TABD: Cincinnati Protestors Shine Spotlight on Influential CEO Group
- News for Anarchists & Activists:
November 29, 2000
San Francisco Bay Guardian
Cincinnati protesters shine spotlight on influential CEO
By Daniel Zoll
IT'S GETTING SO you can't even organize a meeting of global
power brokers anymore without calling in the National Guard.
A year after historic protests derailed the World Trade
Organization talks in Seattle, followed by actions in
Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Prague,
demonstrators descended on Cincinnati Nov. 16 to expose an
obscure but influential CEO group called the TransAtlantic
Fifty-three activists were arrested at the Cincinnati
protests, during three days of mostly peaceful rallies,
teach-ins, and marches that attracted more than 1,000
people. Why target the TABD? In the words of one of its
boosters, deputy treasury secretary Stuart Eizenstat, "The
TABD has become deeply enmeshed and embedded into the U.S.
government decision-making process on a whole range of
regulatory, trade, and commercial issues. The TABD has had a
truly remarkable impact in our country."
The trouble, critics say, is that the group's "remarkable
impact" comes at the expense of health, environmental, and
consumer protection, not to mention the democratic process.
About 130 corporate chieftains from Europe and the United
States, representing multinationals such as America Online,
Bayer, and United Technologies, gathered in Cincinnati's
Omni Netherland Hotel for the three-day meeting. Topping the
list of the TABD's Cincinnati recommendations is a policy it
calls "approved once, accepted everywhere." In other words,
the TABD wants uniform procedures for product approvals.
This process, which it refers to as "harmonization," sounds
harmless enough, but the details are troubling. When
countries have conflicting regulations and standards,
critics say, the TABD typically lobbies to push the more
stringent standards downward.
"Their so-called harmonization goal is to gut the best laws
in Europe and the U.S. and replace them with the worst laws
in Europe and the U.S.," said Ed Mierzwinski of the U.S.
Public Interest Research Group. "Whether it's
privacy-in-banking laws or tire-safety standards or
food-safety standards, their goal is to harmonize at the
floor rather than at the ceiling of existing laws. And
that's a serious problem."
According to the TABD's 2000 Mid-Year Report, the group is
seeking uniformity in dozens of areas, including drugs,
medical devices, auto safety, aviation safety, biotechnology
and genetically modified foods, cosmetics, cellular phones,
dietary supplements, and chemicals.
Mary Bottari of Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen's
Global Trade Watch says the TABD's goals are nicely summed
up in one sentence in TABD's midyear report: "The new
obstacles to trade are now domestic regulations."
These domestic regulations, Bottari says, are "exactly the
consumer protections, the environmental protections, and the
animal-welfare protections that we've all been fighting for
for years. Those are the 'barriers to trade' that TABD wants
to take out."
One way the TABD is targeting domestic regulations is by
aggressively pushing a new round of WTO trade talks and an
expansion of the trade organization's already sweeping
The TABD has even figured out how to fend off regulations
before they see the light of day. The group has convinced
the United States and the European Union to adopt what it
calls an "early warning" system, which alerts corporations
to regulations that may be "barriers to trade." Domestic
regulations on the TABD early-warning hit list include a
European computer waste recycling law, another E.U. measure
regulating animal testing of cosmetics, an Italian ban on
genetically modified organisms, and U.S. cell-phone
TABD deputy director Jeffrey Werner denies that his group
favors the lowest common denominator when it comes to
consumer and environmental protections. "We just encourage
wherever possible to work internationally and
supranationally to try to avoid the complications you have
in a globalized world," he said. "People who are involved in
business know that the minute you start alienating consumers
is the minute you go out of business."
Werner downplayed the influence of the TABD, saying that it
is just one of four forums created by the United States and
the European Union to coordinate transatlantic issues. The
other three "dialogues" dealing with consumer,
environment, and small-business issues all have the same
level of access to policy makers, he said.
But USPIRG's Mierzwinski, also a member of the TransAtlantic
Consumer Dialogue, says it is absurd for the TABD to equate
its influence with that of the other TransAtlantic groups.
For one thing, while luminaries such as U.S. vice president
Al Gore and E.U. trade commissioner Pascal Lamy regularly
attend TABD conferences, the governments send midlevel
bureaucrats to address the consumer group. The most glaring
evidence of disparity, however, is that the Clinton
administration has essentially adopted the TABD's agenda of
liberalization, privatization, and deregulation as its own
trade policy. None of the other groups can say that.
