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Politics of scale and strategic selectivity in the liberalisation of public services – the role of trade in services

By Werner Raza. One of the most contentious issues of the neoliberal agenda has been the privatisation of public services. The WTO GATS negotiations over the liberalisation of trade in services, which commenced in the year 2000, led to a strongly contested debate over whether the international level would provide an additional channel for the privatisation of public services. In particular, the position of the European Union was criticised for promoting this agenda. More recently, this question has regained its significance with the start of negotiations for the Trade in Services Agreement and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Thus, this article seeks to analyse the politics of scale in the field of trade in services and its specific impact upon the liberalisation of public services. By applying a Neo-Poulantzian IPE approach, we propose a typology of (i) scalar forms in trade policy and (ii) of particular liberalisation strategies. Our results suggest that the multilateral level is but one element in a strategic politics of scale, with the former primarily fulfilling the role of locking-in liberalisation gains achieved at other levels, while other scalar forms, in particular bi- and plurilateralism, are primarily used to progressively advance the liberalisation agenda. KEYWORDS: Public services, liberalisation, trade in services, politics of scale, Poulantzas

The TISA Initiative: an overview of market access issues (WTO Staff Working Paper, No. ERSD-2013-11)

"Generally speaking, in a positive-list approach to scheduling commitments, market access and national treatment are granted only in the sectors expressly listed by each party in its schedule; for each sub-sector, the parties then indicate the level of commitment granted for each mode of supply. In contrast, in a negative-list approach, market access and national treatment apply fully to all covered service sectors, except to the extent that non-conforming measures (commonly referred to as “reservations”) providing otherwise have been listed in annexes. In other words, under this approach, everything is in principle liberalized unless specified otherwise in the annexes. In a positive-list approach, nothing is liberalized, unless expressly specified otherwise. Negative-list agreements also typically include a 'ratchet' mechanism, which automatically binds future liberalization for remaining existing non-conforming measures."

TISA - backdoor services liberalisation on a global level!

The Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) currently under negotiation on the side-line of the World Trade Organization (WTO) poses significant deregulatory threats for the majority of services sectors. International trade in services is dealt with by the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and its annexes. Each WTO country so far autonomously decides which sectors are to be opened up to cross-border competition. Services sectors liberalisation is carried out once governments gave their explicit agreement to do so (positive lists). TISA intends to reverse this logic and implement a negative listing of liberalisation commitments. Only explicitly targeted sectors in the agreement would not be subject to further liberalisation. This poses significant risks of liberalising all services sectors of the economy unless explicitly exempted from the agreement. TISA would contain “Standstill” and “Ratchet” clauses. Standstill clauses effectively freeze the degrees of regulation in particular sectors and countries are no longer free to implement more strident regulatory provisions. A recently leaked text showed that the financial services industry, through TISA, intends to freeze international financial regulatory efforts by setting a minimum regulatory floor which could not be subsequently superseded by any government wishing so. Ratchet clauses effectively impede government to reverse achieved liberalisation floors. Once a sector is liberalised, there cannot be a turning back. These clauses mean that governments will no longer be able to challenge decisions and choices made by previous governments. The combination of the ratchet and standstill clauses renders the reversal of liberalisation levels impossible. Additionally, TISA could prescribe necessity tests for regulatory measures. Governments would have to prove the necessity of a regulatory instrument before implementing it. For example, in a discussion of universal coverage, a Government would have to prove the necessity of re-regulating already privatised services such as postal services.

WTO - legal texts - Understanding on Commitments in Financial Services

"As of 2009, the 33 countries whose current schedules reference the Understanding include: Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Japan, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Norway, Slovak Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States, as well as the European Communities members as of 1994 (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.) The only developing nations that utilized the Understanding were Aruba, Netherland Antilles, Nigeria, Sri Lanka (for banking not insurance), and Turkey. Additionally, eight countries (Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, and Slovenia) were in the process of revising their commitments to match the EC schedule" (from the commentary by Jane Kelsey on TISA Financial Services text) -- This document regulates government regulation of financial services like banking and insurance, including health insurance, greatly limiting what we can do. In particular it is thought to freeze new financial services regulations after its signing date, unless they were enumerated then. In the case of the US that date is February 26, 1998. If challenged in a WTO dispute proceeding a country that has violated a "standstill" may have to roll back its regulatory state to the level of regulation in effect on that date. A related concept, "ratchet" is also said to apply in WTO law - it denotes a one way capture of all deregulation in a committed sector making it a violation to re-regulate. See the definitions of "standstill", "rollback" and "ratchet" in trade parlance.