Gats’ gaffes

The World Trade Organisation, which meets in Geneva today, wields enormous power yet is unaccountable

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian, Thursday March 22, 2001.

A couple of years ago, I explained to a prominent Conservative that the World Trade Agreement would force us to import hormone-treated beef from the United States. She was outraged. “Who were the bloody idiots who let this happen?,” she fulminated. “Er, the Conservatives”.

The party of national sovereignty had ceded its powers to an unelected body far more powerful and less accountable than the bogeyman of Europe, without a flicker of concern for the government’s mandate. If any of the Tory ministers who were in power at the time can demonstrate that they actually read the agreement they signed, I would be happy to surrender, as a modest reward, the money the Guardian will pay me for writing this article. But I don’t anticipate a rush of claimants.

One of the services delivered to the world by the anti-globalisation protestors is that no treaty can ever be approved so quietly again. Ministers and trade officials are now forced to justify some of their negotiating positions. That, however, is about as far as it goes. One hundred and seventy MPs have signed an early day motion calling for the impact of the General Agreement on Trade in Services on the public sector to be examined. Parliament’s international development committee has demanded a special commission. But the government has entered negotiations in Geneva this week without any sign that it has understood the concerns of its critics.

The current champions of globalisation are as dismissive as the Tories were indifferent. “The people that stand outside and say they work in the interests of the poorest people”, Michael Moore, head of the World Trade Organisation, confided last month, “make me want to vomit.” In a letter to the Guardian four weeks ago, Clare Short argued that it is “absolutely false” to suggest that the agreement will force the privatisation of the public sector. “No one,” she claimed, “has proposed any free trade in public services.” Those who claim that GATS will lead to privatisation are “conspiracy theorists”.

There’s no question that the GATS treaty is complicated and contradictory. As any corporate lawyer will confirm, its impact will depend upon its interpretation. This being so, almost any claim can be made about what it will or will not do. But in both the current agreement itself and in the public statements made by trade officials there’s plenty to suggest that Short and Moore’s glib dismissal of its opponents’ warnings is a grave disservice to democracy.

The agreement excludes government services which are not “in competition with [private] service suppliers.” This seems perfectly clear, until you remember that nearly every public service in Britain – health, education, transport, even prisons – now competes with private operators. As the World Trade Organisation has pointed out, “it seems unrealistic in such cases to argue … that no competitive relationship exists between the two groups of suppliers”. Member governments, it suggests, should “reconsider the breadth and depth of their commitments on health and social services.” Writing about education, the WTO insists that “government monopolies” and subsidies are barriers to free trade. I don’t know how this looks to Clare Short, but to me it looks rather like an agenda for privatisation.

GATS is certainly viewed by some of its key negotiators as a means of providing new opportinuties for private operators. According to the European Commission, “GATS is not just something that exists between governments. It is first and foremost an instrument for the benefit of business.” Negotiating positions, Peter Mandelson insisted when he was secretary of state for trade and industry, “must reflect UK business priorities.” The director of the WTO’s services division has pointed out that “without the enormous pressure generated by the American financial services sector, particularly companies like American Express and Citicorp, there would have been no services agreement?.

Short and Moore’s assurances about the reversibility of the treaty, about countries’ capacity to stop the process where and when they want, and about the democratic nature of the proceedings also seem to rely on a selective reading of both the agreement itself and the events and statements surrounding it. Anyone who believes that developing country governments are not bullied and marginalised by the rich nations during global trade talks has been looking the other way.

If GATS, as Short and Moore insist, is really about the right of nations to interact freely, then it must surely be attended by a free debate. This means that the men and women reshaping the world in Geneva today must start seeking to understand and engage with the complaints of their opponents. Otherwise we might, one day, have to explain to them that they were the bloody idiots who let it happen.