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Corporate Europe Observer

CEO Hosts Meeting in Spain

Corporate Europe Observatory hosted its first-ever gathering of campaigners, researchers and journalists working on the subject of corporate power from the 15th to the 17th of October 1999. Most of the participants were interested not only in the economic impacts of large corporations, but also in political power and access to various national and international decision-makers and institutions by TNCs. The meeting, entitled 'European Strategy Session on Corporate Power', was organised by the Spanish contingent of CEO and took place in the beautiful Andalusian city of Córdoba.

Kicking Off

he first day of the meeting was spent setting up a framework for discussions with examples of various manifestations of corporate power, in particular in the political realm. Several case studies on the role of large corporations in different European countries were presented. Axel Koehler-Schnura from the German Critical Shareholders organisation and Coordination Against Bayer-Dangers explained the sordid history of the German chemical industry and its current intimate relationship with the government. Tarjei Leer-Salvesen from Norwatch described the situation in Norway, where a large percentage of industry is state-owned and corporate CEOs are often appointed by the government. Juraj Zamokovsky from the Centre for Environmental Public Advocacy/Friends of the Earth Slovakia related the polarisation in his country between old-style communists and free-market supporters, who are associated with democracy and have greater public support.

Corporate power on the European Union level was the next subject taken up. Mikael Nyberg from Sweden provided a history of corporate lobby groups in the EU, beginning with the influential European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT), and described the intimate relationship between corporate CEOs and Brussels decision-makers. In the following discussion, examples were given of lobby efforts conducted by industrial sectors including the automobile, pharmaceutical, fisheries and oil industries, and the work of the public relations sector on their behalf.

CEO's own Erik Wesselius delved into the Transatlantic Business Dialogue as an example of an influential corporate-state alliance. This alliance between EU and US industries and governments is geared towards the creation of a transatlantic marketplace by the elimination of barriers to trade. Juan López de Uralde of Greenpeace International pointed out that the TABD was responsible for killing an EU directive on the banning of toys made of toxic PVC materials, and that the Business Dialogue is interested not only in defeating technical measures but also in eliminating pro-environment guidelines such as the precautionary principle.

Tony Clarke from the Polaris Institute in Canada and Antonio Tujan from the IBON Foundation in the Philippines presented the World Trade Organisation as an example of an institution that reinforces corporate power. Tony explained how the WTO is a corporate-driven process, with a strong symbiosis between business and state in each of the four main driving political blocs behind the institution (the EU, the US, Japan and Canada). The defeated Multilateral Agreement on Investment was given as another example of a corporate-led initiative to secure investment rights for TNCs in developing countries. Antonio exploded some of the myths surrounding free trade, pointing out that two-thirds of world trade is between corporations. The ensuing discussion covered issues ranging from the attachment of social and environmental clauses to trade agreements (it was felt that this only enhances corporate power) and corporate codes of conduct (which are often only 'window dressing' for TNCs to appear more responsible).

Ramón Fernández Durán from the Spanish Ecologistas in Acción provided an explanation of how markets are deregulated via the International Monetary Fund and how financial institutions and TNCs profit from this arrangement. The ensuing discussion touched on issues including the proposed creation of a private sector advisory board to the IMF and the importance of targeting investment and pension funds in our campaigns.

Next, Judith Richter, Claudia Peter and Eveline Lubbers addressed the subject of corporate public relations. Claudia amplified on the recent emergence of 'astroturf' lobbying, artificial grassroots campaigns waged by TNCs, often with deceptive titles such as the incineration-promoting 'Waste Watchers' group in Germany. Eveline presented some examples of counter-strategies by corporations, including co-optation, greenwashing, divide-and-rule and dialogue. The latter, initiated by companies with the advice of external PR consultants, is a corporate strategy to avoid embarrassing conflict and unflattering media coverage. The 'dialogue' issue re-emerged throughout the meeting. During the following discussion, several participants mentioned that certain PR companies, including Burson-Marsteller, are already being targeted by activist groups.

