How not to lose all

By Sunita Narain
Published: Wednesday 15 October 2003

The proposed deal in Cancun had to be rejected. What was proposed at the World Trade Organization talks would have been a deadly price for developing countries to pay. Therefore, for once, our leaders did well. They were prepared to negotiate together. They held together in the face of the disgraceful, utterly indefensible positions of the subsidised North. Cancun failed because the rich nations of the world failed us all.

But I am not cheering loudly. I believe the failure of Cancun is a victory, not for the world's poor, but for the machiavellian strategies of the world's richest, the US. Because, as against a multilateral framework based on rules and regulations for all, Cancun's failure is a boost to bilateralism.

That's what the US wants. It has been busy making bilateral trade agreements -- Jordan, Chile, Singapore, Mexico, Canada and Israel are in its pocket, so to say. Now it says it will "aggressively pursue bilateral and regional trade agreements with countries committed to opening markets and undertaking economic reform". In other words, it will use its enormous economic and political clout to squeeze countries into trade agreements of its convenience.

This is a well-heeled foreign policy objective of the US. Take climate change. The US walked out of the Kyoto Protocol. It walked out of a multilateral agreement to limit luxury emissions, so that the poor would get ecological space, and the earth's climate system would recover. But, the US did not merely reject the protocol; it said it would work overtime to kill it off. The US says it will prove its strategies for "voluntary measures" -- to switch to cleaner technologies -- and "bilateral agreements" (selling energy efficient technologies to developing countries) will be more effective than a multilateral rule-bound agreement. Forget the rules now. What the US is promising is that instead of the 5.2 per cent cut in emissions at 1990 levels, as the protocol requires, it will increase its emissions by over 30 per cent in the agreement period.

The US is certainly aggressive about its ideology. Its diplomatic cohorts go around the world wrapping up deals -- on hydrogen technologies, carbon sequestration plans, or clean coal. Earlier this year, a US climate delegation neatly stitched up the so-called hero of the developing world, India. It wowed our politicians and business leaders with a grandiose and futuristic hydrogen energy plan, in which fuel will be generated using fossil fuels -- oil from Iraq? -- as the source. This week, a delegation visited Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam to push its plan.

But in a clear coup, this climate-renegade nation has signed an agreement with the forthcoming presidency of the European Union (EU) -- Italy. US President George Bush and his Italian counterpart, Silvio Berlusconi, have agreed on a joint programme on so-called climate change mitigation strategies. Just two months before the next climate conference -- which the Italians are hosting -- the two have thumbed their noses at the multilateral world with public advertisements of this marriage.

Where is the EU in all this? Its leaders never miss a chance to extol multilateralism and consensus. But its negotiators do the exact opposite. They ensure, repetitively, that developing countries are left with no choice but to accept the bilateral fare the US offers. At the last climate change convention, EU negotiators obnoxiously pushed developing countries to take on legally binding commitments on emission reductions, instead of focussing on the effective implementation of the convention and sidelining the US. As a result, developing countries found merit in the US proposal to reject the Kyoto way. At Cancun, the EU perversely pushed for negotiations on the Singapore issues, which the South detests. Why?

Shortsightedness? Stupidity? Or deliberate strategy? Understand that the EU is moving to become a confederation of states, with a powerful centrist bureaucracy. This might explain why --even as US officials negotiate like mature politicians, pushing government strategy -- EU office-bearers negotiate like clerks and bookkeepers lost in arcane details, so that they miss the political opportunities to win friends and gain coalitions. The US is successfully weakening the climate negotiating process; the EU, meanwhile, is making sure the clean development mechanism -- to fund energy-efficient projects in the South -- becomes a complicated and cheap development mechanism.

It is clear that the EU has changed. At the Rio Summit, European leaders were propelled by the fact that environment was hard politics; in Europe, the green vote comprised 5-15 per cent of the total vote. Today, green votes don't seem to count as much. Civil society pressure has become almost as marginalised in European politics, as it is in the US-- where business dominates. No wonder civil society groups there prefer to lobby developing country governments.

This sad fact may also provide the key to the future. We know what the US is offering will take us straight to hell. The EU is a washout, we also know. Where do we go?

We have no choice but to engage. In climate change, we are the most vulnerable. In trade, we have already given away too much since the Uruguay Round. We need multilateral rules that protect our interest. We have no option but to stay and fight. And it is here that we could strengthen the coalition that was born in Cancun -- between governments of the South and people of the world. A coalition brought together in common outrage and desire for justice. It is a slim chance. But it is our only chance. We cannot let the US win. Because then we will all lose. Lose all.

-- Sunita Narain

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