This Wednesday evening there is to be a "Public Information Session and Discussion" (pdf) about TISA: the Trade in Services Agreement. If, like me, you've never heard of this, you might think it's a new initiative. But it turns out that it's been under way for more than a year: the previous USTR, Ron Kirk, informed Congress about it back in January 2013 (pdf). Aside from the occasional laconic press release from the USTR, a page put together by the Australian government, and a rather poorly-publicized consultation by the European Commission last year, there has been almost no public information about this agreement. A cynic might even think they were trying to keep it quiet.
Perhaps the best introduction to TISA comes from the Public Services International (PSI) organization, a global trade union federation representing 20 million people working in public services in 150 countries. Last year, it released a naturally skeptical brief on the proposed agreement (pdf):
At the beginning of 2012, about 20 WTO members (the EU counted as one) calling themselves "The Really Good Friends of Services" (RGF) launched secret unofficial talks towards drafting a treaty that would further liberalize trade and investment in services, and expand "regulatory disciplines" on all services sectors, including many public services. The "disciplines," or treaty rules, would provide all foreign providers access to domestic markets at "no less favorable" conditions as domestic suppliers and would restrict governments' ability to regulate, purchase and provide services. This would essentially change the
regulation of many public and privatized or commercial services from serving the public interest to serving the profit interests of private, foreign corporations.
The Australian government's TISA page fills in some details:
The TiSA negotiations will cover all services sectors. In addition to improved market access commitments, the negotiations also provide an opportunity to develop new disciplines (or trade rules) in areas where there has been significant developments since the WTO Uruguay Round negotiations. There negotiations will cover financial services; ICT services (including telecommunications and e-commerce); professional services; maritime transport services; air transport services, competitive delivery services; energy services; temporary entry of business persons; government procurement; and new rules on domestic regulation to ensure regulatory settings do not operate as a barrier to trade in services.
If that sounds familiar, it's because very similar language is used to describe TAFTA/TTIP, which aims to liberalize trade and investment, to provide foreign investors with access to domestic markets on the same terms as local suppliers, to limit a government's ability to regulate there by removing "non-tariff barriers" -- described above as "regulatory settings" -- and to use corporate sovereignty provisions to enforce investors' rights.
Those similarities suggest TISA is part of a larger plan that includes not just TAFTA/TTIP, but TPP too, and which aims to cement the dominance of the US and EU in world trade against a background of Asia's growing power. Indeed, it's striking how membership of TISA coincides almost exactly with that of TTIP added to TPP:
The 23 TiSA parties currently comprise: Australia, Canada, Chile, Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Costa Rica, European Union (representing its 28 Member States), Hong Kong, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Liechtenstein, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Republic of Korea, Switzerland,, Turkey and the United States.
Once more, the rising economies of the BRICS nations -- Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa -- are all absent, and the clear intent, as with TTIP and TPP, is to impose the West's terms on them. That's explicitly recognized by one of the chief proponents of TISA, the European Services Forum:
the possible future agreement would for the time being fall short of the participation of some of the leading emerging economies, notably Brazil, China, India and the ASEAN countries. It is not desirable that all those countries would reap the benefits of the possible future agreement without in turn having to contribute to it and to be bound by its rules.
The Australian government's page reveals that there have already been five rounds of negotiations -- all held behind closed doors, of course, just as with TTIP and TPP. The Public Information Session taking place in Geneva this week seems to mark the start of a new phase in those negotiations, at least allowing some token transparency. Perhaps this has been provoked by the growing public anger over the secrecy surrounding TPP and TAFTA/TTIP, and fears that the longer TISA was kept out of the limelight, the worse the reaction would be when people found out about it.
It seems appropriate, then, that the unexpected unveiling of this new global agreement should be greeted not only by an updated and more in-depth critique from the PSI -- "TISA versus Public Services" -- but also the first anti-TISA day of protest. Somehow, I don't think it will be the last.
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