04 DECEMBER 2002

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The green trade road

MATTHEW VELLA speaks to European Greens advisor on the World Trade Organisation, Steve Emmott, and finds the future of international economics strongly compromised by big business and big states

At the Mediterranean Greens’ Network annual conference on globalisation, organised by Alternattiva Demokratika and the European Greens, an Engels look-alike is making his statement for a fair mode of globalisation that can bridge both the endless flow of capital and local modes of production.

"Protectionism often tends to be an ugly word, but there can be a form of good protectionism. Bad globalisation often pits global regulations against the preservation of localised modes of production. If people power is mobilised, no matter what WTO rules there are, the politics will follow the people and not the other way round.

"People can change politics", says Steve Emmott, advisor to the European Greens on the WTO.

The afternoon session has lost any hope for extensive debate after a lunch at the Forum Hotel leaves the remaining participants somewhat sedated and jaded by afternoon drowsiness.

The morning was characterised by a dismal rendition of small-island, powerpuff platitudes by John Dalli and Leo Brincat, whose politics-comes-in-suits has clashed abrasively with the audience of environmentalists and lefties present at the conference.

The topic on globalisation is temporarily suspended, and the golf course issue is thrown into Dalli’s face by a naïve yet veritable contribution by a Graffitti activist. John Dalli just manages to squirm out of the ensuing cacophony of random complaints with a few cuts and gashes.

Leo Brincat and John Dalli seem unperturbed by what they probably think to be a mess of idealist no-hopers.

Steve Emmott’s recent appointment as WTO adviser to the Greens comes after years of work in NGOs and finally as GMO adviser to the Green group in the European Parliament. It is an apposite coupling for what the twentieth century left us with - Dolly clones and capitalism’s grand duchy of super-rich nations.

"I am struck by the similarities between Mr Brincat and Mr Dalli. It seems like they are both wed to the same analysis on world trade. It is universally interesting however that they actually came to listen to green issues in such a day where until just previously environmental politics would have been disregarded by the mainstream.

"It just happens that as the European Commission assumes a stronger role in the management of the EU and the drawing up of international agreements, ministers are no longer as important in the decision-making processes.

"This means that small member states are undoubtedly affected by the qualified majority voting which consolidates the interests of the bigger members. It will be difficult for Malta to overhaul the overwhelming consensus between the big states, and halt certain decisions. Today it requires well-informed ministers to face the EU’s political system.

"Like the WTO, EU decisions tend to be one-size-fits-all directives. Small and developing countries should not be expected to bear such free market pressures. It’s really only about big trading countries."

Emmott speaks about the possibility for a fair form of globalisation. He talks about the General Agreement on Trade and Services as a huge threat to public policies which are being traded away. He talks about education and how it has to be used for local decisions to prevail and to retain the right for self-interested policies in the form of "good protectionism, which is not damaging externally, nor selfish towards other trading countries, but better than having to accommodate the WTO’s level-playing field."

Steve Emmott talks about finding a way through the jungle of multilateral environmental agreements that are annually enunciated but not necessarily applied, where a consolidation on single issues has to be based on compromise and a narrowing-down to the closest solution that countries and NGOs can find on issues such as air pollution.

"The spirit of compromise is something we see happening every day in the European Parliament, where we may not necessarily believe or agree fully with something but still have to choose which is less worse. Daily compromises are our daily bread and butter."

This is post-Johannesburg Steve Emmott, and he seems to be coming across as possibly a redeemed optimist or rather a cautious sceptic.

"Johannesburg was an enormously wasted opportunity but it could have been worse, for two particular reasons. The first was that we would not go backwards on Rio treaties and thankfully these were not reverted. Secondly, we talked about environmental agreements but we did not act upon these, so that has left us with the need to have single-issue multilateral conferences on these agreements and narrow it down to a basic form of consensus.

"I suspect however that we shall never have anymore of these high-profile multilateral conferences which have turned out to be just producers of words. There needs to be more consensus on what we have to do and this was not present in Johannesburg. Eventually we have to be more specific on certain issues with more definite priorities. It will be more case by case rather than multi-issue pageants."

As 10 Mediterranean and Eastern European countries prepare for European integration, will the EU emerge as the benevolent superpower, more culturally-sensitive, more environmentally-conscious, once enlargement will transform the EU into a 25-nation strong economic and political bloc? "Well, it is true that the EU is set to become the biggest superpower in the world once enlargement takes place.

"The EU has certainly a greater social and environmental conscience in comparison with the US regime, a more left-of-centre direction. You would expect that we should be creating more development-friendly policies in the near future.

"But trade still comes first for the EU and social justice, civil liberties and the environment really come across as add-on extras. It however happens that developing countries do not share these same discourses of environmental restructuring or workers’ safety. They tend to be also suspicious of these ‘European’ arguments that are also increased costs. For the EU this is no serious case. They can always say that they tried to export their ideas elsewhere for the sake of the environment but they will never push any harder.

"What we can see happening now is the USA trying to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas for both American hemispheres in 2005 to rival the EU. Africa and Asia are also trying to consolidate their interests by creating an organisation. This will inevitably change international economics into a game of power blocs."

As ex-policy advisor on GMOs, Steve Emmott is conscious of the pressure that an organisation such as the WTO can place on the creation of a playing field that will accept the introduction of GMOs in Europe. There are in fact, serious threats of trade sanctions from the WTO liable for any general suspensions of commercial GMOs that could generate more friction between US agri-producers and the EU.

The US has already hit out at the EU, recently for its involvement in the African GM debate, where it claimed that more should be done to confirm the safety of GM foods.

In North America however, the GM industry thrives along with the public acceptance of its products. In Oregon, a proposal that would have obliged food producers to label products with genetically modified ingredients was rejected, with biotech food industries funding a $5 million marketing programme to warn of the possible dangers of accepting the proposal.

All green parties in the world would like to see a complete ban on GM foods, but this will certainly not be seen within the near future, although according to Emmott, there is political potential for such change.

"The main agro-chemical companies who are manufacturing GM solutions are Aventis and Novartis, amongst others. These companies have been very aggressive in their introduction of GMOs in the USA, Canada and Argentina, on the basis that ‘people must accept it’ and that this could eventually solve problems of food supplies for developing countries.

"NGOs, consumer rights groups and animal welfare groups are today campaigning against the introduction of GMOs. There’s certainly more substantial proof today about the unsafe nature of GMOs, and there have also been certain mistakes in their application, which has generated fear.

"The real victim is the environment, because you are releasing alternative elements which contaminate agricultural and organic produce. There are still unresolved problems here. Organic-producing countries don’t want to risk cross-contamination from GM crops. Mexico has been very careful in this regard but it seems there was some illegal plantation that resulted in long-distance cross-contamination. "

In the end, an assertive Steve Emmott says, GM crops are a sterile industry and that more sustainable solutions to food and health problems will eventually be found.

He also believes the trade issue will come full circle and that the human will, will hopefully prevail: "The absurdity of having rules interfering with people’s lives will eventually have a counter-effect.

"In future we will have to devise cleaner forms of energy to offset the disadvantages of increased trade and production. We will probably have to change the calculations which characterise the current trade rationale. Things will have to change, with the disappearance of fossil fuels, for example transportation, where cars will decrease and a more comfortable form of public transportation will have to be offered.

"A more powerful democracy will give us the opportunity to put this into action. I would like to see more NGOs, and more universities with new ideas and solutions to find their way forward, without having to depend necessarily upon politicians."


Copyright © Network Publications Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07, Malta
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