Brussels protects multinationals instead of citizens

15 May 2019

Brussels protects multinationals instead of citizens

Bastiaan van Apeldoorn

The 'populist rebellion' against the current European Union is often mentioned in the same breath as the fear of globalisation. The answer from the existing political elite, headed up by French president Emmanuel Macron, who in his own country is pushing through harsh neoliberal reforms, is that it is precisely the EU that can protect people from globalisation. This kind of prattle, however, can be consigned to the dustbin. 

Although the social-democratic left has also often felt attracted by the idea that the EU can counteract the disruptive effects of globalisation, the reality is that since the 1990s the process of European unification has gone hand-in-hand with neoliberal globalisation.  The EU has gone full steam ahead for internal economic liberalisation, with the removal of economic internal borders, and external liberalisation, with the integration of the European economies into a capitalist world economy. As a result the EU has not only become a booster for globalisation, but also one of the world's most globalised regions.  The common factor here is capital operating across national borders. This transnational capital is the biggest winner in globalisation as well as in the European integration process. 

The transnational capitalist class which represents this capital has therefore ensured that globalisation and European integration have reinforced each other, and also that people within the EU are not protected from the disruptive powers of globalisation, but are ever more exposed to them. 

The European Round Table of Industrialists

To understand how this happened, we need to go back to the 1980s. The elite  connected to the section of European big capital orientated towards the world market managed at that time to transform its economic and political power into a decisive influence on the content and direction of the reviving process of European unification. A leading role was played in this by the so-called European Round Table of industrialists (ERT), which became the outstanding representative of Europe's transnational capitalist elite. 

The ERT was established in 1983 and consists of the bosses of fifty-five  European multinationals, including Adidas, BMW, Nestlé, Total and Vodafone. Capital based in the Netherlands is also well-represented, by AkzoNobel, Heineken, Philips, WoltersKluwer and of course Shell. The ERT is not the 'official voice' of business in the EU. That's BusinessEurope, which brings together and represents the national employers' organisations. But the ERT is certainly the most influential. The bosses of Europe's most powerful corporations lobby via the ERT not so much for their individual business interests, for which they have other channels, but above all to try to propagate the general interest of European transnational capital, via their close personal contacts with both governments and the European Commission. This also includes the interests of Europe's major banks, which, while they may not be directly represented in the ERT, do have ERT members in their ranks, for instance as directors. In this sense the ERT is a true vanguard, an elite of  Europe’s transnational capitalist class, which influences politicians and policy on the basis of the interests of that class.


Playground of multinationals

From research that I did at the end of the 1990s, it emerged that the ERT's fingerprints were all over the turn which European integration had taken halfway through the '80s. At that point, following years of  lethargy in the process, serious work was put into the completion of the European internal market. The ERT was the driving force behind this. The industrialists of the Round Table also ensured that the so-called freedoms of the internal market   would become a crowbar to force maximum freedom for big capital.  With this, 'Europe’ became a neoliberal project and the internal market first and foremost a playground for the multinationals. This included non-European  multinationals, which got free access to the European market, which became increasingly integrated into a globalising world economy through the liberalisation of trade and investment. 

The global financial crisis of 2008, however, which continued into the eurocrisis, caused a hitch. The cohesion of, and support for, the neoliberal European elite project, fell sharply in the aftermath of the crisis,  Not only did discontent with and rejection of the EU grow strongly, the elite itself sometimes appeared no longer to believe in it. It would nevertheless be premature to announce the end of neoliberalism in the EU. On the one hand  the alternatives, particularly on the left, are still too weak. On the other, the interests of European transnational capital, as united in the ERT, remain too powerful.

During the eurocrisis this power proved itself once again. The austerity  imposed as a 'solution' by the northern states, with Germany to the fore and the Netherlands in its wake, only made things worse for ordinary people. At the same time our banks were rescued and the crisis seized upon in order to push through a neoliberal reorganisation agenda. Meanwhile the freedom of financial capital was never called into question, despite the fact that it was there that the cause of the crisis lay. 

Though this agenda was carried out more broadly by right-wing forces, it is striking the extent to which this response to the eurocrisis was in line with the proposals put forward by the ERT. It was a response which included the further tightening of the European budgetary rules and the strengthening of neoliberal discipline on the member states. In this way, securing the interests of transnational capital was revealed to be the first priority of EU policy. 

China as geopolitical challenger

In 2019 the greatest challenge for the ERT is that the world is becoming less open to the neoliberal European Union. Trump, with his economic nationalist policies has gone so far as to call the EU an “enemy”. A rising 'state capitalist' China wants to change the rules of the game. The European elite sees also a strong threat to the neoliberal world order in which the EU has thrived. Hence, the present political attitude of the US and China is in conflict with the interests of the ERT.

The ERT was for example a fervent exponent of the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), that would have made a single economic space for European and American multinationals. This treaty has, however, been for the time being wiped from the table by Trump. Instead, a new trade war threatens. Whereas some in the elite still hope that ‘Trump’ will prove a transitory problem, China is increasingly seen as the challenge for the long term. The multinationals of the ERT have profited enormously from the opening of the Chinese market and continue to see major opportunities for their expansion in Asia. Yet they also see themselves confronted with the reverse, namely that Chinese companies, often aided by, or wholly or partly in the hands of the state, have also become serious competition. In addition, China often protects its own market and at the same time is becoming an important geopolitical challenger of 'the West’. That is why more and more voices are being raised in the European Union calling for a stronger stance in defence of European strategic, economic and security concerns in relation to a China that is acquiring ever more influence within the EU.

To the extent that the current EU is under increasing pressure from the outside to now take a course which differs from the earlier neoliberal model, this is not per se an improvement from a socialist perspective.  For example,  Franco-German plans for a European industrial policy, inspired by fear of China, appear once again to focus on the interests of French and German multinationals, and not so much on those of the workers or of society as a whole. If we in the EU want real protection from globalisation, then the internal market - as things stand such a precious possession of big capital, that for that reason is so so fiercely defended by politicians such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte – must be transformed. That's why we must set limits to the border-free transport of goods, services, workers and, above all, capital. To break the power of that same capital and the power of a Brussels that serves these capitalist interests, a long struggle will be needed. 

Bastiaan van Apeldoorn is a senator for the SP. He is also professor of Global Political Economy and Geopolitics at the Free University of Amsterdam (VUA), and author of Transnational Capital and European Integration (Routledge, 2002), now available from Research Gate for free download.

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