Setting the record straight
26 Oct 2001
I have just read the open letter by Guy Verhofstadt, the Prime Minister of Belgium and current President of the European Union. It is addressed to anti-globalization protesters, among whom Verhofstadt includes Slow Food, which he describes as ‘a mundane club that spreads chic pamphlets invariably stressing the importance of eating correct food in the better restaurants’. The other side of the coin, he says, is the ‘Black Block’, which violently opposes any form of private property.
President Verhofstadt’s assertions about Slow Food are instrumental, reductive and marked by deep ignorance and superficiality. Slow Food came into being in 1989 to develop correct nutritional education and to pursue and improve the quality of the food we eat. Tens of thousands of teachers and students in Italy have attended food education courses designed to improve knowledge about production processes and establish direct contacts with farmers and artisans.
In the mid-Nineties, Slow Food also decided to come out in defence of our agricultural heritage, organizing major events in support of numerous disappearing fruit and vegetable varieties and animal breeds. At first sight, such products may appear to be no more than the results of microeconomies, but in actual fact they represent a safety net for the entire European agricultural sector. As a result of our efforts, hundreds of products have been saved from extinction. Two years ago the Slow Food Award was introduced to acknowledge the efforts of people committed to the defence of biodiversity: not scientists and politicians, but simple peasants, fishermen and farmers whose humble labor has helped save plants or seeds that risked disappearing.
Before expressing himself our president should have enquired, among other things, about Slow Food’s commitment to defending cocoa producers in Tabasco (Mexico), its work in collaboration with Vandana Shiva’s movement to promote sustainable agriculture in the villages of rural India and its assistance to the Berber women of the Amal Cooperative in Morocco, who produce Argan oil from an ancient tree, the Arganier. Promulgating the gastronomic qualities of this oil among leading European restaurateurs is one way of lending dignity to the work of these women without the pointless use of go-betweens. We have defined this modus operandi as ‘virtuous globalisation’, a term very similar to Verhofstadt’s own ‘ethical globalisation”.
Today the Slow Food movement boasts over 70,000 members in 50 countries.
That said, I believe that a personage of the prestige of the Prime Minister of Belgium and current President of the European Union should be duty-bound to communicate facts properly. I know for a fact that, unlike myself, he is ‘unwilling’ to enter into a public debate about the matter, but I do I believe that he has treated Slow Food very poorly indeed. If good manners stand for anything, I believe that our movement, which does honour to Europe and can in no way be put on the same level as the ‘Black Block’, is entitled to an apology.
I appreciated the promptness with which Mr Verhofstadt criticized Silvio Berlusconi’s unfortunate declarations recently. Now it is up to him to make amends for his gratuitous nastiness towards people he does not even know.
Many thanks for the space you have kindly granted me.
(adapted by John Irving)
Verhofstadts’s open letter
The Paradox of Anti-globalisation
By Guy Verhofstadt, Prime Minister of Belgium and the current President of the European Union, in which capacity he attended the recent G7/G8 summit in Genoa. This open letter gives his view of the events that took place in Genoa. It includes a personal proposal for reviewing the way in which G8 meetings are organised. An International meeting to discuss the contents of this open letter will be held in the auditorium of the University of Ghent (Belgium) on 30 October 2001.
A message to the anti-globalisation protesters
In Seattle, Gothenburg and Genoa tens of thousands of people took to the streets to express their views. A real breath of fresh air in this post ideological age. If only there had not been all that meaningless violence we could almost have applauded them. Anti-globalisation protests are a welcome crosscurrent at a time when political life has become rather dull, sterile and technocratic. Indeed, this crosscurrent is good for democracy. But what is your actual message? Do you espouse the views of the ‘Black Block’, which violently opposes any form of private property? Or perhaps your views are better represented by the ‘Slow Food’ campaign, a mundane club that spreads chic pamphlets invariably stressing the importance of eating correct food in the better restaurants?
What is suddenly so wrong with globalisation? Until recently even progressive intellectuals were singing the praises of a worldwide market, which, they said, would bring prosperity and well-being to countries where before there was only poverty and decline. And they were right. Experience has shown that the per capita income of a country’s population rises by 1% for every 1% that it opens up its economy. This explains the wealth of Singapore, which contrasts so sharply with the poverty of a closed economy such as Myanmar. In short, prior to Seattle, globalisation was not a sin but a blessing for mankind. This was in stark contrast to the dissenting voices on the far right that bemoaned the loss of identity in a globalised world. But ever since Seattle, you have been shunning globalism as if it were a modern-day form of bubonic plague, sowing poverty and ruin.
Of course, globalisation, as a movement that disregards national borders, can easily deteriorate into a form of "selfishness without frontiers". For the rich West, free trade is naturally something that should be embraced wholeheartedly… as long as it is not in products that can harm Western economies. No sugar from Third World countries. No textiles or manufactured garments from North Africa. In
this regard, then, your anti-globalisation protests are well founded. The much vaunted free world trade moves largely in one direction: from the rich Northern countries to the poor South.
