The WTO Doha round and EPAs in an era of crisis

Salvation or suicide for ACP countries

23 September 2010

The language contained in agreements being negotiated by the EU through the WTO with their southern counterparts often deliberately diguises real political goals, obscuring the negative economic implications for those countries of the neoliberal agenda.

Presentation at the ‘Debating Europe’ meeting with representatives of the Directorate General for Trade of the European Commission, set up by the TransNational Institute, Brussels, 3rd November 2009.

We are meeting here to discuss some of the current multilateral, bilateral and bi-regional (or inter-regional) inter-governmental relations and negotiations in which the EU is engaged. This discussion has to be located and the issues evaluated in the context in which the whole world is facing a range of interlinked crises. These are, in fact, aspects of a complex multi-dimensional systemic crisis that is posing fundamentally important and even epochal ‘policy’ (that is, political) challenges to the whole of humanity. Thus no policy discussions and proposals, national or international, can simply be based on established theoretical/technical assumptions and business-as-usual.

The established and ongoing inter-governmental ‘trade’ negotiations within the WTO, and in parallel outside of the WTO between the EU and many other countries, are all extremely complex in substance and as processes, and do require detailed critical examination and evaluation. However, there is the proverbial problem of getting ‘so deeply immersed among the trees as to lose sight of the forest’. Or, even more seriously, there is the danger of being so intensely focused on studying each and every leaf of every tree as to lose sight of the overall forest and, more seriously, lose sight of the broader terrain in which the forest itself is situated. And - to carry the analogy even further - the greatest danger of all arises when there are raging floods, wild fires or tempests tearing through the hills and plains around the forest.

Of course, although the crises currently threatening the world include literal ‘natural disasters’, the financial, economic, social, environmental, climatic, political and military crises facing humanity are essentially ‘man-made’. Furthermore, they carry direct implications for long-term inter-national relations and immediate inter-governmental negotiations. But - whatever the multiple causes, specific forces and features and unfolding trends of these interlinked processes - what is certain is that the world is entering a profoundly unsettled period in which it will be extremely difficult for any governments to be able to predict with certainty how their countries and inter-relations with other countries will be affected.

All governments will have to exercise the utmost care and vigilance and apply the fundamental ‘precautionary principle’ not only in their collective responses to the threats of global climate change but also to their own national/internal economic and social plans and decisions. In the context of multiple local, national and regional crises - in which it will be necessary to create innovative responses to energy, water, food and hunger crises, to the loss of livelihoods and growing unemployment and poverty – the governments of the countries so-affected will need to exercise their democratic/sovereign responsibilities, reassert their domestic policy rights, re-establish their ‘policy space’ and have recourse to the necessary policy flexibilities to deal with their respective national and collective regional challenges.

In the situations where the creation of effective and politically acceptable solutions will have to be ‘negotiated’ and formulated between governments and their populations, it cannot be that regional, national and local public authorities have their hands permanently tied and their policy choices pre-emptively decided or dictated by the type of multilateral terms and regulations that have been imposed on most countries over recent decades by international institutions, such as IMF and World Bank and more recently, and concurrently, the WTO. Nor can governments have their future (and as-yet unknown) policy options limited by the kind of long-term policy commitments that are being demanded of them within the bilateral or bi-regional ‘Free Trade Agreements’ or so-called Economic Partnership Agreements devised by the European Union.

However, it is also in this situation that governmental and institutional proponents of the internationalised policies - that have contributed centrally to causing the current crises - are now suggesting that such policies should be carried further and faster. In complete denial of the fact that it is the international ‘free trade and investment’ policies and the ‘trade-related’ agreements of the WTO that played the major role in undermining so many developing country economies over recent decades … the proponents of these policies and these institutions are now actually urging the governments of the world, and especially of the developing countries, to end their resistance to such policies within the WTO. They are being advised that it is in their own best interests to rapidly reach agreement with the governments of the most developed countries on the range of highly contentious issues within the Doha Round of the WTO. The long-established defenders and promoters of liberalised investment policies and liberated capital flows, deregulated capital markets and the global ‘rights’ of investors and transnational corporations are now urging governments and countries that have been so exploited and damaged by such forces to now open up their economies much further and faster to precisely such forces. The major institutional and policy causes of the economic and social crises are now being even more blatantly and confidently promoted as the fundamental solutions !

Within both the multilateral WTO negotiations and the bilateral and bi-regional FTA/EPA negotiations, official representatives of the EU are not only promoting further and faster trade liberalisation but also a wide range of further negotiations on ‘new issues’. These aim to widen the scope of the WTO towards more extensive investment liberalisation, further and faster liberalisation in the service sectors in all countries, the opening up of government procurement (public tenders/contracts), the subjection of all governments to anti-state and market-driven ‘competition’ policies; and much else. There has been sustained resistance to these ‘new issues’ from developing country governments within the WTO over many years, but the EU is now attempting to outflank such combined resistance by also promoting these ‘new issues’ - now recast (and even extended) as ‘new generation’ issues - within and through bilateral and bi-regional FTA negotiations. These hold out possibilities for greater success for the EU because developing country governments are now negotiating with the EU on their own or in much smaller and more vulnerable sub-groups.

All these ‘new issues’ pose significant challenges but possibly none as fundamental for the national and regional development prospects and human rights of the peoples and countries of the South as the ‘liberalisation’ of their services sectors. Hence it is vitally important to unpack the terms and implications of the opening up of the services sectors in such countries. Despite the danger of being swallowed up in the details of every ‘leaf and twig’ of the terms of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) it is necessary to examine the details of the text of this agreement for what it reveals of the aims of the political designers and legal drafters of this agreement. This entails unpacking the deliberate obfuscations and terminological devices employed to try disguise the full implications and the provisions that counter or neutralise the ‘development’ terms inserted by the governments of the developing countries, and still being invoked by them in the ongoing GATS negotiations.

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