Leaked documents today revealed that the European Union is putting pressure on developing countries to “open up” public services, such as water, as part of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement on trade in services [1]. The agreement could have devastating impacts for developing countries, but Friends of the Earth today warned that it would also have far-reaching consequences here in the UK – potentially putting the regulation of service sectors, including water, waste and energy at risk.

The European Commission is currently negotiating which services will be included in this the latest WTO agreement (GATS), but the supposedly “transparent” process has been shrouded in secrecy. Indeed today’s revelations fly in the face of reassurances previously given by the UK Government on the exclusion of water from the agreement.

Similarly little information is available on the impacts of the agreement here in the UK. But investigations by Friends of the Earth suggest there could be far-reaching consequences for the future regulation of many services, right down to local authority level. Environmental regulations, for example, could be subject to WTO agreement, introducing a lowest common standard approach.

Trade in services (virtually any economic activity that is not agricultural production or manufacturing – over 150 sectors in all) is a major part of the UK economy, accounting for 70% of GDP in 2001 and employing 77% of the workforce. Further growth of the sector through the development of export markets is considered to be a priority by the Department for Trade and Industry, and the UK Government are keen advocates of the GATS process.

Friends of the Earth trade campaigner Eve Mitchell said:“These revelations should sound a warning for people in this country as well as in the developing world. They could result in massive deregulation within the service sector. Environmental protection – already much weaker in many WTO member states – could be dramatically reduced.

“Once again we are seeing Governments handing over control to the private companies who can profit at the expense of people and the environment. The WTO is a trading organisation – it should not be responsible for regulating our services. The UK Government must call a halt to the GATS process until a full assessment of the impacts has been carried out.”


[1] Documents obtained by the Guardian (25/2/03) show the EU has demanded that some of the least developed countries open up their service industries, allowing European firms to charge for providing water, in exchange for access to Europe’s agricultural sector.


Eve Mitchell 020 7566 1681