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Editorial: Rigging the rules

We must understand and resist the onward march of corporate power, writes James O'Nions

March 31, 2014
3 min read


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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Imagine a scenario. A company wants to mine for gold in unspoiled rainforest. Gold mining is notoriously polluting, making extensive use, among other things, of arsenic. Open-cast mining, moreover, causes extensive deforestation. Luckily the country concerned has recently banned new open-cast mining. And the ban is hugely popular; large demonstrations have demanded the government implements it more effectively.

So when the high court rules that the company cannot mine, it does so with a democratic and popular, as well as legal, mandate. This, in any reasonable world, would be the end of the matter. But not in a world ruled by investment treaties. In this world, the mining company has cause to sue said country in an international investor dispute court. For $1 billion.

As you might have begun to suspect, this isn’t a fictional scenario. It describes the case that Calgary-based Infinito Gold is taking against Costa Rica under the terms of the Canada-Costa Rica investment treaty. These kinds of ‘bilateral’ treaties have snowballed in recent years. And the mechanisms they contain are likely to make their way into the EU-US trade agreement (or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) that is being negotiated during 2014.

We don’t know what exactly is being proposed in this treaty – the negotiations are secret. But a recent European Commission negotiating proposal leaked to Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) suggests it will go even further than expanding these kinds of egregious legal rights. It proposes a ‘regulatory co‑operation council’, which would seek to harmonise regulation between the EU and US and ensure business interests are looked after. Corporate representatives would be involved as standard.

CEO researcher Kenneth Haar writes: ‘This model puts the business groups at the table with regulators to essentially co-write legislation. Existing and future EU regulation would have to go through onerous procedures and lengthy negotiations with a strong business presence, in a way that would be likely to avoid any meaningful democratic debate. And the odds are that it will result in a major deregulation offensive.’

The British government has been an enthusiastic cheerleader of this trade deal. On this issue it is not at all at odds with the neoliberal elite that runs the EU. What better way to further open up the NHS to private profit than to rig investment rules in favour of corporate interests?

Much of the critique of the coalition’s cuts programme has focused on the people it harms and whether it will get us out of recession. But this is only part of the picture. Whatever the reality of George Osborne’s claims of economic recovery, the truth is that austerity is working, precisely because the whole point was to permanently shift wealth and power to the ruling class.

More than a decade ago, the anti‑globalisation movement focused on the issues of free trade and debt as mechanisms for the rich world to dominate the rest. Now those issues are at the centre of the attacks on our living standards in Britain and Europe.

As Nick Dearden argues, a renewed and updated anti-globalisation movement is needed. Like the last wave, it must be internationalist. But it also needs to be woven into those struggles against austerity that we have managed to wage.

This is no small task. But understanding and resisting the onward march of corporate power is central to making the world habitable for the majority.


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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