Since the mid-1990s, the global agenda for services liberalization has proved contentious among a number of NGOs and political parties and movements which struggle against the neoliberal nature of globalization and advocate maintaining the practice of allowing public authorities (at all levels of governments) to regulate markets in order to protect general interest. Although the representativeness has often been questioned, resonance within national public spheres and frequent involvement of national parliaments suggest that such contestation reflects concerns felt among a non-negligible section of European societies. The possible impact of free trade agreements on welfare services has continuously been a bone of contention in this regard. This chapter has argued that the opponents of far-reaching free trade have had to face a powerful dynamic in policy making where the intertwined global and European agendas for services liberalization have been mutually reinforcing. In tune with the institutionalist analysis of the supremacy of negative integration in the EU, the commitment of European decision makers to advancing the liberalization and marketization of services, including a number of SGI, has been supported by a set of institutional and legal provisions. Most importantly, the progressive enlargement of the Commission’s exclusive competence to negotiate trade agreements, on the one hand, and the increasingly restrictive definition of welfare services in EU and WTO law, has allowed the EU Commission to pursue a dynamic liberalization agenda. However, this book also argues that institutional and legal mechanisms are necessarily underpinned by powerful ideational dynamics. While criticism over policy making mostly targets the Commission, one should not forget that the room for manoeuvre it enjoys is constrained by the balance of ideational power among the Member States as the Commission is always tied politically to the support of a majority of Member States in the Council. Insofar, the nature of the Commission’s (neoliberal) entrepreneurship is a faithful reflection of the changing ideas and political preferences among national governments (Crespy and Menz 2015a).
The campaign against the GATS, which took place roughly between 2000 and 2007, provides evidence that the Commission has softened its approach regarding SGI in the face of politicization and resistance. The anti-GATS campaign was characterized by the loosely coordinated mobilization of overlapping networks both globally and Europe wide. In Europe, mobilization accounts for the activation of all available channels in the EU multi-level polity. European NGOs from the alterglobalist movement created a European platform called ‘from Seattle to Brussels’, thus indicating the continuity of their action from the global into the European realm. The campaign was also supported by the supranational actors: more particularly the ETUC and EPSU and, to a lesser extent, some MEPs. While the EP adopted a resolution asking welfare services to be safeguarded from trade liberalization, it was less key than in debates discussed under the procedure of co-decision. With regard to internalization, local and regional governments, or national parliaments, took a critical stance towards the GATS, sometimes declaring the creation of ‘GATS-free zones’ in their constituencies.
Contrasted discursive frames have consistently clashed in a powerful process of politicization. While the pro-regulation coalition framed a strongly resonating communicative discourse relying on the invocation of state regulatory capacity for defending public interest and democracy, the EU Commission, in contrast, has consistently stressed that free trade was the source of competitiveness in Europe and of economic development elsewhere. Contestation has nevertheless led the EU (Commission and Council) to abandon their offensive interests and requests for market opening in the sector of water distribution in particular and, more generally, to adopt a modest approach to liberalization in all SGI sectors covered by the GATS. Yet, it would be wrong to say that the anti-GATS discourse has prevailed in the long run. While the appeal to democracy and global justice can strongly resonate in particular instances, the neoliberal framing claiming that trade liberalization is a powerful source of growth, employment and competitiveness for Europe has not truly been challenged.
Since the GATS negotiations stalled around 2007-2008, a new generation of (bilateral, multilateral and regional) free trade agreements has flourished which aim at pushing liberalization further, especially in the realm of services. Some of these agreements, such as the CETA, TISA and, more famously, TTIP, have been vigorously politicized and contested. All in all, the themes, discourses and strategies adopted have not changed much since 2000. With regard to welfare services, the main novel aspect is undeniably the rapid degradation of public finances and the exacerbation of austerity policies in Europe in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, a topic dealt with in the next chapter.