January 2003 issue of
Austere, bespectacled, rail-thin European trade
commissioner Pascal Lamy hardly looks the part of the
1930s gangland movie bad guy. And yet he's got a hold
of your future and is doing all he can to hand it over
to the transnational corporations. The vehicle for
Lamy's villainy is an obscure trade agreement called
GATS, or the General Agreement on Trade in Services.
The agreement itself may be a less-than-riveting read,
but its significance is relatively easy to grasp. All
human activities are to become, in the fullness of
time, profit-oriented commodities that can be invested
in and traded. And GATS will make this irreversible.
GATS is not a finished treaty but an open-ended
framework agreement that mandates "successive rounds
of negotiations". The goal of these negotiations is to
"achieve progressively higher" levels of
liberalisation. What's not opened up today will be
dealt with tomorrow until, presumably, all services
are opened to all comers by all countries in all
"modes" of delivery.
Twelve broad categories are covered by GATS.
These are: services to business; communications;
construction and engineering; distribution; education;
environment; financial services; health and social
services; tourism; sports, culture and entertainment;
transport; and, in case anything is not covered by the
preceding 11, "other". Energy, previously considered a
good, comes under "other".
total of 160 sub-categories cover everything from
postal services to scientific research, architecture,
publishing and rubbish collection. Sometimes when I'm
giving a talk on GATS I read out this list of
categories at breakneck speed and ask if anyone in the
audience is not worried about how the agreement will
affect their lives.
The truth is, "public service" is an alien concept in
GATS-world. GATS' only goal is to encourage more
trade. Article I of GATS starts with a proclamation
that the agreement does not apply to "services
supplied in the exercise of governmental authority".
This sounds great, except that this exemption is
immediately followed by a qualifier: such governmental
services must be supplied "neither on a commercial
basis nor in competition with one or more service
Bought any postage stamps lately? Or tube or train
tickets? Seen a private school or clinic anywhere in
your neighbourhood? Maybe in North Korea or Cuba there
might just be public services that aren't delivered on
a commercial basis or in competition with other
suppliers, but not anywhere else.
Article VI, 4 is equally alarming. It would give GATS
powers to interfere, via the WTO's Dispute Resolution
Body (DRB), with government efforts to pass "measures"
("laws, regulations, rules, procedures, decisions,
administrative actions or any other forms") that are
deemed to constitute "unnecessary barriers to trade in
services" or which are considered "more burdensome
than necessary to ensure the quality of a service".
GATS will develop "disciplines" to keep regulation
under strict control and will apply a "necessity test"
through which outsiders will determine what's
necessary and what's not.
The GATS Working Party on Domestic Regulation, which
is responsible for developing these "disciplines",
recently targeted "unreasonable environmental and
safety standards" in the area of maritime transport.
That was three weeks before the Prestige disaster.
Subsidies "may have distortive effects on trade in
services" so they too will be subject to
"disciplines". No one can predict what this may mean
for domestic service suppliers that receive
preferential treatment from their governments.
Since last year's WTO ministerial meeting in Doha, the
GATS negotiations have entered an accelerated phase.
In conditions of strict secrecy, all WTO member
governments "requested" their counterparts opened up
their service sectors to foreign competition. The
request phase ended on June 30, 2002. The GATS
negotiations are now, until March 31, 2003, in the
"offers" phase. Based on the requests received,
countries are replying to each other and announcing
which service sectors they are prepared to open to
foreign suppliers. Once a service is opened to one
foreign supplier, it must be opened to all of them.
Thanks to leaks, we know what sectors the EU has asked
29 of its major trading partners to open to EU service
suppliers. Among its more prominent demands are the
total privatisation of postal services, and the
liberalisation of large chunks of environmental
services, energy, transport and scientific research.
Would you like to know what services the EU is
"offering" in your name? Or what services its trading
partners, especially the governments of poorer
countries, are "offering" to the EU? So would we all,
but we've not been so lucky with leaks in this regard.
Commissioner Lamy says it's "traditional" not to
disclose negotiating positions, and that our partners
want them kept secret. It's traditional in some
societies to stone women, electrocute criminals or
mutilate the genitalia of small girls. That doesn't
make these practices right.
Anti-GATS activists will be delivering "presents for
Lamy" from all over Europe on December 11. They'll be
decorated with lobbying materials local groups have
produced against GATS, and will be accompanied to
Lamy's office by MEPs who have signed a call for
transparency of the GATS negotiations. Public sector
workers will also be represented. In the UK, the World
Development Movement has produced some outstanding
resources about GATS. Visit the WDM's website to find
Susan George is vice-president of Attac, France, a
director of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam (www.tni.org)
and the author of several books, including How the
Other Half Dies and A Fate Worse than Debt.
Article can be