It’s hard for us Europeans not to look down on the United States of America. First up, they’ve got a president who is patently off the wall. Then the US electorate asks him back for a second term of office. When not actually invading third countries, the Bush team promotes a brand of neoliberal economics so patently self-serving that even some neoliberals despair. Frankly, you can’t help feeling superior – the good cop!
But do we have any right to look down on the US when our own house is so far from being in order? Within the World Trade Organization, the European Union (EU) has long challenged the US to the title of ‘most aggressive and self-interested negotiator’. While refusing to sort out its own agricultural subsidies, which condemn millions in the developing world to grinding poverty, the EU has mounted an ongoing offensive, targeting the industrial and services sectors of developing country economies for its own benefit. The EU identified the industrial trade negotiations as a high priority at the beginning of the now somewhat threadbare Doha Round, stating its intention to use the negotiations ‘to achieve commercially significant market access improvements’ for the transnational corporations it represents. It is now generally accepted that such gains will come at the expense of small producers in developing countries, in sharp contrast to the benefits which these countries were promised in the so-called ‘Development Round’. Opening up developing country markets, as the EU demands, will expose infant industries to cheap imports from the world’s most powerful transnationals. The consequences will be disastrous – bankruptcies of local companies, mass unemployment and increases in poverty levels.
Yet the EU has continued regardless. Peter Mandelson, the EU’s hawkish Trade Commissioner, has pressed for the most extreme market access in the current round, rejecting developing country pleas for flexibility and policy space which would allow them to protect local producers and develop their own industrial base. EU representatives publicly attack developing country delegates for resisting attempts to open up their markets, even threatening to block progress on other fronts if their ambitions are not satisfied. Hardly the mark of a good cop.
The same aggression has been evident in the services negotiations. The EU has used the current round of talks to demand extensive liberalization from developing countries, including the now infamous request that 72 countries commit their water sectors to irreversible liberalization under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Developing countries have long complained of the intense pressure brought to bear on them by EU negotiators in the bilateral GATS negotiations, which are held behind closed doors. European negotiators are known for bullying developing countries in these secret meetings, and have earned a reputation in Geneva as the most aggressive players.
Perhaps the most important difference between the EU and US lies not in our official representatives or their corporate sponsors but in the popular movements which oppose them. The Trade Justice Movement in the UK brings together millions of people who reject the free trade mantra of the EU, while continental Europe boasts a broad social movement which is viscerally opposed to the EU’s ‘Lisbon agenda’ of competitiveness (EU codeword for neoliberalism). The Not in Our Name advert taken out in the Financial Times in June 2006 by a coalition of over 70 European groups condemned Mandelson and the EU trade ministers for their continued promotion of a self-serving trade policy.
If there is a difference between the EU and US, it may come down to style. European officials sometimes experience a twinge of conscience employing the open aggression which their US counterparts use in international negotiations, and often try to mask their true intentions behind an image of care and concern. This difference was admirably summed up by one Asian delegate we interviewed about the EU’s tactical approach at the WTO: ‘The EU might be digging your grave, but will be smiling at you. The US will dig the grave, but with a grave face.’
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