Embedded Global and European Coalitions

While the GATS was signed in 1994, its politicization from 2000 onwards relies on the activism of a loose international coalition of NGOs and think tanks which became entangled in contentious multi-level EU politics. Referring to the concepts applied by the scholars of the Europeanization of collective action, three main channels for mobilization, namely transnationalization, supranationalization and internalization, were activated in the campaign under study as global and European networks were intertwined. Logically, because the EU constitutes a much more institutionalized context than the arena of global politics, a connection with institutional politics has occurred as the EU Commission (and to a lesser extent the Council) has been made accountable for the European stance towards welfare services in the GATS.

From the outset, the coalition contesting the GATS was coordinated at a transnational, global level and built on previous mobilization against the North American Free Trade Agreement and the OECD’s Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). In the aftermath of the mobilization at the Seattle WTO summit in 1999, the American-born French activist from ATTAC Susan George wrote pioneering analyses linking the MAI and the GATS. The critical engagement of the unions gathered in Public Services International (PSI), which has its headquarters in Geneva like the WTO, with trade negotiations was also key; the PSI published two pioneering studies in June 1999 dealing with health and education.[1] At the same time, activists within the British NGO World Development Movement also started to study the potential effects of commitments at the WTO on welfare services in both developed and developing countries. Within the global network Our World is not for Sale which criticizes the WTO and includes 251 organizations throughout the world today, a number of organizations—such as Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, Third World Network, Focus on the Global South, Polaris Institute, several groups from France and the Brussels-based Corporate Europe Observatory— were willing to raise awareness about the specific services issues involved with the GATS.[2] In 2001, the petition ‘Stop the GATS Attack Now!’ was launched by a large platform of international NGOs. At the same time, an online platform called GATSwatch was set up by the European Corporate Observatory, a Brussels-based watchdog on collusion between political institutions (especially the EU Commission) and large corporations, and the Transnational Institute, an advocacy organization based in Amsterdam which aims at bringing academics and activists together. The Canadian think tanks Polaris Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives were key to providing expertise on GATS issues. While the former leaked documents concerning the EU’s commitments in the negotiations, the latter published in 2002 a 113-page study with the title ‘Facing the facts—a Guide to the GATS debate’.[3] [4] The Canadian Scott Sinclair and the Dutch Erik Wesselius have become prominent expert activists specialized in issues of liberalization, welfare services and corporate interests. Like an activist expressed, the gathering expertise

is about making government officials aware that we knew at least as much

about GATS as they did, because their standard response whenever anything came in was “You don’t understand GATS”.11

Although the global dimension remained, to a large extent, limited to developed countries (including Australia, New Zealand and Canada), the activists from the coalition attempted to involve civil society organizations and contacts were established with actors in India, Bangladesh or Africa. In the Netherlands, for example, they have been invited to explain to Dutch decision makers why market opening under the GATS is problematic for welfare services in their country.[5] Thus, as Strange stresses (Strange 2011), the transnational anti-GATS campaign does not rely on a single specific coalition of organizations but rather on several overlapping networks which converged on a common discourse and criticism of the WTO negotiations.

The global transnational network has had a specific European declination called ‘Seattle to Brussels’ which was set up in April 2000 and now has 52 member organizations in 15 European countries.[6] The purpose of the campaign was to reach the wider public by using the specific knowledge on policy sectors and the legal mechanisms of the GATS and translate it in a broader political message about ‘how to protect public services’.[7] The focus on EU policy (especially trade) goes hand in hand with the activation of more institutionalized supranational channels available in the EU, the unions and political groups in the EP in particular. Whereas the PSI has had a long engagement with issues related to the WTO, the ETUC is very well structured and active in Brussels. EPSU regularly targeted the GATS as a threat to welfare services, and called for democratic control—notably through the EP—of trade negotiations (EPSU 2003c). In the anti-GATS campaign, the ETUC played the role of mediator, involving the PSI in meetings with the EU Trade Commissioner in 2003 (EPSU 2003b), and connected various issues related to water across various levels of mobilization (EPSU 2003a) . Due to the neo- corporatist dimension of EU governance, ETUC systematically targets the EU Commission even by engaging with protest action, such as for instance the demonstration held in front of the Commission’s DG Trade headquarters on 19 March 2007. The EP became involved in the contentious debate as well. As early as October 2002, a call was launched by a group of over 70 EP members from the radical left, the greens and the social democrats, supported by a small group of Member States’ parliamentarians. This coalition presented itself as the European branch of the informal trans-governmental inter-parliamentary network created at the

