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Oct 19 2004
Supplied or written by Roeline Knottnerus
The Dutch GATS-Platform’s challenges to GATS and the EU services directive Roeline Knottnerus, the GATS platform, the Netherlands Presentation for the workshop GATS: Challenges to National Sovereignty and Peoples’ Security during ASEM People's Forum5 in Hanoi, Vietnam September 2004 The previous speakers have sketched the dangers of GATS for the development perspective in the South. In the Netherlands, the Dutch GATS-platform – a loose coalition of NGOs and social organisations active in fields as diverse as education, health, energy and environmental issues – has also tried to underline the effects of GATS in the North. The GATS-platform decided on this two-fold strategy for two main reasons: GATS has such a wide scope that public services, environmental standards, social legislation, labour standards, indeed sovereignty and democracy in the North will also come under increasing pressure. And secondly, because it makes it easier for people to realise the devastating effects GATS is likely to have in the South and increase global solidarity, if they can relate the effects of the GATS-agreement to examples closer to home. People need to come to realise that GATS is part of a liberalisation agenda that will affect the lives and livelihoods of people all over the world, in the North and in the South. This is an important aspect, because thus far it has been quite a struggle to get a GATS-campaign going in the Netherlands. GATS is, as Peter has made clear, a very complicated subject. It is being put to us as an agenda for development in the South and the means to create greater prosperity in the North. And the agreement is so complicated that the threat to public services and social conditions is not immediately apparent. That makes it hard to rally the support of the general public. Also because people are constantly being told that public services are best left to the market: that will make them more efficient and cheaper. They insufficiently realise that this is in fact a sell-out: introducing profit mechanisms means introducing a dynamic which runs contrary to the idea of general access to basic services at an acceptable standard and at affordable prices. Not just in the South, where the consequences will be all the more detrimental, because often the regulatory role of the state is weak, compared to the power of large multinational companies, and large segments of society lack the necessary purchasing power to keep essential services such as water, health care and education within their reach once market forces are introduced. But also in the North, where liberalisation efforts are undermining the social welfare system and putting increasing downward pressure on wages, working conditions and environmental standards. Instead of promoting the adoption of best practices in these areas all around the world, the liberalisation agenda is promoting a drive towards the lowest standard. States are forced to step back and dismantle their redistribution mechanisms in the interest of big business, to the detriment of the most vulnerable groups in society and the social fabric as a whole. The Dutch GATS-platform is trying to raise awareness on these issues in the Netherlands. A full understanding of the effects of GATS, both in the North and in the South, on access to essential services such as health, education and water and on working conditions and environmental standards is needed to create the necessary international solidarity to give momentum to a truly global movement to stop GATS and other similar liberalisation treaties. For the European Union is not only actively pursuing its GATS objectives at WTO level, but is also pushing its liberalisation agenda closer to home. The EU is working hard to introduce a new services directive aimed at liberalising the services market within the EU territory as part of the so-called Lisbon agenda which is to turn Europe into the most competitive knowledge-based economic block in the world by 2010. The European services directive has been a focal point for the GATS-platform this year. It brings the effect of services liberalisation and the threats it poses, especially to working conditions, wages and health care systems, very close to home, and thus makes it easier to draw parallels with GATS. Just like GATS, the EU services directive forms a threat to the public welfare system and undermines the solidarity between European citizens. Its aim is to remove the obstacles to the freedom of establishment for service providers and ensure the free movement of services between the member states of the EU. Like GATS, it covers virtually all service activities. The proposed EU directive would introduce the so-called country of origin principle, according to which service providers would be subject only to the law of the country where they are established and not to the laws of the countries where they are operating. Fears are that companies will relocate to those countries with the lowest standards, thus causing a downward pressure on wages, health, safety and environmental standards. The recent accession of the Eastern European countries to the EU block – with their much lower wage levels and much lower social and environmental standards – makes these fears very real. Like GATS, the EU services directive seeks to liberalise public services which have so far been protected from liberalisation. It seeks to dismantle large parts of the social security and public welfare system and to diminish the social and economic regulatory powers of the state. So the parallels with GATS are self-evident and the push for the EU services directive confirms the Eu`s strong commitment towards further liberalisation of services. Campaigning on the EU services directive has helped create new opportunities to bring home the message in the North/Netherlands that liberalisation means the dismantling of economic and social rights of people for the sake of competitiveness and that liberalisation and privatisation of public goods poses a major threat to universal access and affordability of basic social services, especially for the more vulnerable groups in society. It has offered new opportunities to highlight that the liberalisation agenda is not just affecting the South, but will have serious effects on the standard of living and on social welfare in the North as well. It has helped to stress the need for a concerted effort to oppose the drive towards further services liberalisation, both within the EU as well as on a global level. Recently, gaining momentum for the Dutch anti-GATS campaign was an uphill-struggle. With the standstill in the WTO-agenda after the failed ministerial in Cancun, it proved very difficult to rally public opinion around GATS. The proposed EU directive has given the Dutch campaign a much-needed new impulse. The national and international campaigns against further services liberalisation, both on the EU services directive and on GATS – have in the Netherlands begun to succeed in rallying the trade unions and in raising awareness among left wing politicians that liberalisation will undermine the democratic decision-making process by turning key social areas over to the market. The Dutch GATS-platform will continue to bring this message home, especially now that the Netherlands, traditionally a strong advocate of trade liberalisation, are fulfilling the European Union presidency. The platform hopes that its campaign on the EU services directive will help build a stronger GATS campaign in the Netherlands now that the WTO negotiating process is once again gaining momentum. With its strategy, the GATS-platform seeks to contribute to building a stronger global solidarity movement against the neo-liberal market doctrine, against privatisation and the introduction of profit-making principles in basic public services.

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