Colonisation again?

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The FTA issue is so serious; and the fact that the Malaysian government is taking it so lightly is alarming, says Sarajun Hoda Abdul Hassan.

Aliran exco memberr Sarajun Hoda (second from right) participating in a protest against the EU-Asean FTA at the European Parliament in Brussels

Civil society activists from Asia and Europe converged in Brussels, Belgium on 2-5 October 2010 for a people’s forum coinciding with Aseam 8, the eighth summit of Asean and European heads of governments and states who were meeting to put in place their priorities and road-maps.

This occasion gave the civil society groups representing about 60 per cent of the world’s population an excellent opportunity to discuss, share their concerns and bring possible corrections and changes. The delegates were in high spirits, armed with array of facts and figures, and determined.

The Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) started in 1996 with a common desire among civil groups societies across Asia and Europe to open up dialogue, promote solidarity and work towards changes that favoured the people. This time, the circumstances were a little more exceptional as Brussels is the European capital and the place where the European Parliament sits. Hence, many EU parliamentarians were there to lend a hand.

Galloping into Asia

The forum was mainly concerned about the fact that while most governments are swayed in their trade negotiations by powerful economic and financial interests or selfish global corporations, their citizens continue to face overlapping, prolonged and at times catastrophic social, ecological, democratic and economic crises.

Armed with Free Trade Agreements and Economic Partnership Agreements, these gigantic corporations, having exhausted their own home resources, now plan to ride these European governments and gallop into Asian markets. The rising two economies, China and India, clearly signal where the next economic boom and the ‘gold mine’ would be.

So, in 2006, the EU came up with a new aggressive trade strategy called Global Europe designed to force Asian governments to open up their private and public sector markets including government contracts and to further deregulate their financial markets. Note that in 2008, the EU’s outward FDI totalled 3.3 trillion euros while inward FDI was just 2.4 trillion euros. Hence, the need for them to dictate terms.

EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht’s words sum it all: “European investors need open, sound and predictable business environments to thrive and these proposals aim to strengthen the EU’s ability to ensure a level playing field for them. In the long run, a comprehensive investment policy will keep Europe as the world’s number one player in the field of foreign direct investment, ensure the best deal for all European businesses, invigorate growth and create jobs at this crucial time.”

Asian and EU governments, by becoming enthusiastic partners with greedy corporate powers, some without further consideration of their own people or region, have become a source of great concern. This is further complicated by the fact that bilateral investment treaties establish additional terms and conditions that legally bind protection levels granting them fair, equitable and non-discriminatory treatments, protection from unlawful expropriations and direct recourse to international arbitration. It seems about 1,200 of these bilateral treaties have already been concluded.

EU Trade Ministers meeting under the Lisbon Treaty recently gave the Commission the green light to move ahead with trade negotiations with Malaysia and launched it with Prime Minister Najib Razak during the Asem meeting in Brussels. It has also started negotiations with China, South Korea, India, Singapore, Asean (being the third largest trading partner after US and China), and other Asean states. It also has Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA) with developing countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

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Malaysian – EU statistics:
Exports Imports
Goods €14.7 billion €9.7 billion
Services €1.9 billion €2.6 billion
FDI €0.2 billion €1.1 billion
Investment stocks €4.5 billion €13 billion

People in the dark

Failing to achieve block agreement and to beat any dissent, efforts are now trained on simultaneous negotiations with several countries in the style of divide and rule. In Malaysia, for example, the leadership does not see it fit to share the details with its own stakeholders or even bring them for debate in Parliament. Very little is known about what these government heads discussed, what their priorities were, what compromises were made and at what cost and what outcomes they reached. People worry that these narrow discussions and predetermined debates are known to be engineered by the neo-liberals offering small baits to unsuspecting states to catch and control faster developing economies, gain access to resources and deregulate other markets to save their own ailing and dead-end economies.

With no engagement with civil society, there is no way for people from both regions to know how their lives would be affected. The main concern in FTA negotiations hovers around how to make it possible for compromises to work between different levels of economies: the developed with the under developed, the developed with the least developed, and the differing local priorities. Other major concerns include the just allocation of resources, trade liberalisation, the fair distribution of wealth, social security, and the most alarming, the notion of just reciprocals.

People’s concerns about the profound urgent needs for their national economies at the micro level are just overwhelming and cannot be left to chance or trial and error. There may be no second chance.

What is at stake is the huge concessions forked out to these commercial giants and the serious effect to workers’ rights that is feared would lead to considerable job cuts and further inequality and poverty. It is to discuss these concerns that AEPF created the space, dialogue, solidarity and strategies to address them from the people’s perspective at both the Asean and EU regions. The Klang MP rightly pointed out in AEPF7 in Beijing that people were gathered to understand how global crises could lead to opportunities for the renewal and regeneration of demands for social justice.

People’s recommendations

Thus stakeholders such as parliamentarians, women’s groups, trade unions, NGOs, farmers, fishing folks, educationist, national and international networks on social, political and economic fraternities gathered under the AEPF umbrella to discuss these concerns. They used their resources to discuss, share, debate, campaign and call for alternatives and change, to divert and drive benefits instead back to the people.

Although the concerns were many, AEPF this time focused on three areas namely, EU-Asean free trade agreements, the campaign for social protection and alternative regionalism.

