How Guyana brought out the bully in Mandy

Oct 14, 2008
Matthew Carr

Our pro-rich, neo-liberal system allows men like Mandelson to thrive, says Matthew Carr

Peter Mandelson donned his ermine robes and took his seat in the Lords yesterday, allowing him to return to the Cabinet. However, his spectacular political resurrection was marred by further sleaze allegations, this time regarding his possibly nepotistic relationship with a Russian billionaire.

According to the Sunday Times, the former EU Trade Commissioner recently enjoyed the hospitality of the aluminium tycoon Oleg Deripaska on his £80 million yacht in Corfu. Mandelson has denied these reports and rejected suggestions that his relationship with Deripaska might have anything to do with the EU's forthcoming reduction on tariffs on imports of raw aluminium from six to three per cent. The reports have again raised question marks about the "flawed judgment" of the scandal-prone politician known as "the prince of darkness". But the discussions about Mandelson's character miss a more fundamental point about the economic and political realities of the world we now inhabit.

One of Mandelson's last acts as EU Trade Commissioner was to threaten Guyana, one of the poorest countries in the world, with financial penalties that could amount to €70m a year because the Guyanese government has so far refused to join an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the European Union.

Guyana has criticised various "anti-developmental" conditions of the agreement, including the relaxation of barriers on foreign investment and clauses on intellectual property rights that would make it more difficult for Caribbean countries to patent their own generic medicines.

Similar criticisms of the EU's "free trade colonialism" have been made by other developing countries involved in the EPA negotiations. Various NGOs have also condemned the agreement, arguing that weak Caribbean economies will be swamped by more powerful European producers. Christian Aid has urged Caribbean governments not to sign the agreement, which is due to be formalised tomorrow, calling it "the relationship of the bully to the bullied".

Only Guyana has so far held out, despite a threat from the EU Commission to withdraw its preferential tariff status unless it complies. But the Guyanese Prime Minister Bharrat Jagdeo has admitted that he will have to accept the agreement despite its "anti-developmental character" to avoid economic disaster. No wonder that a report commissioned by the EU's rotating president, Nicolas Sarkozy, condemned the tactics - "pressure, paternalism and threats" - used by the EU commission during these negotiations.

We should not be surprised that the former communist-turned-peer played a key role in railroading lowly Guyana to the negotiating table. Long before he began to rub shoulders with Russian tycoons, the architect of New Labour was one of the more starry-eyed and zealous courtiers of the rich and powerful and has always assiduously pursued their interests. It is easy to be revolted by Mandelson's combination of smarm and flint-eyed opportunism, but it would be a mistake to interpret his political trajectory to deficiencies of character.

For Mandelson, ­ like the New Labour project itself, ­ symbolises the bullying arrogance of the neo-liberal creed that has dominated the world for the last three decades.

It is a world in which powerful countries prise open the economies of the poorest so that private corporations can control their food, their water and their electricity, where governments claim to be powerless to intervene in the workings of the 'free market' and yet are suddenly able to produce undreamt-of sums of money to bail out banks when they fail - our banks, not those of Russia, Argentina or Thailand which once went to the wall without receiving any bail-outs or offers of assistance.

We may well wonder at the motives of Gordon Brown for bringing one of his former political enemies back into the government. But as we shake our heads at the cynicism and moral blankness of the "prince of darkness" we might pause to consider that these vices are not just his: ­ they are part and parcel of the system that allows such men to flourish.

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