World Social Forum meeting in Porto Allegre the same year. The coalition denounced the inconsistency of EU trade policy: ‘Why ask others to open their public services within the WTO framework, if we think this is bad for ourselves?’.[8] It supported the idea that welfare services should be preserved worldwide as part of ‘social models’, and that democratic parliamentary control over WTO negotiations should be preserved. In 2003, the EP adopted a resolution calling upon the Commission (in particular Pascal Lamy) not to support measures for public services liberalization, and to ensure that the states’ regulatory capacity (including the right to impose universal service obligations upon providers) would not be undermined or circumvented (European Parliament 2003). In 2005, a new EP resolution even

asks that the liberalisation of services of public interest be approached cautiously, asks that services related to health, education and the audio-visual sector be excepted and also those which concern people’s basic needs, such as water and energy, as it is inappropriate to demand that the developing countries liberalise these services in a way which will lead to their being dismantled. (European Parliament 2005, §22)

As in the controversy about the Services Directive, the EP therefore proved to be an ally for the anti-liberalization coalition. In terms of the issues as well as the networks involved, the anti-Bolkestein coalition drew directly from the campaign against the GATS at the European as well as at the national level.[9]

Similar to the contestation of the Services Directive, the strength of the anti-GATS campaign was due to the internalization at the national and local level as numerous local authorities have aimed to persuade governments (i.e. the Council) and the Commission to change their attitude towards welfare services in the negotiations. One of the most active campaigns was initiated by WDM in the UK. At the outset, WDM which was perceived as more radically critical than other larger, well-established NGOs in the country developed its GATS critique mostly in connection with wider, European and global networks. Like activist explains

A lot of UK groups weren’t willing to accept that there was a problem with GATS. And, I think, were nervous about, when you start to oppose the GATS, you’re actually opposing quite a fundamental ideology about how the market works, and where the market stops. And I think until that point, a lot of NGOs refused to take a position on actually there are places where the market shouldn’t go. Which is not that radical, but it was seen to be quite radical. And so, there was resistance, I think, from a lot of the mainstream NGOs. I would name them as CAFOD, as Oxfam, as Christian Aid. And they sort of had quite a strong position in the trade work in the UK.[6]

Progressively, however, WDM succeeded to aggregate a larger coalition when Save the Children, Oxfam and People & Planet took the GATS critique on board. This allowed the GATS critiques to access to the UK Trade Network, a platform of NGOs close to the political establishment which embraced contestation of the GATS to a limited extent.[11] The campaign nevertheless took off with many activities aiming at lobbying local authorities as well as members of Parliament (MPs). Although collaborations with the unions did not go far, UNISON provided strategic opportunities for establishing contacts with decision makers as well as the media. Most remarkably, the anti-GATS coalition succeeded in gathering significant support for an early day motion, a formal instrument in British democracy which allows for a specific motion to be submitted to and debated in the House of Commons. In 2001,262 MPs signed an early day motion asking to ‘ensure that there is an independent and thorough assessment of the likely impact of the extension of the GATS on the provision of key services both in the UK and internationally’.[12] The lobbying work was run to a large extent by the Trade Justice Movement and links were prominent with MPs from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.2 0 The motion was a very concrete expression of support to the anti-GATS coalition which could then be used by activists in public debates with Pascal Lamy to show how great the concerns about the GATS were in the UK. The campaign also led the Department of Trade and Industry to launch a consultation on the GATS, which was imitated in Sweden and, eventually, by the EU Commission. If the active campaign in the UK served to add other concerns raised by other Member States’ governments, in turn, the European nature of the coalition and access to information from outside the UK was also in many ways useful for the British activists to ‘hassle’ their own government.20 21

Thus, by 2004, when the European Social Forum took place in London, the GATS was already fairly present on the political agenda and the forum served to amplify contestation.

