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Democracy versus Markets

While the EU Commission has been, to a certain extent, responsive to the transnational contestation against the GATS, the dynamics of politicization in the anti-GATS campaign rather account for the continuous coexistence of contrasted ways of framing services liberalization in the WTO. Whereas the transnational coalition of NGOs framed the GATS as a threat to democracy and regulation, the main frames used by the EU Commission are that of development and competitiveness. The analysis put forward here relies on a set of 37 documents (retrieved online) relating the discourse by the main protagonists of the controversy, namely NGOs and unions, on the one hand, and the two successive EU Commissioners for trade, namely Pascal Lamy (1999-2004) and Peter Mandelson (2004-2009), on the other. The documents were selected as accounts of discursive interactions both in the global and in the European arena. The corpus includes civil societies petitions, open letters, statements, press releases, resolutions, briefings and so on as well as documents of the EU Commission and Commissioners’ speeches, including those made at hearings or plenary sessions of the EP

The democracy frame put forward by the anti-GATS coalition served to articulate mainly three ideas: (a) services liberalization is a threat to the publicness of welfare services and considerably constrains the regulatory capacity of states; (b) liberalization only serves the commercial interests of multinational corporations; and (c) the way in which WTO negotiations are carried out is undemocratic. The petition ‘Stop the GATS attack now!’ launched in March 2001 claims that after Seattle the new negotiations aim to

expand global rules on cross border trade in services in a manner that would (...) newly constrain government action taken in the public interest world wide. These talks would radically restructure the role of government regarding public access to essential social services world wide (. ) and that the chief beneficiaries of this new GATS regime are a breed of corporate service providers determined to expand their global commercial reach and to turn public services into private markets all over the world. (GATSwatch 2001)

Beyond communicative discourse calling for fundamental public values, the coalition also aimed at developing a well-grounded coordina- tive discourse grounded in cognitive arguments and expertise in order to enjoy credibility in policy analysis. A good example is the book-long Facing the Facts: a guide to the GATS published by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives in 2002. At the same time, most organizations aimed at making the issues involved intelligible to the broader public. For example, in 2004, the Polaris Institute issued a Classroom Guide to the GATS, explaining in simple terms how services liberalization in the

WTO benefits large companies at the expense of welfare services, especially in developing countries. The idea that ‘the GATS agreement serves as a window of opportunity for strong business interests with no due regard for general human needs and development’ (PSI 2001) was hammered in by the various actors in the coalition.

The legitimacy of the WTO as an agent of democratic global governance was clearly contested:

Initiated in February 2000, these far-reaching negotiations are aimed at expanding the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services [GATS] regime so as to subordinate democratic governance in countries throughout the world to global trade rules established and enforced by the WTO as the supreme body of global economic governance. What’s more, these GATS 2000 negotiations are taking place behind closed doors based on collusion with global corporations and their extensive lobbying machinery.

(GATSwatch 2001)

From 2002 onwards, the EU Commission became a main target and was criticized for its duplicity in the public debate, especially in connection with the water issue:

The European Commission, in an attempt to steer free of public opposition in Europe, has recently announced that the EU does not intend to make any (additional) GATS commitments itself in public service sectors like culture, education, health and water. Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy explained that “services of collective interest in the EU are preserved. In this way we ensure that the WTO is used to defend and promote the European model”. At the same time, the leaked requests make clear just how aggressively the EU is promoting the offensive interests of European water giants, corporations that have proved unable to fulfil the drinking water needs of the world’s poorest. (Corporate Europe Observatory 2003)

In contrast to the discourse articulated by the anti-GATS coalition, the markets are at the centre of the framing of the issue by EU Commissioners. Two ideas are prominent: (a) services liberalization is beneficial to the

EU’s competitiveness; (b) but at the same time it also serves to the economic development of the South; and (c) contestation is ill-informed and detrimental to negotiations. Thus, Pascal Lamy admitted that ‘the EU has its own offensive interests in these negotiations, since about 70 million Europeans are employed in commercial services’ (European Commission 2003c) and that ‘political backing to this negotiation is also crucial for EU services companies’ (European Commission 2004). Yet, services liberalization is consistently connected to the issue of development:

progressive liberalization is inherently good for development. I emphasize the progressive nature liberalization at a rate that each country can handle in terms of its domestic and international competitiveness etc. Contrary to popular belief, the WTO does not propose free trade, whatever that rather abstract notion is. (European Parliament 2002)

For Pascal Lamy, the WTO is a tool which can serve his personal conception of ‘managed globalization’ (Meunier 2007) since it leaves sufficient regulatory freedom to national governments to design adequate regulation and, hence, protect welfare services (2003a). Peter Mandelson accounts for a more traditionally neoliberal view on the GATS, deploring that ‘there is a concerted attempt to dilute proposals that already lack ambition’ (European Commission 2005) and that ‘to lose even a modest deal on services trade would mean foregoing the developmental benefits of foreign investment and the global flow of skills and experience to the developing world’ (European Commission 2006b).

Both Commissioners clearly dismissed the concerns raised by the anti-GATS coalition as ungrounded doxa, and engage in a justificatory and defensive discourse. When heard and questioned in the European Parliament, Pascal Lamy stressed that the leaks about the commitments by the EU were detrimental at this stage of the negotiations, and that the Commission had never departed from the mandate it was given and which included the protection of welfare services. Addressing the coalition directly, he claimed:

Contrary to received wisdom, the WTO serves as a necessary and effective bulwark against “savage” liberalisation (...) No commitments are being proposed in the area of education and health. And we are not proposing commitments in the area of audio-visual services. (I am pleased that even ATTAC is now recognising that at least in this respect, the Commission has actually done what it said all along it would do! What is rather ironic, though, is that they cry victory over the fact that we actually stuck to our mandate...). (European Commission 2003b)

More aggressively, Peter Mandelson denounced the coalition by saying that

When respectable Left wing politicians take the streets against the EU Services Directive, and fuel unjustifiable fears of the Polish Plumber; or when leaders take up the cause of economic patriotism and imply that the EU’s fundamental freedoms and competition rules shouldn’t apply to their country, they are playing with fire. They not only undermine the openness of markets that should be the driver of innovation, growth and jobs. They also put in doubt the very basis on which European integration has been built. (European Commission 2006a)

In sum, the discursive interactions during the anti-GATS campaign display a rather confrontational dynamics of contrasted frames and counter-frames. This is consistent with the fact that, as will be demonstrated in the following section, the agenda on services liberalization has been consistently pursued by decision makers in the EU after the failed Doha round at the WTO.

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