With World Trade Organisation negotiations stuck in neutral, a group of key WTO countries has launched a separate set of talks aimed at creating an International Services Agreement (ISA).
The ISA, if successful, would build upon and expand the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) by opening up more service sectors to stricter rules on cross-border delivery and investment while ensuring that regulations do not restrict trade.
Proponents say a deal on services would help kick-start the struggling global economy, but others dispute that and say the scope of the agreement may lock-in privatization pressures and weaken important regulations.
“Whether we’re talking about liberalising financial services or education services, there are some serious issues at play,” said Education International’s special advisor David Robinson. “If there’s anything we’ve learned from the financial crisis is that we need more not less regulatory oversight of the sector. We shouldn’t be sleepwalking into another economic fiasco.”
Robinson says the European Union and Australia have tabled an initial set of 10 sectors and issues as priorities for “new and enhanced commitments” under the proposed ISA, including financial, energy, professional, and information and communication services.
While education and other public services have not been identified as a priority to date, Robinson warns that educators and public sector workers nevertheless need to follow the talks closely.
“The countries involved have consistently said the ISA will have a high level of ambition with no sector being excluded,” he notes. “Also, there are parts of the negotiations on rules that will potentially have an impact on education, health and other public services whether they are explicitly included or not.”
For example, the EU and Australia have said one area to be discussed is domestic regulation – all rules and measures that governments require companies and individuals to follow when providing a service. These include everything from environmental and health and safety regulations, to certification and licensing requirements.
“In the education sector, any new restrictions on domestic regulation could potentially affect teacher certification requirements, quality assurance standards, and licensing of private schools and institutions,” says Robinson.
During a round of talks in early October, ISA negotiators agreed the treaty should follow the main provisions of the GATS.
In addition to the EU and Australia, participants in the ISA negotiations are Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, and the United States.