But I would also like to point out a number of contradictions in your way of thinking. You oppose American hamburger chains, reject soya that has been genetically modified by multinational corporations, and condemn worldwide brand names that influence buying habits. Many of you feel that everything must return to a small, local scale. We must go back to the local market, to the local community. And yet not when it comes to migration… Then, globalisation suddenly becomes an aim. Large numbers of homeless people drift along the borders of Europe and North America, staring wide-eyed into the shop window of a prosperous society. Millions of illegal immigrants live as homeless pariahs, in pitiful conditions, hoping against hope that somehow they can tap into Western riches. But it is precisely the absence of free trade and investment that drives them to the West in the first place.
Another contradiction resides in the fact that, while opposing globalisation, you strongly urge tolerance towards lifestyle diversity. Surely, we owe the fact that we live in a multicultural and tolerant society to the process of globalisation? I thought that nostalgia for the narrow-minded societies of our forefathers was the sole domain of conservatives who glorify the past, of extreme right-wingers who believe in the superiority of their own race, and of religious fanatics who live and die by the Bible or the Koran. In this way, anti-globalisation protests unwittingly veer dangerously towards extremist, ‘populist’ right-wing views. The only difference is that you oppose multinationals because of the alleged harm they cause to the South, whereas the extreme right, such as Le Pen in France, condemns multinationals because he wants to retain control over his own economy.
You are asking many of the right questions. But do you have the right answers? Nobody now denies the existence of climate change and global warming. But such issues can only be dealt with through global commitments. Everybody recognises the importance of free world trade for the poorest countries. But this also requires global social and ecological standards. Look at the immoral speculation that preyed on weak currencies such as the Mexican peso and the Malaysian ringit a few years ago. The most effective way of combating this kind of speculation is through the creation of larger monetary zones (another form of globalisation). The prospect of coming up against the dollar or the euro will scare off speculators more than any tax.
I do not think it makes any sense to be unreservedly for or against globalisation. The question is rather how everybody, including the poor, can benefit from the manifest advantages of globalisation without suffering from any of its disadvantages. When can we be sure that globalisation will benefit not only the happy few but also the massed ranks of the Third World’s poor?
Again, your concerns as anti-globalists are extremely valid. But to find the right solutions to these valid questions we need more globalisation, not less. That was exactly the point of James Tobin. That is the paradox of anti-globalisation. Globalisation can, after all, serve the cause of good just as much as it can serve the cause of evil. What we need is a global ethical approach to the environment, labour relations and monetary policy. In other words, the challenge that we are faced with today is not how to thwart globalisation but instead how to give it an ethical foundation. I would call this ‘ethical globalisation’, a triangle consisting free trade, knowledge and democracy; alternatively, trade, aid and conflict prevention.
Democracy and respect for human rights are the only sustainable ways of avoiding violence and war and of achieving trade and prosperity. The international community has still not managed to impose a worldwide ban on small arms or to set up a permanent international criminal court.
Moreover, increased aid is needed from the rich West. It is shameful that more than 1.2 billion people still do not have access to medical care or a decent education. Trade alone will not be enough to solve the problems of the least developed nations. Even with more trade there is still a need for increased development cooperation to build harbours and roads, schools and hospitals, and to construct a stable legal system.
Finally, world trade needs to be further liberalised. If all world markets were fully opened up to competition then the total income of developing countries would be boosted by $700 billion per year, or 14 times the total development aid that they currently receive. No more dumping of Western agricultural surpluses on Third World markets. No more exceptions for bananas, rice or sugar. The only trade ban would be on weapons. ‘Everything but arms’ must be the motto of all future negotiating rounds of the World Trade Organisation.
More free trade, more democracy, greater respect for human rights and more development aid: is that enough to make ethical globalisation a reality? Certainly not! What is missing is a powerful instrument to enforce it. We need a global political body that is as powerful as the globalised market in which we already live. The G8 of the rich countries must be replaced by a G8 of existing regional partnerships. A G8 where the South is given an important and deserved place at the table to ensure that the globalisation of the economy is headed in the right direction. In other words, we need to create a forum where the leading continental partnerships can all speak on an equal footing: the European Union, the African Union, Mercosur, ASEAN, the North American Free Trade Agreement, etc.
This new G8 can and must be a place where binding agreements on global ethical standards on working conditions, intellectual property and good governance can be entered into. At the same time, this renewed G8 could lay down the guidelines and give the necessary encouragement to the major international organisations and negotiating bodies such as the WTO, the World Bank and Kyoto. This G8 would no longer be dominated exclusively by the big wealthy countries; instead, everyone in our world community would be represented. In this way it could provide a forceful answer to global problems such as international trafficking in human beings.
We saw such a process emerge in an embryonic stage at the Kyoto Protocol negotiations in Bonn, where finally a breakthrough was made as a result of agreements between the Umbrella Group, the European Union and the group of less developed countries, against the wishes of the greatest power on earth, the United States of America.
But of course we do not need to wait for the first meeting of the new G8 to begin the process of ethical globalism. We could start in our own European backyard. Why shouldn’t we systematically test every decision made in the European Union for its impact on the weakest societies on earth? Does it widen or narrow the gulf between the rich Northern countries and the poor South? What is the result of this decision – or of the lack of a decision – on worldwide ecological problems? And why shouldn’t we call for an opinion from a high-level non-European body? Because in this respect you are absolutely right. Even when we are driven by the very best intentions, it is only natural for us to be more concerned with the interests of a multinational oil company or of the European sugar beet farmers than with the fate of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta or the meagre incomes of workers on sugar cane plantations in Costa Rica.
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