A group of countries billing themselves as the “Really Good Friends of Services” have agreed to start negotiations on an ambitious new global free trade agreement covering all service sectors. Meeting in Geneva at the end of May, the group agreed in principle to begin talks on a new International Services Agreement (ISA) that would go beyond the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).
Speaking to reporters following the conclusion of this first round of exploratory talks, the U.S. ambassador to the WTO, Michael Punke, said there was unanimous agreement among all the participants that “all sectors are on the table, there are no a prior exclusions of any mode.” David Robinson, Education International’s advisor on trade matters, says the fact that all service sectors are to be included means that education and other public services are once again at risk. “To comply with GATS rules, any new agreement of this sort will have to go beyond existing commitments that countries have made,” observes Robinson. “That means participating countries that haven’t opened up their education systems to commercial trade rules will be under renewed pressure to do so. Those that have made partial openings will have to go further.” According to Robinson, this new initiative is largely in response to the on-going deadlock in GATS negotiations. In particular, developed countries which stand the most to gain from the export of services have been frustrated by what they see as the slow pace of GATS talks. While only 19 WTO members are so far involved in the ISA talks, Robinson says that any new agreement will likely become the starting point for future GATS negotiations. Taking part in the ISA talks are Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the European Union, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United States. The next round of talks is scheduled to take place 25-29 June in Geneva.