The following are, among others, the AEPF8 recommendations in brief:

Promote sustainable solutions to the economic and financial crises

  • pursue a comprehensive recovery plan with people and the environment at its heart, based on principles of redistribution of income and wealth;
  • enable countries to invest in low-carbon development;
  • sustain decent jobs, education and meet other basic needs;
  • introduce a Financial Transactions Tax to generate funds to support poverty alleviation and climate adaptation;
  • establish a new global reserve currency to ensure stabilised exchange rates as recommended by the UN summit on the global crisis;
  • introduce stricter regulation of all financial actors, institutions and products
    ban non-commercial speculation on commodities;
  • reform the governance of international financial institutions to ensure fair representation of developing countries;
  • implement universal social protection policies, essential in alleviating poverty, starting with the UN Social Protection Floor Initiative to support sustainable long-term social protection systems;
  • fully ratify and integrate into national laws the commitments made in the Convention of the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.
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Support a just trade and investment system

  • agree to a moratorium on the EU’s Global Europe Strategy and all ongoing free trade negotiations between and within Asia and Europe;
  • suspend all European member states Bilateral Investment Treaties negotiations, until the new EU investment policy framework with greater balance between public and private interest is palpably defined;
  • have an independent investigation and stakeholder consultation process on the impact of current EU and Asia trade policies on poverty and social, environmental and human rights;
  • replace the investor-to-state dispute settlement mechanism, embedded in international treaties, with a state-to-state mechanism;
  • recognise and strengthen small producers’ rights to trade protection within their own domestic and regional markets in all EU-Asia trade negotiations;
  • base its relations on the just principle of non-reciprocity and differential treatment;
  • recognise and fully support food sovereignty of individual countries
  • respect the right of a country to formulate and pursue its own development strategies and economic models in the interest of its own populace including allowing the regulation of imports, exports and investments to fulfill its home social, economic, civil and political rights;
  • promote and enable universal access to essential public services
    be democratic and inclusive, subjecting any agreement beforehand to a public and parliamentarian scrutiny and having regular review and accountability mechanisms

Make corporations accountable to governments

  • work, with the full involvement of the ILO towards the development of international legally binding instruments to define and enforce corporations’ legal responsibilities and accountability for their activities;
  • increase transparency of corporate accounts by adopting a country-by-country reporting standard for multinational companies;
  • ensure that corporations annually disclose their finances, environmental, workers safety, human and labour rights, lobbying and tax records;
  • create an international economic tribunal to adjudicate on transnational corporations and impose appropriate sanctions;
  • introduce a high-quality, mandatory lobbying transparency register, to end the excessive political influence of corporate lobby groups and close the revolving door between the European Commission and industry lobbies.
    close down tax havens.

Protect rights to food and water and promote agriculture, affordable food, energy and trade policies

  • build on the July 2010 UN Resolution on the Fundamental Right to Water and Sanitation and increasing funding for publicly managed water and sanitation infrastructure;
  • take immediate action to curb financial speculation on food stocks and prices, restricting or prohibiting investment funds’ access to commodity markets; introducing effective position limits, and regulating OTC trade, including the clearing of transactions;
  • reform the EU Common Agricultural Policy and export-led agricultural models to end dumping of agricultural goods and supporting small-scale sustainable food production and food sovereignty;
  • stop promoting the use and production of industrial agrofuels; the EU should revoke its mandatory target on agrofuels by 2020;
  • stop land grabs and forced land acquisitions and guarantee access to land involved in small-scale agricultural production.
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Promote climate justice and shift towards a low carbon economy

The EU should:

  • ensure global temperatures do not rise more than 1.5ºC to avoid catastrophic climate change;
  • reduce their emissions by 40 per cent of their 1990 level by 2020 without offset – enabling greenhouse gas concentrations to stabilise at 300ppm;
  • meet the costs of adaptation and mitigation based on differentiated responsibilities;
  • invest in the just transition of the economy comprising green decent jobs, skills development, vocational training, social dialogue and protection, and coordinated industrial policies;
  • invest public funds generated by new taxes in the rebuilding and expansion of public infrastructure (public transport, sustainable local energy systems etc);
  • provide subsidies and aid to transition to a low carbon economy;
  • introduce an international tax on shipping and aviation emissions to reduce emissions;
  • support the creation of a climate and environmental justice tribunal.

Promote decent work and commit to core labour standards, the creation of decent jobs, social dialogue and social protection

Both Asian and European governments should:

  • ratify and implement ILO Conventions and Core Labour Standards.
    support the finalisation of an ILO Convention on Domestic Work at the International Labour Conference in July 2011;
  • ratify ILO Convention 132 on the Protection of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families;
  • adopt national economic policies that guarantee decent wages;
  • create and protect decent jobs for all, particularly for young people, women, disabled people and workers within the informal sector and enforce labour laws;
  • initiate a process of “upwards” harmonisation of workers incomes, social and labour rights in Asia and Europe, including equal rights for migrant workers.
    guarantee access to social protection, job security, health care, maternity leave and essential services for all workers, permanent, contract, disabled or migrant and their exploitation with full access to immigration and legal redress mechanisms;
  • end all forms of gender-based violence and discrimination against workers, including migrant workers (e.g. obligatory pregnancy and/or STD tests).
  • the United States is said to have about 1,000 advisers from senior industry players and the details of FTAs or Bilateral Trade Agreements are shared and discussed with their own stakeholders. At the same time, the US and the EU demand that country in Asia do not discuss these details with their own stakeholders and keep them very secret;
  • funnily enough, few officers in the Malaysian International Trade Ministry think they have thinking power to face and match the serious US and EU FTAs coming in as a block or in bilateral forms with all the mysterious details between the lines. The Ministry thinks they are smarter than the Malaysian people and that they do not need to engage with them. It even has no respect for the 200-plus MPs elected by the people.

This FTA issue is so serious; it is seen as neo-colonisation by new economic powers. And the fact that the Malaysian government is taking it so lightly is alarming. Not a few Malaysians feel as if we are giving away the lives of our coming generations.

Aliran exco member Sarajun Hoda attended the AEPF Forum in Brussels.

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