Building on the successful practices used in the anti-MAI campaign,22 NGOs critical of the GATS proactively contacted local authorities. In several European countries, hundreds of municipalities and local authorities in several European countries have declared themselves ‘GATS-free’ zones (see Table 5.2), and passed motions critical of the negotiations emphasizing the protection of welfare services. This strategy was particularly successful in Austria, where 280 local governments declared themselves against the GATS.

Table 5.2 GATS-free zones and motions signed by local authorities in the EU


280 declarations of municipalities (including Vienna)


171 motions against GATS


600 local governments (including Paris) passing motions asking for a moratorium of the GATS negotiations and/or declared GATS-free zones


Genoa, Ferrara and Turin passed motions


City Councils in Andalusia, Extremadura and the Basque Country have declared themselves GATS-free zones


26 local governments have passed motions

Interview with activist 1.

Source: Adapted from Verger and Bonal (2006, pp. 60-61)


Interview 2 with activist 2.

The local governments resisting the GATS came together in the European Convention of local governments against the GATS and in support of welfare services: the campaign gathered over 1000 municipalities in 2005 (EPSU 2005). The Convention met three times: 2004 in Bobigny (near Paris, France), 2005 in Liege (Belgium) and 2006 in Geneva (Switzerland). Local resistance, in turn, impacted national politics. In Germany, the red-green majority in the Bundestag adopted a resolution asking the federal government to speak out against the EU requests for liberalization in the water sector (Deutscher Bundestag 2003). Following a vivid campaign led by the NGO 11.11.11 in 2002 and 2004, the Belgian Parliament passed two accordant resolutions (Chambre des representants de Belgique 2002, 2004). The contestation focussed on the EU demands for developing countries to open their markets to European corporations, especially with regard to water distribution. In the Council, several Member States including the UK and others expressed concerns about EU requests on water but did not receive sufficient support among other governments (Deckwirth 2006). In France, the conservative majority in the Assemblee nationale rejected several motions put forward by the socialists and the greens on the GATS (Assemblee nationale 2003). There was suspicion that the French government was supporting the interests of large French corporations in the water sector. Thus, transnational and supranational mobilization, internal or domestic channels of resistance led the EU Commission to revise its requests and commitments on welfare services (and water distribution in particular) in 2005.

  • [1] Interview 2 with activist 3, conducted by Michael Strange, London, April 2005. The two publications mentioned were entitled ‘The WTO and the GATS: What is at stake for public health?’, and‘The WTO and the Millennium Round: What is at stake for public education?’.
  • [2] Interview with activist 1, conducted by Michael Strange, London, April 2005.
  • [3] Available at www.policyalternatives.ca, accessed 5 August 2015.
  • [4] Interview 2 with activist 3, conducted by Michael Strange, London, April 2005.
  • [5] Interview 2 with activist 2, conducted by Michael Strange, London, March 2005.
  • [6] Interview with activist 1.
  • [7] Interview 2 with activist 2.
  • [8] European branch of the International Parliamentary Network, ‘GATS: Parliamentarians’ call toOppose the Liberalization of Public Services under the WTO’s Aegis and for Transparency andDemocratic Control of Negotiations in Progress’, 22 October 2002, www.france-attac.org, dateaccessed 20 July 2015.
  • [9] Interviews with activists 2 and 3, conducted by Michael Strange, London, March and April 2005;interview with Sigrid Skarpelis-Sperk, MP, Berlin, December 2008.
  • [10] Interview with activist 1.
  • [11] Interviews with activists 1 and 2, conducted by Michael Strange, London, March and April 2005.
  • [12] Campaigning leaflet, http://www.gatswatch.org, date accessed 19 November 2015.
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