Gore confirmed as much when addressing the TABD in November
1998. "I know that you are proud of the fact that of the 129
recommendations TABD has made in the past three years, over
50 percent have been implemented into law," he said.
The vice president wasn't exaggerating. The TABD is so
confident in its position that it even sets deadlines for
government compliance. For example, on the subject of
outstanding WTO disputes between the United States and the
European Union, the TABD urges the governments to come to a
solution "no later than the TABD conference in Cincinnati."
This could be dismissed as mere grandstanding if the
governments didn't often meet such deadlines.
Below the radar
The TABD is more effective, and insidious, than other
corporate trade groups, critics say, because it was actually
initiated by corporate allies within government. It was
launched in 1995 at the suggestion of then-U.S. commerce
secretary Ron Brown and E.U. trade commissioner Leon Brittan
as a way to speed up transatlantic trade liberalization.
Part of the TABD's strategy seems to be to operate below the
radar. The elusive group has no permanent office; operations
are headquartered at a different corporation each year. In
fact, officials say, it is not really an organization at all
but an "informal process."
Here's how the process works: The dialogue consists of more
than 40 issue groups covering different sectors, such as
medical devices and telecommunication services, and topics,
such as customs regulations, climate change, and
intellectual property. Each issue group, led by two business
executives, one from the United States and one from the
European Union, makes joint trade recommendations and tracks
their implementation. The TABD officially presents its
demands or "deliverables" to government officials at
E.U.-U.S. summits, held twice a year.
The TABD quietly pursues its agenda in several ways. One of
these is shaping free-trade treaties and aggressively
pushing the expansion of the WTO. Another, lower-profile
tactic is to promote "mutual recognition agreements." Under
these reciprocal deals, one nation agrees to recognize
another nation's safety inspection and approval system in
sectors such as medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and
telecommunications. Critics say this is a backdoor way to
relax standards: for example, the fine print of the
agreement on medical devices, which has not yet been fully
implemented, calls for farming out quality inspections to
private third parties hired by the manufacturers, rather
than federal regulators.
The TABD also is out to bar governments from applying a
principle that serves as the basis for many public-health
and environmental regulations, particularly in Europe. Known
as the "precautionary principle," it holds that when an
activity or substance raises potential threats to human
health or the environment, government should step in and
regulate. When there is scientific uncertainty, the industry
not the public should bear the burden of proof. In other
words, better safe than sorry.
That's the approach many European countries are taking on
the genetically modified food issue, which is why TABD
members and biotech giants such as Monsanto and Unilever are
so keen on killing the precautionary principle. Monsanto and
its allies favor foisting unproved technologies on the
public, arguing that regulations should wait until they can
be based on "sound science." In a related case, the TABD is
trying to stifle an E.U. proposal, based on the
precautionary principle, to regulate pharmaceuticals
containing beef-derived ingredients that could carry traces
of mad cow disease.
On behalf of its members in the electronics industry, the
TABD is trying to eliminate a new E.U. initiative aimed at
reducing computer trash. The increase in the use of PCs and
other high-tech equipment in recent years has created a huge
increase in hazardous waste. Electronic trash contains many
dangerous substances, such as lead, mercury, and cadmium. To
address this, the European Union drafted the Directive on
Computer Waste, a law that would require electronic
equipment manufacturers to replace those toxic heavy metals
with less harmful substances by 2008. The directive also
would require manufacturers to begin retrieving and
recycling old electronic equipment by 2006. The TABD and its
high-tech industry members have mobilized to kill the
proposal and have already succeeded in watering it down
Also on the TABD's early-warning list is the European
Union's decision to speed up the phaseout of ozone-depleting
hydrochlorofluorocarbons, which contribute to global
warming. The United States is supporting the TABD's attempts
to stifle the European Union's efforts, which it calls a
Though many of the environmental and consumer laws under
attack are European, hundreds of U.S. laws are also in
danger of being softened. For example, the TABD considers
the entire U.S. product-liability system to be a "serious
impediment" to global trade.
Sister Alice Gerdeman of the Cincinnati-based Coalition for
a Humane Economy says it is this blurring of the lines
between corporations and government that motivated her group
to organize teach-ins, rallies, and demonstrations at the
TABD CEO conference last week.
"We are very concerned about limiting the power to make
decisions about the economy to a very small group of people,
people who have a lot of economic clout," Gerdeman said. "We
don't have a problem with them having a voice; we just don't
think their voice should be more powerful than any other
E-mail Daniel Zoll at dzoll@...
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