By Bernard Kuiten, Head of External Relations at the World Trade Organization
Johnny Rotten, Sex Pistols’s former frontman sang this in 1983. It’s a spot-on description of the mood between the trade and protest community when they clashed during the WTO’s ministerial meeting in Seattle in 1999. There was no love lost, not on the streets, and for that matter, not in the meeting rooms either. A civil movement was born which dominated and influenced trade policy-making and discussions for years to come. Not an easy environment to build relations and to communicate with trust and respect.
Many in the world of trade were taken by surprise. Negotiators, experts and communicators did not know how to react to such an overwhelming anti-trade crusade. Everyone suddenly had a view, not to say a strong opinion and the many debates that followed were emotional, often unpleasant and uninformed.
At the WTO, we did not have an understanding of the motivations that drove the movement, nor did we know its members very well. This changed over time, but slowly, and only after learning from our own mistakes.
Civil society picked up quickly on growing global anti-trade sentiments. Governments and their institutions did not fully recognize this and ignored the growing anxiety among people. The anti-globalization movement that followed was not taken seriously enough because we at WTO could not imagine the system being questioned by someone with little knowledge of the trading system. Some even tried to demonize civil society and ridiculed its arguments (to their defence, certain civil society groups also tried to demonize the WTO). What made things worse, there was insufficient transparency in trade negotiations, with limited access to information about the negotiated contents that would in the end concern the people.
Being an intergovernmental organization with a small and relatively inflexible budget, it took us some years to successfully change our communication course and public relation strategy. We realized that civil society and non-governmental organizations are the radars of society, capable of picking up on things fast (and often furious). They can identify relevant or important matters quicker than we can. We now use their strength to our advantage by analysing the work, research and activities of civil society groups and entering into long-term relations and a structured dialogue with them.
Personal engagement is key to build an understanding and trust and raise the levels of knowledge on both sides. Opposing views, also strong ones, are no reason to avoid engagement, even if it is easier to look the other way. Therefore, we created opportunities where decision-makers (governments of the WTO Members) could meet with civil society influencers. The WTO’s annual Public Forum is a good example. We have also consistently pointed to civil society’s own responsibility and asked them for solutions when subjected to criticism.
We left Seattle behind and developed a more professional and less polarized relationship with civil society. Transparency, trust and respect are now the guiding principles of our relationship. Gone are the one-liners and sometimes outrageous claims about trade. Johnny Rotten’s song is no longer applicable. The constructive work done by many well-known NGOs has influenced our agenda and is being used in the WTO negotiations because of its relevance.
However, history repeated itself more recently, but this time outside of the WTO. TTIP and TPP negotiations have led to massive anti-trade protests, comparable to what we saw in Seattle. Although civil society’s slogans and concerns were the same as before, governments and regulators played catch-up. Evidently, they did not see it coming. There certainly is no magic, all-encompassing recipe for success in dealing with civil society campaigns and movements. However, some lessons could have been learned from the long and sometimes painful experiences at the WTO.
And now that the US administration is apparently ready to reconsider its earlier walk-out from the TPP and possibly, TTIP negotiations, these lessons from the past become relevant again. Trojan horses may well ride the streets of Europe again.
In this series of blog posts, we would like to present initiatives and practices aiming at promoting free trade within society. The information and views set out in these contributions are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Centre for International Political Economy.