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CORPORATE FOCUS: TABD Plots World Domination

Corporate rule is not built on a conspiracy. But that does not mean that corporations never conspire. Just last week the TransAtlantic Business Dialogue, a meeting between European and American corporate executives, was held to plot more deregulation of national consumer protections.
 
 
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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 entire world.

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 rules.

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 products.

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 and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch which have been tracking the TABD for years, the growing movement against corporate globalization is learning of TABD's scheming.

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.