Obama in Europe: A friendly visit?

The trade treaty the US and the EU are negotiating will be detrimental to Europeans.

'It's time that we, the 99 percent of Europeans, finally see Obama for what he is,' writes Cronin [AP]

The European Union’s chief representatives will be eager to cuddle up for photographs – perhaps even selfies – with Barack Obama when he pays his first presidential visit to Brussels this week.

Amid all the backslapping, the “friction” of the recent past will be politely overlooked. Why let a beautiful friendship be spoiled by a little snooping on Angela Merkel’s phone calls or an American diplomat’s use of an expletive to insist the EU keeps its nose out of Ukraine?

As it happens, the superficial harmony engendered by such occasions reflects how both sides are literally singing from the same hymn sheet on one key dossier: the planned trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP). This hymn sheet was written for them by an exclusive club of the world’s top corporations.

Much of the preparatory work for that agreement – currently under negotiation – has been done by the Trans-Atlantic Business Council. Between them, its member companies have caused or contributed to ecological catastrophes (ExxonMobil), a cancer pandemic (British American Tobacco, Philip Morris) and a financial crisis (Deutsche Bank). The leaders of these firms are not the kind of people I’d trust to determine the kind of world in which my daughter will grow up. Yet they were given such a task in 1995, when they were effectively hired as economic advisers by the US government and the EU.

Corporations take over?

A new paper by this club is especially troubling. Focused on energy issues, it recommends that the planned trans-Atlantic agreement “should reject the differentiation between different kinds of fuels”. This is a deliberate attempt to undermine the EU’s rules on making petrol less polluting.

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The demands reflect a broader agenda. Whereas trade agreements have traditionally involved the reduction of taxes levied on imported goods, the objective for these talks is to destroy or dilute regulations that constrain corporate power.

To advance this objective, big business is seeking that a specialised court system be established so that it can obtain financial compensation for laws that jar with the pursuit of profit. The system would institutionalise inequality. It would be reserved for the global elite; ordinary folk would have no access to it.

Officially known as “investor-to-state dispute settlement”, the idea is modelled on provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Since NAFTA entered into force 20 years ago, corporations have availed of it to try and undo the hard-won gains of social and environmental activists. Lone Pine Resources, a US company, is currently using it in an attempt to overturn Quebec’s moratorium on the extraction of shale gas by the hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) technique.

The only discernible environmental benefit from the trans-Atlantic accord is that it has already encouraged a considerable amount of recycling. The arguments trotted out in favour of it appear to have been cobbled together from NAFTA-era studies.

Back in 1993, the Institute for International Economics in Washington predicted that NAFTA would create 170,000 net new jobs by 1995.

The forecast looks farcical now: the accord prompted a rise in imports from Canada and Mexico, its two other signatories. Although it facilitated a “level-playing field” in terms of how investors would be able to demand similar “rights” to evade regulation in all three countries, NAFTA also triggered a race to the bottom. Many US-based firms relocated to Mexico, in order to take advantage of lower wages.

The one percent

Undeterred by the failure of previous forecasts, leading politicians are repeatedly parroting new predictions of a comparably dubious nature. Karel De Gucht, the EU’s trade commissioner, recently told a German TV reporter that he’s “pretty sure” the trans-Atlantic accord “will create hundreds of thousands of jobs”. Yet he was unable to cite a single study to bolster that assertion.

The latest spin emanating from both the EU and US indicates that the accord will benefit cottage industries. A brochure published by the EU’s executive, the European Commission, gathers a collection of favourable quotes from entrepreneurs employing less than 100 people. A manufacturer of tools to help learn braille even claims that the accord will make visually impaired people “more independent and employable” by boosting exports of his products.

According to the brochure, 99 percent of all companies in the EU and the US are categorised as small and medium-sized. Yet it is the remaining one percent that have are driving the agenda. The Trans-Atlantic Business Council represents nobody outside the one percent. No doubt unintentionally, the European Commission has proven that the Occupy Wall Street protesters were correct to emphasise that policy-makers routinely pander to a tiny elite.

Bill Clinton, the president who helped push NAFTA through Congress, said in 1995 that his biggest task was to “persuade people that democracy and free markets can give all the people the opportunity to live out their dreams”.

His moist-eyed twaddle belies how NAFTA helped widen the gap between the super-rich and the remainder of society. In the early 1970s, the wealthiest 10 percent of the American population had about one-third of the country’s income. By 1994, that proportion had risen to 40 percent.

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Today, the top 10 percent enjoy a full half of America’s income. So much for “free markets” helping everyone to live out their dreams.

Meaningful protections?

Barack Obama is trying to go even further than Clinton did with NAFTA. Obama is eyeing two deals that will give corporations more power over elected authorities than they have ever previously had: one with the European Union; the other with the Asia-Pacific region.

When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he declared (to a Berlin audience) that “we must forge trade that truly rewards the work that creates wealth, with meaningful protections for our people and our planet”.

The accords that he wants will offer none of those “meaningful” protections.

Too many Europeans have been put under a spell by Obama and his smooth tongue. Too many Europeans forget that he is a hypocrite.

Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay, only to keep the infamous prison open. He has committed to “an unprecedented level of accountability in government”; yet he has prosecuted whistleblowers with greater zeal than any president in modern times. He has undertaken to fight climate change, while backing projects like the Keystone XL pipeline that rely on tar sands, one of the dirtiest substances ever used to produce energy.

And he has posed as a friend of the poor and downtrodden, while constantly being choreographed by corporate America.

Things were easier to understand when George W Bush was president. We, Europeans, regarded him as a caricature of a Texan cowboy. Obama, we convinced ourselves, was more sophisticated; more like us.

Bush was at least honest enough to describe the ultra-wealthy as “my base“. If Obama’s trade plans materialise, he will have done even more than his predecessor to cosset big business.

Surely, it’s time that we, the 99 percent of Europeans, finally see Obama for what he is and that we denounce our own leaders for being in cahoots with him. Obama is the enemy of ordinary people in his own country and the world over. The sooner we wake up to this reality, the better.

David Cronin is the author of Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War. His earlier book is Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation.