Education International
Education International

WTO Talks Falter in Face of New Deadline

published 10 March 2011 updated 12 April 2011

Talks aimed at liberalizing the global trade in goods, agricultural products and services are once again in trouble as negotiators have been unable to bridge their differences despite an intensive week-long push to reach a solution.

The failure to secure agreement on the key points of contention in the World Trade Organization talks makes it less likely that countries will be able to conclude the current round of negotiations by the end of year deadline. Education International has closely followed the so-called Doha Round of trade negotiations since their launch in 2001, and an EI delegation was in Geneva in late February as 11 key members representing the main Doha negotiating alliances —Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Mauritius, South Africa, and the United States — held talks in yet an another effort to reach a breakthrough. However, officials from a range of countries told EI’s delegation that no progress was made. “There is a lot going on and the mood has changed for the better, but at the same time there is nothing of any real substance happening and nothing new on the table,” one senior negotiator confided. “If there is to be a deal, it will be the United States and China that will need to lead.” EI representatives met privately with Mexican Ambassador Fernando de Mateo, chair of the GATS negotiations aimed at liberalizing the trade in services, including education services. Ambassador de Mateo confirmed that education services have not been a “high priority” in discussions thus far, reflecting a reluctance on the part of most WTO members to include sensitive sectors in their GATS commitments. Nevertheless, countries such as Australia and New Zealand continue to push some developing countries to open up their education sector to offshore and private institutions. A South African official confirmed that his country is still being pressed to make commitments on education services, but his government remains clear that it is not prepared to do so. “We are keeping education out of GATS because education is central to redressing past imbalances in South Africa,” he noted. Ambassador de Mateo conceded that differences remain amongst members over the level of ambition in GATS talks. The United States and the European Union have frequently expressed dismay about what they perceive as the poor quality of offers from developing countries. The Mexican government, in an attempt to break the impasse in talks, issued a proposal on all major elements of the negotiations, including the suggestion that in services countries agree to lock-in their existing levels of liberalization. That proposal, first floated by the developed countries at the Hong Kong Ministerial in 2006, was flatly rejected by developing nations. “This is not at all helpful and takes us back to the debate we thought we had won in Hong Kong,” an official with South Africa told EI. South Africa has long opposed this proposal on the grounds that it would change the nature of the GATS negotiations from a voluntary approach where each country decides where they will make commitments, to a negative list process in which countries will have to negotiate on which sectors to exclude.