An MAI by any other name
by Rob Gowland The MAI is gone but it is definitely not forgotten. Nor has it gone very far, it seems. The Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) was under negotiation in the OECD between 1995 and 1998 (at the beginning in secret). When its ramifications — it would have stripped governments of the right to control trade, investment from abroad, currency movement and given multinationals the right to sue governments — people and democratic organisations began a world-wide movement against it. The people of the world turned out to be unwilling to surrender their national governments, even their national existence, to transnational corporations (TNCs) and banks. The withdrawal of France from negotiations under popular pressure in October 1998 effectively removed any prospect of reaching an agreement — without France the EU could not sign — and the MAI deal which had been thought sewn up collapsed at last year's Paris OECD meeting. On December 3, the OECD Secretariat announced that "negotiations on an MAI are no longer taking place". But although they have been beaten back, the TNCs have certainly not abandoned their dream of a corporate world. And those politicians who jump to do their bidding are looking for other means to achieve the MAI concept. On the February 8, Britain's House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee released its report on the environmental implications of the MAI. Larry Elliott, Economics Editor of the British weekly The Guardian reported: "A hard-hitting report by the Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee criticises the MAI, dubbed a charter for multinationals, for being too secretive and for threatening to undermine international accords to cut down on pollution, deforestation and use of non-renewable resources." The same day, Britain's Trade Minister, Brian Wilson (who naturally had an advance copy of the committee's report), in a very neat piece of fancy political footwork, embraced the committee's report as backhanded support for the principles of the MAI. However, the term "MAI" is now frowned upon in Whitehall, so instead the Minister took a leaf out of the TV series Yes Minister and "reaffirmed the Government's commitment to a liberal, rules-based framework for international investment as a key tool for promoting sustainable development worldwide". He went on: "The Environmental Audit Committee has made a number of detailed recommendations that we will consider carefully." Viewers of Yes Minister will know what to make of that. Wilson then made the significant point: "The MAI is no longer on the table, but the issues surrounding it remain and must be addressed." Last October Brian Wilson similarly "welcomed" the defeat of the MAI proposal by saying that it was time "to start with a blank sheet of paper" in negotiating a new international investment treaty". But not a new MAI, he was at pains to point out even then: "Sometimes it makes sense to draw a line and start again ... it would be wrong to give the impression of all the MAI baggage simply being transported from one organisation to another in an attempt to create the same rose — or thorn - - by another name." But now he indicates how they intend to do just that, saying that the British Government, "together with its EU colleagues", was in favour of putting investment (the euphemism for the principles of the MAI) "on the agenda of the World Trade Organisation (WTO)". However, conscious of public antagonism to the MAI concept and also widespread suspicion of the WTO, he stressed that any WTO negotiation would have to be "on the basis of new objectives derived by consensus" (of the boardrooms of the City, probably). He finished by reassuring all and sundry once again that "resurrecting the MAI" was out of the question. Sure it is. Wilson's colleague, Environment Minister Michael Meacher, took the same tack: "We now have a golden opportunity to start from the beginning and work to pursue our goals in all relevant international fora to achieve a solution which wholly safeguards the environment." So there is the concept: revise the MAI with some minor concessions to distract special interest groups and funnel the new version through the WTO. And above all avoid any mention of the main criticism of the MAI: the handing over of control over national economies to transnational corporations and banks. But it's not just British MPs who are pushing for a new version of the MAI. A European Commission discussion document leaked to Larry Elliott at the British Guardian, on February 8, shows, in Elliott's words, that "Brussels is attempting to include the MAI in the [WTO's] millennium round of global trade liberalisation talks, due to start in Seattle in December". The EC document, after lauding those governments that have removed restrictions or controls over investment from abroad ("liberalised domestic investment regimes") as "the best avenue to attract much-needed investment" goes on to say: "Thus, circumstances appear ripe for a multilateral framework of rules that could consolidate this favourable climate, and do so in a balanced manner which could ensure greater stability of investment flows in the interests of investors and host countries alike." The document subsequently lists some of "the elements of an ideal result that at the same time opens markets to new investments and then protects those that are made". These would include (amongst others): A broad definition of investment; Investment protection (from expropriation, with provision for compensation); Free transfer rights; Free entry of key personnel; Effective enforcement mechanisms; Last but not least, opening commitments for foreign investment at the admission stage." In one of the great understatements, the EC document also says: "Some, if not all, of these issues will be controversial". Won't they just?