Moving Ahead

The second day of the meeting was partially devoted to sharing strategies for challenging corporate power. A number of participants provided presentations on their campaigning against specific TNCs and corporate lobby groups. Tarjei Leer-Salvesen of Norwatch described how his organisation is a corporate watchdog, keeping tabs on the activities of Norwegian-based TNCs and publicising any negative or destructive practices to the media and the public. Axel Koehler-Schnura of the Critical Shareholders Association in Germany described the strategy of purchasing shares in order to gain access to corporate decision-making processes. He warned that this form of pressure has its limitations -- fundamental change is not possible as the underlying principle of profit-making can not be changed by shareholder actions. Marc Gavaldá of Red Petrolera in Spain spoke about campaigning on oil companies active in the Amazon. He explained how international financial institutions including the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank pave the way for corporate penetration by promoting neoliberal legal systems and privatisation. Antonio Tujan from the IBON Foundation in the Philippines discussed the Asia Pacific Research Network, which organises conferences and trainings and puts out publications on various trade-related issues for groups in the region.

In the following discussions, several other examples of strategies were presented and critiqued. It was pointed out that although consumer action is important, public confusion can also be created between mainstream businesses like the Body Shop and true fair trade products. The effects of a Northern-based consumer boycott on child labour in Bangladesh was also described -- children were forced out of the factories and into prostitution, as the fundamental problem of families needing income was not resolved. The importance and difficulty of building alliances with the labour movement was also discussed.

In a second round of presentations, Greg Muttitt of Corporate Watch in the UK spoke about the use of non-violent direct action to challenge corporate power, giving the examples of the massive resistance against road-building schemes in the UK and campaigns against genetic engineering which range from approaching shoppers in supermarkets to uprooting genetically-manipulated crops. He also mentioned some of the drawbacks of this type of campaigning, including unpredictability, heavy dependence on large numbers of activists and the media, and the tendency for the movement to be largely white and middle class. Tarjei mentioned that the success of the UK anti-GE food campaigns had spilled over to Norway, where the government was scared off from introducing test fields.

Eveline Lubbers of Jansen & Jansen in the Netherlands gave a presentation on net activism and tactical media. She present the McSpotlight website (an anti-McDonald's site) [1] as a good example of this type of campaigning. For activists, the Internet has opened up many possibilities due to freedom of information and the ease with which information can be spread. It was pointed out however that the Internet is not without faults, ranging from surveillance possibilities and its misuse by fascist and other groups, to the elitist and exclusive nature of the technology itself.

Amit Srivastava from TRAC in the US talked about campaigns challenging corporate power in the United States and the need to be inclusive. One of the biggest challenges is making the link between community organising and global campaigns; whereas grassroots organisers and affected communities tend to be people of colour, anti-globalisation activists are generally white, middle-class men. Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth gave an example of campaigning for environmental justice in the UK through FoE's FactoryWatch website which allows people to identify sources of pollution close to their homes. Juraj Zamkovsky of FoE Slovakia spoke about campaigning against dam building in Central and Eastern Europe, where more than 40 villages inhabited by some 25,000 people have been forcibly relocated in the past decades. Corporate tactics to promote the dams have included manipulating the public through media campaigns, public meetings where false compensation promises were given, manipulative public opinion polls, and various tactics to weaken the resistance of affected communities. FoE Slovakia provides communities with the tools to identify and fight against these corporate tactics.

Tony Clarke from the Polaris Institute and the International Forum on Globalization related some experiences from the MAI campaigns which ended in success. From the beginning, the MAI was clearly defined as a corporate rule treaty, which helped when presenting arguments to the press and public. Campaigns were built country-by-country, and the Internet was a very useful tool for spreading information. Finally, alternatives to the MAI were defined by campaigners. Helen Holder of A SEED Europe spoke about campaigning against the biotech industry, and provided several parallels to the anti-MAI campaign. Again, the opposition was clear and had consensus on the undesirability of GM food, action methods spread quickly from the UK to other countries and media interest followed, and there was a clear alternative in organic agriculture.

Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth presented the campaign against the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a front group of oil, automobile and energy companies that lobbied the Kyoto climate negotiations. The strategy involved pressuring one member company, in this case Shell, to step out of the GCC. In the campaign, "Shell" was transformed into "hell", Shell "demons" stood at gas stations with placards, and there was a large demonstration outside of Shell's 100th anniversary celebration in 1997. In the end, Shell did leave the GCC, and public awareness about the GCC was raised.

Olivier Hoedeman relayed the example of how CEO targeted corporate lobby groups by writing to companies active in groups like the European Roundtable of Industrialists and the International Chamber of Commerce and requesting information about their political activities. [2] Of those that responded, most companies denied having political activities, or highlighted only their activities in so-called "green" industry lobby groups.

The following discussion resulted in several ideas to clarify the membership of companies in political lobby groups, including a directory of corporate membership in lobby groups, and Tony Clarke provided an example of a poster made about the Canadian Business Council on National Issues with photos of all of the corporate CEOs. It was wondered whether or not it was strategic to target individual CEOs rather than simply corporations. Several people felt that particular CEOs should not be personalised. The need to be very clear about our partners and our goals, to be clearly distinguished from right-wing forces, was stressed by many.

The following session dealt with a strategically important, worrying trend -- dialoguing between NGOs and industry. For companies, it was pointed out, initiating dialogue is a way of staving off criticism. Dialogue, some felt, delegitimises any forms of engagement other than consensus and cooperation, thus effectively disempowering NGOs. Tony Juniper stated that dialogue should not be ruled out as a useful strategy in some circumstances. CEOs can change their opinions when points are powerfully made and profit is still possible. When companies don't respond to demands made during dialogue, this can be used against them in the press. Finally, dialoguing with the better companies, e.g. those involved in solar and wind power, sends a powerful message to other companies. Gregg Muttitt of Corporate Watch in the UK cited research he had carried out indicating that most mainstream NGOs in the UK are engaged in dialogue, and that this can be seen as a real threat to groups engaging in confrontation with TNCs. Dialogue is an extremely long and time-consuming effort for NGOs, and diverts their attention from other tasks. Furthermore, groups in the developing world tend to view dialoguing as extremely negative.

In the discussion that followed, it was pointed out that dialoguing tends to legitimise corporate voluntary agreements. The need to make a distinction between TNCs that should be dismantled and those that need only to be reformed -- and thus are good targets for dialogue -- was mentioned. The vast disparity in resources between corporations and NGOs was also mentioned, as was a general feeling that dialoguing tends to accomplish little in the end. The positive example of the Forest Stewardship Council -- set up by NGOs with companies invited to join -- was cited. Gregg ended the discussion by saying that it is important to avoid divisiveness in discussions like this one, as that is exactly what the corporate world is hoping to create with their invitations to dialogue.

Winding Down

One of the meeting's hosts in Córdoba, Carola Reintjes, gave a short presentation on the socio-economic situation in Andalucía. The region, with 8 million inhabitants, is very poor, with employment reaching up to 45% in some regions. People have a love-hate relationship with the EU. There has been lots of financial input, but it mostly benefits large landholders and most of the population feels forgotten by the EU. 90% of the region's agriculture is exported and there is an invasion of large supermarkets, yet there are still strong ties with traditional and local food and culture.

Finally, there were reports given from the small working groups on joint future projects and campaigns. The group discussing general strategies agreed that it is essential to link struggles in the North and South without repeating neo-colonial patterns, and to make our movement more inclusive. The results of working group meetings on the PR industry, on international trade policies and on regulation of TNCs are summarised in the 'Córdoba Declaration' which was agreed upon by the participants and is included below.


2. See CEObserver, Issue 3 for the full story.  | Back to Text |

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