Response to the Open Letter of the Prime Minister of Belgium Guy Verhofstadt

30 October 2001
Article

Open Letter Verhofstadt

Guy Verhofstadt, Prime Minister of Belgium and acting President of the EU, is the only prominent politician to have taken the trouble to address an open letter to what he called the "anti-globalisation" movement [and now has accepted no longer to call them that]. He brought 8 commentators to Ghent [Gand] on 30 October to discuss this letter and its ramifications. Since each of us had 10 minutes only [except for Bill Clinton, who had 45...] I decided to present my Clusters of Crisis-Planetary Contract ideas rather than comment directly on his letter. His initiative still merited a response and here is mine


Dear Mr. Prime Minister,
Thank you for having taken the trouble to address a detailed open letter to "the anti-globalisation protesters". You are, to my knowledge, the only government official to have done so and your current position as President of the European Union makes your initiative doubly important. We are grateful for your willingness to engage in dialogue. My response reflects my own views, not those of ATTAC-France, other national ATTAC movements or the Transnational Institute. I believe however that they broadly reflect the consensus of the citizens movement. I will divide this response into three parts: an overview of our common ground; a review of certain common misunderstandings concerning the movement and its campaigns; our disagreements and areas where we will need much more discussion if we are to come to an understanding, assuming that one is wanted or envisaged.

1. Common Ground

You are correct that most politics have become "sterile and technocratic", not to say timid and self-centred, causing many people, especially young people, to despair of the very notion of politics. We agree that globalisation will not necessarily benefit the vast majority of the third world poor and it is indeed "shameful that more than 1.2 billion people still do not have access to medical care or a decent education". We agree further that Europe should stop barring textile and garment exports from the South but we should also seek ways to improve the deplorable working conditions of those who produce them. We should bar agricultural export subsidies everywhere, including our own, because they contribute to ruining third world farmers.

We too would favour what you call "ethical globalisation" and recognise the need for powerful institutions to enforce it. Your regard for democracy and human rights also strikes a responsive chord. Your concern for all of the earth's inhabitants is laudable, even though you say it is "only natural" that you should be even more concerned with the interests of transnational oil or large European farmers. We still have enough common ground to make a good basis for discussion.

2. Misconceptions, Misunderstandings

Your letter reflects certain common misunderstandings concerning the citizens movement, which is not surprising as most of the media have done everything possible to promote them. Among these are:

  • WE ARE NOT "ANTI-GLOBALISATION": This term is itself an invention of the media and a complete misnomer for the citizens movement which is pro-solidarity, pro-democracy, pro-sustainable development and thoroughly internationalist. We work with partners all over the world and all year long; we shall meet them again soon at the huge Porto Alegre [Brazil] forum to continue our pursuit of common strategies.
    While it would, as you say, be useless and foolish to oppose a more integrated world, we are nonetheless deeply opposed to the present form of globalisation and there is nothing "sudden" about our convictions. We see globalisation as it now exists driven almost exclusively by the interests of transnational corporations, financial market operators and an elite minority, organised in powerful lobbies and served by undemocratic international institutions like the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organisation and the European Commission. Their interests are promoted to the detriment of the vast majority of the planet's inhabitants and of nature.
    These interests and institutions are united around the "Washington Consensus", or neo-liberal agenda. They claim a smaller role for government and a larger one for the market, privatisation of public services and deregulation. They place "shareholder value" above all other values and demand freedom for investment, capital and goods and services [but not for people] to cross borders unhindered. (1)
    Abundant empirical proof exists attesting to these aims. I attach two of my own recent publications dealing with some of them in detail.
  • ONE SHOULD NOT CONFLATE THE CITIZENS MOVEMENT WITH RIGHT-WING EXTREMISTS, FANATICS AND RACISTS: Citizens movement activists are shocked by attempts to place them in the same category as "extreme right-wingers" or "religious fanatics". Such rhetoric stems from a misunderstanding of our goals and is particularly dangerous in the wake of September 11th. We hope that in future needless provocation can be avoided in the interests of genuine dialogue.
  • VIOLENCE: You ask, too, if we share the views and values of the Black Bloc. We do not, but nor can we disregard the escalating violence of the State. Governments are now attacking European citizens with gas, horses, dogs and even live ammunition, causing one death and grievous injury to dozens if not hundreds, few of whom were violent. In Genoa, some people were even beaten in their sleeping bags when the police raided the school; others were tortured in prison. We have unimpeachable testimony attesting to inexcusable actions and we are deeply disturbed that none of the G7 governments saw fit to protest the police violence ordered by Mr. Berlusconi. We also have proof that the masked ["Black"] participants in the demonstration were at least partially infiltrated by the police and by European Nazis who came to Genoa for their own purposes. Accredited journalists witnessed the destruction of property which went on for several hours while the police looked on without intervening. Your condemnation of "meaningless violence" would be more credible if it were more even-handed.
    This said, we are also against the methods of the Black Bloc for reasons which I attach as an annexe at the end.
  • PRESERVING DIVERSITY: Your other, rather extreme example, "slow food", has nothing to do with fancy restaurants but with preserving agricultural and cultural diversity and the existence of small farmers worldwide. José Bové and his colleagues of the French Confédération Paysanne dismantled a McDonalds to protest the decision of the WTO authorising US sanctions against European products because of our refusal to import hormone-treated beef. Their livelihood is based on Roquefort, now taxed at 100% by the US, and their action also quite properly highlighted the issue of "mal-bouffe", or standardised food. When governments [or the EU] are unwilling or unable to protect their own citizens from decisions like that of the WTO, citizens must take up the challenge themselves.
  • OUR MESSAGE: When you ask "What is your actual message?" we reply that corporate-led, market-driven globalisation cannot do anything other than what it has in fact done: enrich the already rich, deepen inequalities both within and between countries and foment crisis from Mexico to Asia to Russia, putting the livelihoods of millions in jeopardy.
    Freedom for "Portfolio Equity Investment" to cross borders wreaks havoc. So does debt, on which many of us have campaigned for over a decade. Creditors are protected whereas debtors are not. Structural adjustment policies devised by the Bretton Woods Institutions have engendered misery for countless people in the South. UNICEF estimated more than a decade ago that debt was killing an additional half-million children annually. It still is. The G7 falsely trumpets "debt cancellation"-yet the least developed countries continue to pay and for their people, nothing has changed.
    We also campaign against money laundering and tax havens. George Bush himself now recognises that they facilitate terrorism, as well as trafficking in drugs, arms and prostitution. All the major Western banks use tax havens for their own legal, semi-legal or illegal activities without provoking the anger of the G7, quite the contrary.
    Our message is also a call for a worldwide Keynesian programme of taxation and redistribution, in order to promote sustainable development, repair the environment and reduce the obscene wealth gap between North and South. International taxes, like the Tobin Tax or taxes on transnational corporations could also contribute to such a goal. I shall elaborate on this point in my contribution to the seminar.

