Serving Up the Commons: A Guest Essay

By Clarke, Tony | Multinational Monitor, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Serving Up the Commons: A Guest Essay


Clarke, Tony, Multinational Monitor


THE SMOKE AND PEPPER SPRAY had barely lifted from the streets of Seattle when the World Trade Organization (WTO) began a new set of global trade negotiations. Although efforts to launch a new round of worldwide comprehensive trade talks collapsed in Seattle, one of the built-in agendas which the WTO inherited from the Uruguay Round of the GAIT was a commitment to expand global rules on cross-border trade in services through the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) regime. In February 2000, the WTO launched what has been labeled as the GATS 2000 negotiations.

The GATS negotiations are designed to provide multinational corporations with the power tools they need to take control of much of what remains of the 'commons' on this planet. Every service imaginable is on the table, including a wide range of public services in sectors that affect the environment, culture, energy and natural resources; plus drinking water, health care, K-12 education, post-secondary education, and social security; along with transportation services, postal delivery, prisons, libraries and a variety of municipal services. By phasing out all governmental "barriers" to international trade and commercial competition in services, the GATS regime is designed to apply to virtually all government measures affecting trade-in-services, from labor laws to consumer protection, including regulations, guidelines, subsidies and grants, licensing standards and qualifications, and limitations on access to markets, economic needs tests and local content provisions.

If the proposed set of GATS rules are adopted, they will radically restructure the role of government regarding public access to essential social services worldwide, to the detriment of the public interest and democracy itself.

The existing GATS regime of the WTO, initially established in 1994, is already comprehensive and far reaching. Currently, the GATS rules apply to all modes of supplying or delivering a Service including foreign investment, cross-border provisions of a service, electronic commerce and international travel. The current GATS features a hybrid of both a "top-down" agreement (where all sectors and measures are covered unless they are explicitly excluded) and a "bottom-up" agreement (where only sectors and measures which governments explicitly commit to are covered). What this means is that presently certain provisions apply to all sectors while others apply only to those specific sectors agreed to.

The new GATS negotiations are designed to adopt new GATS rules, and to extend them to all service sectors. Besides compelling governments to grant unlimited market access to foreign service providers, without regard to the environmental and social impacts of the quantity or size of service activities, the proposed expansion of the WTO regime on services will:

* Impose new and severe constraints on the ability of governments to maintain or create environmental, health, consumer protection and other public interest standards through an expansion of GATS Article VI on domestic regulation. A proposed "necessity test" would require governments to show that their laws and regulations affecting service industries are the "least trade restrictive," regardless of financial, social, technological or other considerations. This matches existing WTO rules related to the trade in goods.

* Restrict further the use of government funds for public works, municipal services and social programs. By imposing the WTO's national treatment rules on both government procurement and subsidies, the new negotiations seek to impede governments from making public funds available only for public services, to the exclusion of foreign-based, private service corporations.

* Accelerate the process of providing service companies with guaranteed access to domestic markets in all sectors -- including education, health and water -- by permitting them to establish their commercial presence in another country.

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