Bilateral accords quietly push neo-liberal agenda

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Across the world negotiations on the creation of an international network of bilateral trade accords are taking place. Since the collapse of the latest round of WTO negotiations in 2006, admits major grassroots opposition internationally and intense internal tensions between governments, Canada, the U.S. and the E.U. have shifted attention toward securing bilateral or regional trade accords.

Across the global south, from Costa Rica, to Korea, to Colombia, social movements are voicing alarm concerning the contemporary push towards bilateral accords. Major demonstrations against bilateral accords have taken place in Seoul, Korea, where labour movements have staged massive protests in opposition to the proposed Canada-Korea and the signed U.S.-Korea bilateral trade accords. In Costa Rica social mobilization forced a national referendum on the signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) last year. Currently Canada is pursuing bilateral accords across the planet, from Korea, to Colombia, to Jordan. It's a policy trend that has faced little public scrutiny.

This interview with Aziz Choudry, researcher and academic with bilaterals.org, offers a striking international picture on the state of bilateral trade accords, while offering insights into the social mobilizations across the globe taking place in opposition to bilateral trade accords.

Stefan Christoff: Can you first provide a picture of the push towards bilateral trade accords internationally, a trend that has received a fraction of the public scrutiny that plagued international multilateral trade institutions such as the WTO.

Aziz Choudry: Today governments and transnational corporations are leaning towards bilateral free trade and investment agreements, particularly since the crisis that hit the World Trade Organization (WTO) and trade initiatives like the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). These major international free trade initiatives have stalled due to internal tensions among governments but also due to huge external pressures from people's movements that have been consistently denouncing the neo-liberal policies embodied in such trade agreements.

At first bilateral trade agreements were seen as a fall-back option, as western governments were attempting to pass through these stealth agreements, which included elements that weren't possible to secure through institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO). Today bilateral trade accords are being pursued as the tool of choice by both governments and corporations who are utilizing bilateral accords to push through much harder trade regulations than possible through the WTO.

Today there is a real need to bring together people and movements who have previously been divided and ruled through this bilateral trade accord process. Also it's critical to understand that agreements like the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) between the U.S. and several Central American countries, or the European Union's Economic Partnership Agreements with 77 countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific also fall within the bilateral framework. Essentially these are regional agreements composed of a multiplicity of bilateral trade agreements.

Right now through the European Union process there is a divide and rule strategy taking place, not only regionally but also within regions where some countries are signing agreements and some aren't. Today bilateral agreements are the tool of choice in an effort to lock countries into a neo-liberal framework. Ten years ago many movements were focused on fighting multilateral agreements such as the FTAA, to some extent the Asia-Pacific (APEC), or institutions like the WTO, however today we must turn our attention to bilateral trade agreements.

It's critical to not give up the fight against the WTO or the FTAA, which are both in a major mess however we need to be careful to not completely shift our focus to bilateral trade accords or investment agreements. Today there are many weapons of corporate capital which will be utilized at different times and in different variations depending on the moment, with the simple goal of guarantying corporations the most power and control.

You have spoken about a new trade strategy, a new focus as manifested through bilateral trade agreements. Clearly the WTO process or multilateral trade accords like the FTAA are faltering under pressures of massive internal tensions and major opposition internationally. In light of this new neo-liberal trade strategy could you detail your ideas on the economic goals involved in this process?

First it's critical to mention that the business sector is heavily influencing the nature of the negotiations on bilateral accords. In the European Union for example there is a really strong focus or lobby from water corporations in Europe pushing to enter into the service sector in those countries which the E.U. is negotiating bilateral trade agreements with. However this push from European corporations to enter service sectors extends past water corporations into multiple sectors, including health and education.

Throughout the world water privatization has equaled in multiple cases that the poor are denied access to water, as water is marketed as a commodity, not a right. From South Africa, to Cochabamba in Bolivia, to countries in Africa, struggles are occurring at a local level against privatized water. Often this privatization process is pushed through structural adjustment policies from the IMF and the World Bank.

A clear interplay exists between structural adjustment policies and bilateral trade accords, pushing neo-liberal reforms that much further, reforms that often provide corporations in Europe, or in the U.S., rights to sue governments if they nationalize industry or refuse to recognize the terms of an agreement with a corporation.

In this context 'free trade' becomes a package of reforms, that outlines minimum controls on business, that allows business or foreign investors to work with basically no restrictions or any regulatory framework. This framework favors multinational corporations and investors over local businesses or community cooperatives or the multiple alternative ways that people at a grassroots level are attempting to organizing economies.

One trend that is apparent within all these agreements particularly through the E.U. and the U.S. is the economic aspect but also the geopolitical aspect. This aspect is very explicit with the U.S. government which is always making links between trade policy and the 'war on terror' or the 'war on drugs' in Latin America. The U.S. made a big spectacle on the signing for the FTA agreement with Morocco, which is portrayed as a 'moderate' Muslim country, an ally with the U.S. within the 'coalition of the willing.'

Also the European Union maintains a similar agenda âe" in comparing U.S. and E.U. bilateral trade agreements people often tend to let the E.U. off the hook, as the E.U. agreements include language on human rights and democratic development, terms used to attempt to present E.U. agreements as somehow representing a more humane approach. However it is critical to question the fundamentals in these agreements. If you study agreements it's clear that the E.U. is playing a colonial game within former colonies, throughout the Middle East, in Africa, in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

In the 19th Century there were international battles between powers over national spheres of political interest. Today the E.U. is attempting to develop similar spheres of influence through bilateral accords, often claiming that national independence for former colonies was granted by Europe and now the E.U. wants something in return for that independence: unfettered market access to the economies and natural resources in former colonies.

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