3. Genuine Disagreements

No one can be against "ethical" or in favour of "unethical" globalisation. Surely we all prefer good to evil. Moral standards are important but insufficient and ethical appeals to corporations, financial market operators and Northern or Southern elites to give up part of their profits and power in favour of the poor and to act in a socially and ecologically responsible way are meaningless without the means to enforce them. We need laws-and ultimately they will have to be binding, international laws.

Many people in the movement do, as you say, want to "relocalise" the economy and apply the principle of "subsidiarity" so that decisions are taken as close as possible to those who will be affected by them. Few would claim, however, that local-scale actions can provide more than partial solutions. We need to deal with globalisation as it is, which means we must democratise the international space.

Much of your argument hinges on the supposed benefits of "free trade" and the need to liberalise even further. You propose a "triangle" to support "ethical globalisation" in which "free trade" occupies a place as important as "knowledge" and "democracy". The citizens movement rejects such a concept. We believe that the present rules of the WTO are perverse, first of all for the South, but they also threaten public services in the North and the gains of social movements everywhere. Small farmers will disappear, sick people will not be cared for, the environment will suffer, culture will become homogenised in order to maximise corporate profits.

There is absolutely no empirical proof that "free trade" benefits everyone. Certain World Bank studies even show the opposite. In any case, over two-thirds of world trade is controlled by transnational corporations so they are likely to be the first beneficiaries. Other free trade agreements you mention, like NAFTA, bear this out: NAFTA even provides a mechanism for companies to sue governments directly with proven ill-effect on the environment and public health.

For all these reasons [and others left unstated here] we are firmly opposed to the launch of a new, expanded Round and to granting any further powers to the WTO which has far too many already. What is needed, rather, is a moratorium and a thorough review of the present rules and the impact they have already had and can be expected to have in future.


Annexe: Why the Citizens Movement Disagrees with the Black Bloc

  • Violent actions against persons or property direct the media and therefore the public away from the message of 99% of the movement and attract attention only to the behaviour of this tiny minority. In Gothenburg, a long debate on a big screen took place between seven representatives of the protestors [including myself] and Romano Prodi, Javier Solana, Joschka Fischer and the Swedish and Portuguese Prime Ministers. It was not reported at all. Nor were the many educational forums and the peaceful actions that preceded the demonstrations. The same thing happened in Genoa.
  • The Bloc are anti-democratic. We want a democratic world and we intend to run a democratic movement. The preparations for Gothenburg involved about 350 different Swedish groups; those for Genoa over 700 Italian organisations. These groups come to a consensus over months of discussion and learn to work together. These coalitions, painfully but democratically arrived at, are held in contempt by the Bloc, who turn up at the last moment with their own individualistic agenda and consider everyone but themselves as "sleepwalkers" [the term used on one of their sites] in need of enlightenment. Such behaviour is dictatorial and contrary to our goals.
  • The Bloc are easily infiltrated by police and fascist elements and give a perfect excuse to governments to crack down on everyone, no matter how peaceful. It is tactically stupid to confront the State on its own terrain where it holds "the monopoly of legitimate violence". Taking a few meters of pavement here or there is not a strategic objective.
  • They discourage many sympathisers from participating in the demonstrations for fear of violence. We want to be broad-based and inclusive. We also oppose property destruction especially when it targets the livelihoods or transport of ordinary people. Many small businesses and non-luxury cars were also devastated in Gothenburg and Genoa.

Our opposition to these methods is only reinforced by the horrible events of September 11th. It is true that we have not been effective enough at "self-policing" and preventing these elements from joining our own demonstrations. We are attempting to improve our performance here.


References

1. Cf. your compatriot Baron Daniel Janssen to the Trilateral Commission: "The revolution [which he wants for Europe consists in] reducing the power of the State and of the public sector in general through privatisation and deregulation and transferring many of the nation-state's powers to a more modern and internationally minded structure at European level."