Will London’s G20 turn into Battle of Seattle II?
The thousands of protesters who regularly disrupt economic summits as predictably as birds fly south for the winter have been called many things in the past – from anti-capitalists to anti-globalists to black-flag anarchists who just want to hurl rocks and insults at riot police and upset the global village reverie.
The ‘Battle of Seattle’ began on November 30, 1999 when the World Trade Organization (WTO) met in Seattle, Washington, U.S., to launch a new round of international trade negotiations. The meetings were disrupted by about 50,000 demonstrators who gathered in the usually laid-back city to protest everything from worker rights to the degradation of the environment. Hundreds were arrested in the ensuing melee. Seattle reportedly sustained approximately $20 million in damages from vandalism and lost sales.
The protesters respond that they are fighting not to bring down capitalism, or western civilization, or even the New World Order but to rescue it from the monolithic, faceless organizations – the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, G8 and G20 are some of their favorite bogeymen – that aspire to be rulers of the universe.
With rhetoric reaching the boiling point on both sides of this great global divide, London must find ways to ensure that the Group of 20 summit of world leaders proceeds without a hitch. But with the financial crisis on everybody’s minds, and lots of people without jobs to keep them from being in attendance, this will prove to be no small order.
“You know frankly there’s enough anger out there amongst all of us who are watching what’s happening on bankers’ salaries and bonuses.” Lord Malloch Brown, a UK foreign office minister, told the BBC. “I think the hardliners are going to have a sympathy they haven’t had for quite a while.”
Lord Malloch Brown made no attempt to sugarcoat the extent of the problems that the architects of the global economy now face, with or without the added aggravation of anti-corporate protesters.
“We are in the midst of a massive destruction of global wealth which is not going to stop on April 2 nd; the downward momentum is going to take us way beyond that.”
There are already worrying signs of things coming down the pipe, as business leaders begin to feel the wrath of public discontent.
On Wednesday, for example, vandals with an ax to grind attacked the home of Sir Fred Goodwin, the former CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Police at the scene in Edinburgh, Scotland reported that the windows of the house were smashed and a car in the driveway had been damaged.
Goodwin resigned from his post as chief executive last year as RBS ran into severe financial issues and had to be heavily subsidized by the British government. Despite Goodwin’s lackluster performance, he was awarded an annual pension of about 700,000 pounds (euro 760,000; US$1 million), which was held up as an example of executive excess in times of trouble.
RBS spokesman Neil Moorhouse told AP the company is aware of the incident and taking the appropriate precautions.
“There are temporary security arrangements in place for Sir Fred, as is normal practice for departing executives. They’ll be reviewed in the coming months, depending on the security situation.”
Meanwhile, in frustrated France, police on Thursday have negotiated the release of a manager of US company 3M, who was held for two days in a tense labor dispute in a plant south of Paris.
A company spokesperson says Luc Rousselet was released overnight and left the factory at Pithiviers.
The workers locked Rousselet in an office Tuesday, demanding better severance packages for those laid off and better work conditions for those who keep their jobs, AP reported.
Of the 235 people employed at the Pithiviers factory, 110 had lost their jobs as the company released workers worldwide amid the economic downturn.
But it’s not just the workers
In the past, the ‘anti-globalization’ debate, when one existed, was between the protesters and the captains of capitalism. On occasion, representatives of the workers would get a special pass to the closed door meetings of the movers and shakers of the global economy. More often than not, however, the representatives felt more like tourists than actual attendees.
But the times they are a changin.’
Today, as governments and entire continents try to find a cure for the global contagion, much of the heated rhetoric is between the political and business elite.
This week, the European Union is in crisis control mode following remarks by the (now former) Czech prime minister, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek on Wednesday told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, that the massive financial bailout plan of the United States is “a way to hell” and echoes the mistakes from the Depression era of the 1930s.
Topolanek, who watched his government collapse on Tuesday following a vote of no-confidence, said the massive injection of funds into the US economy sparked “panic” in the European Union, the official Czech news agency reported.
«»He [Timothy Geithner, the US Treasury Secretary] talks about a large stimulus campaign by Americans,“ Topolanek said. ”All of these steps, their combination and their permanency, is a way to hell."
“We need to read the history books and read with it the lessons of history,” he added.
US President Barack Obama defends his administration’s rescue plan by arguing “We haven’t seen an alternative budget.”
These comments set the stage for a colorful at best, disastrous at worst London G20 summit, which will showcase the American leader on the European stage for the first time, and in the middle of the most precarious global moment since perhaps World War II.
So while the protesters will certainly liven up the summit, this year the most impressive fireworks will probably come from behind the closed doors.