What are GATS-Free Zones?

One of the strongest political responses to the GATS has come from local governments and municipalities across the world. The lack of power of parliaments and elected office holders, whether national, regional or local, in the field of trade negotiations, particularly at their later stages, underlines the importance of early and firm action to defend key services and democratic rights. Widespread local refusal of trade-imposed re-regulation will put pressure on national governments and their trade negotiators. It will also support those national legislators and local councillors who want to defend and strengthen democracy in the field of trade negotiations.

The response has been triggered by the fact that the GATS stands for an international legal framework to which all local government service policies must be subordinated. Article I of the GATS emphasises that the Agreement is applied to the measures adopted by member countries that affect the commercialisation of services "including those measures adopted by the local governments of member countries" (WTO 1994, emphasis added). Local governments’ disagreement is also increased by not being able to formally participate in the negotiation of the Agreement – which is usually negotiated by few bureaucrats and trade negotiators.

This rejection has taken the form of declaring "GATS free zones". This initiative consists of local governments declaring in a symbolical way, "GATS free zones" by passing municipal motions. These motions can be presented by social movements in the area or directly by parliamentary groups that form the local council. In different countries, this initiative has managed to generate public debate into the GATS, but most of all it is a measure for pressurising governmental authorities to take a direct part in the negotiations of the Agreement. For the moment, this proposal and other similar ones have proliferated in Northern countries.