Corporate rule is not built on a conspiracy. But that does not mean that
corporations never conspire.
Sometimes corporate executives do gather in secret meetings and work to
plot collective approaches to advance Big Business's broad interests. Case
in point: the TransAtlantic Business Dialogue (TABD).
The TABD is a grouping of top corporate executives from multinational
corporations in the United States and Europe. TABD CEOs meet annually with
top U.S. and European government officials, most recently this past week
in Cincinnati. The TABD's mission is to boost trade and investment between
the United States and Europe, as well as throughout the world.
The CEOs in TABD are vigorously urging the launch of a new World Trade
Organization (WTO) negotiating round (the project that was stifled in
Seattle), and for other enlargements of the WTO.
But the TABD's unique mission is to focus on the U.S.-EU relationship, and
push forward a deregulatory agenda that it hopes to then impose on the
The TABD is explicit that its concerns go way beyond traditional tariff
issues. "Elected representatives agreed in the Uruguay Round [the last
completed negotiating round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
(GATT), which led to the creation of the WTO] to largely remove
traditional tariffs as inefficient restraints on economic liberty,"
proclaims the TABD's 2000 Mid-Year Report. "The new obstacles to trade are
now domestic regulations."
"Non-tariff barriers to operations should be tackled with the same zeal,"
as tariffs were reduced, the report insists.
The TABD inventory of domestic regulations that constitute "obstacles to
trade" is remarkably expansive. Among the areas where TABD has registered
complaints: differential standards for review of chemical safety, the U.S.
requirement that products be labeled with U.S. customary units
(inch/pound) instead of the metric system, differing national standards
for regulating electromagnetic fields (relevant to cell phone regulation),
restrictions on direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising in the EU,
and potential U.S. emissions regulations for diesel engines for
recreational boats that may differ from the EU's. The TABD also argues
that the U.S. product liability system is a "serious impediment to
transatlantic trade and investment."
A consistent theme of the TABD's list of complaints is inconsistency
between countries' regulations. The TABD CEOs view diversity of regulatory
approaches -- what should be viewed as among the blessings of democracy --
as itself a trade barrier.
To achieve uniformity, TABD ardently supports regulatory "harmonization"
-- formal international mechanisms to establish single global standards. A
second choice is Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs), by which different
regulatory regimes are declared equivalent, and products cleared in one
country are given a free pass into another -- even if the first country's
regulatory system is in fact inferior to the importing country's.
For almost every regulatory complaint TABD lodges, the organization's
proposed solution is either harmonization or an MRA. The effort has been
enormously successful, with MRAs in place or in progress for everything
from electrical safety to pharmaceutical safety, and harmonization in
place or underway for areas ranging from road safety to aircraft noise.
TABD-style uniformity virtually always involves the use of the weaker
standard, meaning consumer, environmental and worker well-being is put at
risk. Even more worrisome is how TABD uniformity would block regulatory
evolution. Once standard-setting is placed at the international level, it
is largely removed from the reach of citizen movements, making it far, far
harder to protest and lobby for strengthened biotech regulations, for
example. The MRAs also thwart regulatory enhancement, by enabling domestic
manufacturers to say that stiffer standards will unfairly disadvantage
them against importers who get a free pass under other countries' weaker
To ensure that its anti-democratic demands are attended to by the
purportedly democratic governments of the United States and the EU, TABD
issues yearly scorecards on the trading partners' compliance with TABD
recommendations. And now it has established an "early warning system," so
that Big Business can force items onto the U.S.-EU negotiating agenda.
Among the top U.S. side concerns: Italian restrictions on genetically
modified foods and a European environmental regulation requiring
electronics manufacturers to provide for the recycling of discarded
Unfortunately, these series of recommendations are not just corporate wish
lists. When the TABD speaks, the governments listen (in fact, top public
officials are in the room with the CEOs at their annual gatherings).
"It is difficult to overstate the effect the TABD has had on trade
liberalization," Undersecretary of Commerce Timothy Hauser told a
Congressional committee in 1997. "Virtually every market-opening move
undertaken by the United States and the EU in the last couple years has
been suggested by the TABD."
But now, with help from groups like Corporate Europe Observatory
(www.xs4all.nl/~ceo) and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch
(www.tradewatch.org) which have been tracking the TABD for years, the
growing movement against corporate globalization is learning of TABD's
With hundreds of informed and militant protesters shining a spotlight on
TABD last week in Cincinnati, the CEOs in TABD have at least been deprived
of the power that comes from being able to hatch their deregulatory plots
in secret. How effectively TABD will be able to function in the light of
day remains to be seen.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The
Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common
Courage Press, 1999).
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman