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Editor’s blog – The EU: corporate conspiracy or project for the greater good?

By Dean Carroll

Ever wondered what the European Union’s raison d’être is? Is it to spread western democracy and standards across the world? Is it about protectionist trade tariffs ensuring that non-European nations pay a heavy price to do business with the biggest single market in the world? Not according to the campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory.

No, the folk at the CEO believe there is a whiff of conspiracy about the EU’s links with multinational firms. Indeed, the various free trade agreements being negotiated between Europe and far-flung geographical locations – stretching from Singapore and Japan to the United States and Canada – have a dubious tone about them, suggests the CEO.

Rather than being a progressive move to open up new areas of revenue, create jobs, boost diplomatic links and secure Europe’s place as a ‘global actor’ – the FTAs are something else entirely, insists the campaign group. They are, in fact, an attempt by the European Commission and its business partners to liberalise and deregulate markets across the world, Pia Eberhardt of the CEO has stated. So what? You might say.

Well, highlighting some potential pitfalls, Eberhardt explained: “Further liberalisation of services markets could limit access to affordable essential services such as water and healthcare. It could prevent much-needed regulation and supervision in the finance sector, paving the way for future financial crises.”

And what about the citizenry? Surely, people have a right to know about what the commission is doing on their behalf. Not quite. Eberhardt continued: “Public interest groups are not blessed with such access to EU’s trade policy-making. They are kept in the dark about the content of ongoing trade negotiations. Most of the time, they are not even listened to. While the commission held at least 20 exclusive meetings behind closed doors with the European Services Forum (a business lobby group including a number of corporations) in 2012, it only agreed to meet trade unions once to discuss the subject of services trade.

“The intimate links between the ESF and the commission reveal to what extent EU trade policy is run by a small group of unelected bureaucrats and corporate lobbyists. Such a ‘big business first’ approach hampers well-informed and meaningful public participation in policy-making. It also leads to a trade policy that increases the risk of future financial crises, paves the way for further privatisation of essential services and deprives countries of the policy tools to pursue necessary strategies for development.”

It is hard to argue with this stance given the secretive way the commission operates. Legislation is drafted behind the curtain and only revealed publicly when it is a fait accompli. Even the supposedly democratic and transparent arm of the EU – the European Parliament – has been discredited by myriad lobbying scandals. Not to mention the revelation last year that it had become standard practice for MEPs to cut and paste corporate requests into legislation, word for word.

There can be no doubt that those at the top of the commission treat the public with contempt. They do it because they can. Without the accountability chain of democracy to rein them in, deals can be done in private without even paying lip service to the citizen.

For example, why is it that the likes of European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton feel it is acceptable to do such high-ranking public jobs without ever doing significant media interviews? It is not that they are so arrogant as to believe that the commission’s stage-managed press conferences will get their message across to citizens. No, they simply seem not to care about two-way communication – because they do not have to.

The democratic deficit grows evermore palpable by the day. Unfortunately, there are no winds of change in the air. So it is no surprise that tenacious groups like the CEO paint the EU to be a corporate conspiracy rather than a project for the greater good. The real problem is that those leading EU institutions like the commission do not recognise there to be an issue. They want the status quo. And they will carry on regardless.

Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review. Follow him on Twitter @poljourno and follow Policy Review @Policyrev

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