wants. That's our job. What's so sinister about that? Maybe our members have more power than some. But we're only one among many. We're a non-governmental organization, an NGO, like all the others. I really can't see what all the fuss is about.'
Nothing at all sinister in this, I quite understand. Just another service to the community.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7