European parliamentary hearing of Europe’s new trade commissioner

MEPs fired questions at the new European trade commissioner Karel de Gucht in a European Parliamentary hearing last week (12 January).

Unsurprisingly De Gucht listed his priorities as: Concluding the WTO Doha round, bilateral trade deals and completing Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) - sticking closely to the predatory path mapped out by his predecessors Peter Mandelson and Baroness Catharine Ashton.

De Gucht was keen to tout his development credentials as the former development commissioner and confirmed his commitment to Doha with the usual rhetoric that free trade will help the poor. However this was called into question when De Gucht was challenged over the massive job losses and industrial destruction that proposed EU trade deals would cause in poorer countries and that pushing for more market access was really about generating superprofits for European big business. De Gucht was evasive and unable to deny that development was being sacrificed for corporate interest and instead gave a cursory answer about trade policy being a vehicle to project European values about human rights and climate change.

Carrying on the thread of corporate interest in European policy making, Caroline Lucas (Green MEP from UK) expressed concern at the disproportionate influence that business interests had while De Gucht was the Belgian foreign minister. De Gucht created a permanent business council which included “industry captains” from 40 multinationals such as Nestle, GlaxoSmithKline and ING bank to advise on trade policy and yet no similar body for civil society and trade unions was set up, in spite of requests. He responded weakly by saying that he did consult twice a year with civil society as Belgian foreign minister and that he intends to continue this practice. Again an answer that raises scepticism, as the trade commission already hold monthly meetings with civil society but these are widely criticised as a PR exercise with no real consultation or dialogue taking place.

Unfortunately, De Gucht’s responses at his three hour hearing revealed his corporate sympathies and gave little indication that the change of personnel at the European Trade Commission will lead to any change in the direction of European trade policy.