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Toughening our stance on GATS

December 1, 2003 12:00 AM
By Chris Anderson in Challenge

Chris Anderson on a student initiative

As a Liberal Democrat, I have a keen interest in the environment and a powerful belief in the trade justice movement. So, it seemed obvious that the first event that I should organise as Chair of the Sussex University Student Branch should be titled "Trade Justice and the Environment".

I must have made about fifty telephone calls trying to put together a good line-up that would provide an interesting and informative talk. After dozens of rejections, cancellations and lacks of replies, I managed to secure two very good speakers for the event: Norman Baker MP, our Environmental Spokesperson, and Christina Parsons, the parliamentary correspondent for the World Development Movement.

As should have been expected, the university scheduled one of my exams a couple of hours before the event, and afterwards we were forming the LDYS South East England region. Despite this, I managed to organise the event smoothly, getting both the speakers and various members of the LDYS and the main party into the same place at the same time.

The event itself went well, with Christina Parsons opening with a general explanation of the issues central to the Trade Justice Movement. Organisations such as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank, she told us, are part of a capitalist machine that includes business driven governments and multi-national corporations. This machine is using international trade agreements to forcibly extract wealth from poorer countries and re-distribute it into the hands of the rich.

As Liberal Democrats, we are committed to ensuring that everyone, especially the poor, have access to basic public services such as water, healthcare and education. But if Blair and his counterparts in other countries have their way, then these public services will not only be privatised, but opened up to competition from multi-national corporations. Any Environmental legislation passed by successive governments that gets in the way of Big Business's way is classified as a 'Trade Barrier' and ruled illegal under GATS legislation. GATS spells death for any hope of environmental reform.

Inevitably, business from rich countries will buy up the public services of the poor, sack large sections of the workforce, and hike up consumer prices. We have seen this happen time and time again all over the world. The concerns of the people about their welfare and about their environment fall aside when confronted with the might of Big Business and its cronies.

The meanest weapon in the arsenal of money hungry business is the GATS legislation. Standing for General Agreement on Trades and Services, GATS allows multi-nationals to buy up practically any service that a government can provide, including something as basic and essential as running water.

For a long time, the Liberal Democrat stance on GATS has been hazy, but now we are moving forward, and have the best anti-GATS legislation of any major UK political party.

The second half of the talk saw the floor given over to Norman Baker, MP for Lewes, which neighbours the Sussex campus. He agreed with what Christina had talked about and thanked the WDM for their excellent work in bringing to light these important issues.

Liberal Democrats support the Trade Justice Movement and Norman is no exception: Lewes is well on its way to becoming Britain's first completely Fair Trade town! But he realises that consumer power is not the complete solution: we also need effective trade agreements to regulate the multi-nationals.

It is really too late to opt-out of the GATS legislation, given its undemocratic and effectively irreversible nature. But, as Liberal Democrats, we have a responsibility to oppose further expansion of GATS, so that it cannot consume yet more public services.

Too many of these services have already been signed up to GATS by the US and the EU. I believe that the voice of the Liberal Democrats can be the voice of reason. Changing party policy to oppose further expansion of the GATS agreement seems the obvious and moral move, and I, for one, support it one hundred per cent.