The Guardian February 24, 1999


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?

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