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Brexit and the dark arts

European Union
United Kingdom

Lobbyists, chlorinated chicken and tricksy business in the fog of Brexit.

It’s not often you get to see it in action: a secret video captures an almost comically sleazy fixer spilling the beans about the tricks of his trade. His name is Mark Littlewood and he heads the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

The run-up to Brexit has been a busy time for special-interest lobbying or, to put it more bluntly, ‘cash for access’. Not that they call it that, though. The IEA is officially a ‘thinktank’ and even a ‘charity’ registered with the hard-to-fathom Charity Commission.

Anyway, one of Greenpeace’s Unearthed videos shows IEA personnel telling an undercover reporter, posing as a lobbyist for the US meat industry, about the scale of access their organization has to offer its clients. Four members of the House of Lords in a morning, for example, five MPs for lunch, then a couple of key ministries (for tea, presumably), they outline, charitably.

The IEA claims to have no political position on Brexit, but is, Littlewood says, ‘unbelievably well connected’ to top Brexiteer politicians, including trade secretary Liam Fox, environment minister Michael Gove and former foreign secretary Boris Johnson. Its corporate clients are the type that want safety legislation watered down, especially the sort of EU laws that have been hampering, for example, the import of US chlorinated chicken or hormone-boosted beef. It can get stories placed in the media on behalf of the alcohol industry, has been helping US gambling interests and counts the fossil-fuel giant BP among its clients.

The IEA is coy about where it gets its money from. But according to a Guardian freedom of information investigation, it is one of four rightwing British groups, including Legatum, the Adam Smith Institute, and Policy Exchange, to have received $5.6 million from anonymous donors via US fundraising bodies. The American Friends of the IEA is reported to have transferred $1.6 million to the IEA in the past decade.

Brexit is a massive disruption and a gift for lobbyists and law firms. Thousands of laws are up for a rethink and new deals have to be struck. The job of designing workable policies has fallen increasingly to private-sector lobbyists, notes Tamasin Cave, a campaigner with the transparency website Spinwatch.

Brexit is a massive disruption and a gift for lobbyists and law firms

Take the ‘Ideal UK-US Free Trade Agreement’, a blueprint prepared by the Initiative for Free Trade (an outfit founded by Eurosceptic MEP and leader of Vote Leave, Daniel Hannan) in conjunction with the Cato Institute, a rightwing US libertarian thinktank funded by the Koch family. Also consulted were the IEA and the Adam Smith Institute, in Britain, and the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation in the US. Researchers enjoyed exceptional access to ministers in the UK Department for International Trade and the Department for Exiting the European Union.

Presented as a model for future trade post-Brexit, the plan argues for a deal that would loosen government controls on capital and data flows and be ‘more liberalizing than any other free-trade agreement in the world’. It would remove tariffs and throw out the precautionary principle that has guided much EU regulation on pesticides, chemicals in cosmetics, GM food, hormones in meat and so on. And, a big prize, it would fully open up the NHS to private foreign competition.

In the confusion of Brexit, the rising demand for insider access and information has seen many ex-ministers and officials taking well-paid posts with British and US lobbying and law firms.

It’s not much more salubrious in Brussels. Talks between the UK and EU are largely closed to citizen scrutiny. But corporate lobbyists have been there in force, with scores of representatives from the big banks helping negotiators on both sides of the table, according to a joint report from a group of civil-society organizations including Corporate Europe Observatory.

The UK financial sector has ‘brought out the big lobbying guns,’ says the report. ‘Their lobbying offensive aims to influence a future trade deal between the two sides that promotes the interests of the financial sector, not just in London but in the EU27 member states as well.’

If their proposals became reality, the report says, they could block a tax on transactions, stop attempts to make big banks safer and leave governments open to paying out huge fines awarded by investment courts.

One thing of which we can be sure – in the fog of Brexit, the dark arts have become that much darker.

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