Who runs the world?
There’s a reason why more and more protesters are showing up at the gatherings and offices of corporate lobby groups. Made up of the movers and shakers from large transnational corporations, these groups shape policy to serve their own interests in ways which go far beyond legitimate political input. Citizens are now playing catch-up, pointing out that these groups have no legitimacy to write the rules of global governance. We shine a light on a few of the most powerful.
The corporate-state alliance
Transatlantic Business Dialogue (TABD)
• Established in 1995, the Transatlantic Business Dialogue is undoubtedly the most far-reaching international alliance between corporations and states. Unlike other lobby groups, it actually has a mandate from the US Government and the European Commission to work meticulously to identify ‘barriers to transatlantic trade’ – in effect, any regulation or policy proposal that does not fit the corporate agenda on either side of the Atlantic.
• The 150 large corporations in the Business Dialogue have managed to delay, weaken or even dismantle a wide range of environment and consumer-protection regulations, including a planned EU ban on marketing of animal-tested cosmetic products. High-level government officials are active participants at the Dialogue’s major events and officials entertain the demands of their many working groups on a daily basis. A major Dialogue success includes the EU-US Mutual Recognition Agreement which allows corporations to market a wide range of products in both the EU and the US if they have been tested on either side of the Atlantic. A member of the TABD claimed: ‘We got [World Trade Organization Director General] Mike Moore to come to one of our meetings before the Seattle WTO Ministerial. I think he found it quite helpful. We’re a non-governmental organization, an NGO, like all the others. I really can’t see what all the fuss is about.’ The TABD played a key role in the launch of the new WTO round of trade negotiations in Qatar last November.
• Post-September 11, EU and US arms producers have taken a leading role in the TABD and a new working group to find ‘ways to capitalize on… the new awareness of the importance of the security sector’.
The architects of globalization
International Chamber of Commerce (ICC)
• The Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1919, is the single largest and most influential international corporate lobby group. This self-proclaimed ‘world business organization’ – implying a self-image of semi-officialdom – has thousands of member companies in over 130 countries. It is dominated by the world’s most powerful transnational corporations, including General Motors, Novartis, Bayer and Nestlé. The political clout of its members has secured it permanent representation at the World Trade Organization and unparalleled access at other key economic and political institutions in the global economy, including the G8 and the United Nations.
• The ICC has taken the lead in attacking the global-justice movement and its challenge to corporate-biased international trade and investment rules. A key strategy has been its successful charm offensive towards the UN as a prominent partner in Kofi Annan’s Global Compact between the UN and transnational corporations, launched in January 2000. The total absence of monitoring and enforcement mechanisms makes the Compact an ideal ‘greenwash’ instrument. The partnership with the UN should be taken in context with the group’s long and ongoing history of vigorously lobbying to weaken international environmental treaties, including the Kyoto Protocol to curb climate change, the Convention on Biodiversity and the Basel Convention against trade in toxic waste.
‘People of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public’ - Adam Smith.
World Economic Forum (WEF)
• The World Economic Forum is not a lobby group, but a powerful international forum for élite consensus building and strategizing. Two thousand corporate executives, politicians and academics meet at the Forum’s annual meeting, traditionally held in Davos, Switzerland, but moved to New York for the January 2002 event. As WEF veteran Samuel P Huntington puts it: ‘Davos people control virtually all international institutions, many of the world’s governments and the bulk of the world’s economic and military capabilities.’ The World Economic Forum takes credit for the launching of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Trade and Tarriffs which culminated in the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1994.
• However, the atmosphere at the recent WEF meetings has been more self-flagellating than in preceding years. The growing discontent with the economic model promoted by the Forum is clear in the anti-globalization protests which have dogged their meetings on five continents. In response, the Forum is adopting a new tune. The discourse coming out of their carefully orchestrated debates, transmitted by the corporate media which attend en masse, is that globalization is the only viable strategy but needs a ‘human face’. Despite attempts to save its tarnished image, the WEF remains a symbol of what is wrong with the current model of globalization. Over 20,000 people demonstrated non-violently in January in New York against this gathering of self-proclaimed ‘global leaders’ meeting to chart out the future for the rest of the world.
The EU policy shapers
European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT)
• This discreetly operating club of some 47 chairpersons and chief executive officers of Europe’s largest transnationals has been one of the main political forces on the European scene for almost two decades. European Roundtable member Baron Daniel Janssen describes the ERT’s influence as a ‘double revolution’: ‘reducing the power of the state and of the public sector in general through privatization and deregulation’ and ‘transferring many of the nation-states’ powers to a more modern and internationally minded structure at European level’.
• Privileged access to both governments and the European Commission has been key to the Roundtable’s dramatic success in shaping the European Union’s political agenda. The ERT reaped its most remarkable successes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when its wishes for a single market and trans-European networks of transport infrastructure were fulfilled. Roundtable fingerprints are also clearly visible on the 1991 Maastricht Treaty which laid the groundwork for European Monetary Union. The group’s ongoing influence is reflected in the EU’s March 2000 ‘Lisbon’ action plan, which includes the further liberalization and privatization of energy, transport, telecommunication and postal services markets as well as neoliberal reforms of labour markets and pension systems.
The chief executive’s club
Business Roundtable (BRT)
• The Business Roundtable, with over 200 chief executives of the largest US-based corporations and banks in its ranks, was founded in 1972 with the explicit goal of enforcing corporate control over the political agenda. The BRT’s successes inspired corporate leaders in Europe, Canada and elsewhere to set up lobby groups around the same CEO-only model.
• The Roundtable lobbies aggressively on issues from healthcare and social security to the environment and consumer protection, aiming to adapt public policy to the corporate bottom-line. The BRT is particularly influential over US international trade policies. In the early 1990s, a Roundtable front group, USA^NAFTA, spent $10 million to help secure the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement. In 2000, the Roundtable successfully campaigned for unconditional access to US markets for goods US corporations produce in China under commercially ideal, but often socially and environmentally deplorable, conditions. They spent over $30 million on lobbyists to help US Congress members make up their minds. The Business Roundtable alone employed no less than 80 full-time field organizers to create an impression of local grassroots activity in favour of the China trade policy.
Corporate Europe Observatory is an NGO research group based in Amsterdam. For more information on lobby groups see their book, Europe, Inc. – Regional and Global Restructuring and the Rise of Corporate Power (Pluto Press, 2000). Their newsletter, Corporate Europe Observer (http://www.corporateeurope.org) is a goldmine of information.
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