While Prague has been nervously awaiting the arrival of delegates and protesters to its summit of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, a number of leading writers and columnists in the British press have been getting their verdicts in early, attacking or defending the IMF and World Bank with varying levels of vigour.
Larry Elliott and Charlotte Denny, writing in The Guardian (22 September), were critical of the two financial institutions, highlighting the delays experienced in implementing the promised debt relief for the world's 24 most-indebted countries. They felt that the IMF and World Bank were shrinking back from taking responsibility, while Western governments were playing a "blame game."
A leader in The Guardian on 18 September was moderately supportive, backing the IMF and the World Bank for the reason that, according to The Guardian, they have already responded positively to protesters' criticisms. The evidence put forward includes the Bank's new World Development Report which "acknowledges revolutionary concepts, such as the fact that economic growth does not automatically reduce poverty... that inequality is bad for growth" and that "poverty is not simply an economic problem but a political one." This represents a "dramatic shift" in the ongoing debate, as a result of the protesters' pressure which "is paying off."
The Guardian has also devoted extensive coverage to preparations by delegates, police, protesters and other parties, as they start to line up in the Czech capital. Nervous bankers, underground websites, jammed border crossings into the Czech Republic have all been documented, as well as the police: both the borrowing of teargas equipment and, for the first time since 1989, the dusting off of their water cannons.
There was a special focus on "Czech camping king Tomas Doubek" who has established a temporary tent city for the demonstrators in Prague's Strahov stadium (22 September). The entrepreneurial Doubek is a strange bedfellow for the protesters: those who, despite heavy rain, arrived early at his tent city "were forced to admire a man who could capitalise on anti-capitalism." But Doubek believes that his provision of food, shelter and showering facilities (for a 26 GBP admission fee) will keep protesters out of public parks and mean they are more likely to protest peacefully: "We have a dream that having shown the world the Velvet Revolution of 1989, we could soon show them the Velvet Demonstrations of 2000." Whether he is being wildly optimistic remains to be seen.
The Guardian also allowed space to a 19-year-old radical Marxist law student in Prague. As a writer for an anarchist magazine, it is no surprise that he plans to join demonstrations with the aim of forcing the IMF and World Bank to disband. Though he was only nine in 1989, he locates the source of his ideals in his having lived half his life under both the pre-1989 and post-1989 systems; from his own reading of Das Kapital four years ago he decided that Marx was right. (22 September)
In contrast, The Economist (23 September) mounted a hardline defence of globalisation, contending that open markets are a force for good in ending poverty in the Third World. "Globalisation is a moral issue, alright," asserts the magazine's leading article, and one on which "the anti-capitalist protesters... are wrong about most things." The Economist claims that the credit for those developing economies who have already enjoyed economic success is due to globalisation: it is "the difference between South Korea and North Korea, between Malaysia and Myanmar..."
In a similar vein Hamish McRae in The Independent (20 September) asserted that the protesters misunderstand the nature of the globalisation process, which is "ultimately helping increase living standards everywhere." His analysis is provocative: "Instead of being upset by the invasion of McDonald's," he suggests, "people should figure out why local fast-food enterprises are not setting up establishments overseas."
Where there's smoke
But although these analyses, contain plenty that is sensible, they do not address the very real concern that multinationals frequently act in a predatory manner in markets- be those markets in the Third World or the former Second- where they lack competition. Matthew Chapman in The Guardian on 18 September investigated a method whereby Western tobacco firms are establishing their hold on the relatively new CEE markets.
Chapman focused on British American Tobacco's sponsorship of a medical clinic in Pecs, Hungary, which copes with the huge number of smoking-related illnesses to be expected in a state which occupies third place in the smoking world league (behind Russia and Poland). Their support appears generous: BAT have provided "state of the art equipment" for the clinic, and similarly sponsor the local homeless hostel ("BAT House") and theatre (yes, the "BAT Theatre.") For the tobacco companies in general, "sponsoring worthy causes is an integral part of their marketing strategies."
Some tobacco firms have even sponsored anti-smoking campaigns in school, which strangely enough have been "spectacularly unsuccessful." BAT also provided the funds for the media centre at the University of Pecs, but requested that the university end its no-smoking policy. The question remains whether such communities can afford to take a principled stand; on the other hand, considering the possible long-term consequences, can they afford not to?
EU enlargement a top priority
In an article in Financial Times of 21 September, the Prime Ministers of Britain and Sweden called for the acceleration of the EU's preparations for eastward enlargement. Tony Blair and his Swedish counterpart Goran Persson described enlargement as "a top priority for the European Union..." and looked forward to a future EU of 25-30 member states.
Even while The Economist was running a major feature this week on the spread of rural poverty in Moldova and other Eastern European states in the past decade, Blair and Persson spelled out their vision of peace and prosperity: "Just as the original community helped to underpin successful democracies in western Europe, so enlargement will help stabilise and develop democracy across our continent."
Sweden, which takes over the EU presidency from France in January 2001, is one of only three current EU members not to have signed up for the euro. The other two are Denmark, which is holding a referendum on the issue on 28 September, and Britain, which back in June declared itself to be, in the words of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, "the champion of enlargement." The reaffirmation of support by Britain and Sweden just days before the Danish vote would appear to be an attempt to deflect the EU from its focus on economic and monetary union—a prospect which induces disquiet in all three states (as indeed it does among many in Germany and other states already inside the eurozone)—and a possible two-speed Europe.
Fears have been growing that current EU member governments have lost their enthusiasm for enlargement and wish to postpone it, perhaps indefinitely. Blair and Persson's call seems to be directed towards those: "The EU must ensure that, as soon as there are candidates ready to join, it can accept them; and that, as the negotiations proceed, as negative, hesitant voices emphasise the difficulties, not the historic opportunities, it moves towards early accession of the best-prepared."
Oliver Craske, 4 September 2000
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