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The World Trade Organisation: Talks enter “crisis” stage

Time is running out on WTO trade talks after ministers gathering in Geneva at the end of June failed to reach a crucial agreement on tariff and subsidy reductions for agricultural and industrial goods.

“I will not beat around the bush,” WTO director general Pascal Lamy said in a statement released after the 3-day meeting. “We are in a crisis.”

The failure of the informal ministerial meeting in Geneva highlights the deep divisions between rich and poor countries. Industrialised countries are insisting on far-reaching access to industrialising countries’ markets for industrial products, while failing to address concerns about the inequities of trade in agriculture.

Faced with the prospect of the entire Doha round of talks now failing, Ministers authorized Mr Lamy to recommend ways out of the impasse by consulting with the key players and reporting back to negotiators within two weeks.

Despite the deadlock in talks on agriculture and industrial goods, negotiations aimed at liberalizing trade in services — including education — are continuing. Countries have until the end of July to submit their revised offers on what service sectors they are willing to open up under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). A group of countries, led by New Zealand, Australia and the United States, are pressing others for more extensive commitments in private higher education services.

An EI delegation was in Geneva for the informal ministerial meeting, and met with officials from Australia, Brazil, the European Union and Mexico as part of an ongoing effort to raise concerns about the impact of GATS on education. These meetings confirmed there remain deep divisions between countries over the inclusion of education services in GATS and on the development of so-called “disciplines” on domestic regulation.

Brazil indicated that it will not be making any commitments to liberalize education services in this round. Mexico and the European Union all reiterated their position that they consider their current commitments covering private education services to be sufficient. To date, of the countries targeted to make commitments on education, only Malaysia and Thailand have publicly indicated any interest.

Meanwhile, negotiations on domestic regulation are proceeding quickly. These discussions are intended to develop new “disciplines” or rules to ensure that measures adopted by governments affecting qualification requirements and procedures, technical standards, and licensing requirements and procedures are do not constitute unnecessary barriers to trade in services.

EI raised serious reservations about the domestic regulation rules with trade negotiators. The WTO Secretariat has confirmed that the broad scope of the rules mean they could apply to school licensing and university accreditation, as well as to quality assurance standards. Similarly, rules on qualification requirements could affect universities and vocational schools which are often responsible for recognizing qualifications. As well, rules on licensing could also affect teacher training requirements.

EI’s deputy general secretary Elie Jouen says that the talk of “crisis” in the WTO does not mean we should become complacent.

“If anything,” Jouen says, “EI and its affiliates need to step up the pressure ahead of the July 31st deadline to ensure that education is excluded from the GATS and that domestic regulation rules do not constrain the ability of governments to regulate education to meet their national policy objectives.”

More details of EI’s activities at the informal ministerial will be available soon in the next issue of TradEducation News.

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