Services: rules for growth and investment

The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is the first and only set of multilateral rules governing international trade in services. Negotiated in the Uruguay Round, it was developed in response to the huge growth of the services economy over the past 30 years and the greater potential for trading services brought about by the communications revolution.


More introductory information
> The WTO in Brief

Services represent the fastest growing sector of the global economy and account for two thirds of global output, one third of global  employment and nearly 20% of global trade.

When the idea of bringing rules on services into the multilateral trading system was floated in the early to mid 1980s, a number of countries were sceptical and even opposed. They believed such an agreement could undermine governments’ ability to pursue national policy objectives and constrain their regulatory powers. The agreement that was developed, however, allows a high degree of flexibility, both within the framework of rules and also in terms of the market access commitments.


back to top

GATS explained

The General Agreement on Trade in Services has three elements: the main text containing general obligations and disciplines; annexes dealing with rules for specific sectors; and individual countries’ specific commitments to provide access to their markets, including indications of where countries are temporarily not applying the “most-favoured-nation” principle of non-discrimination.


back to top

General obligations and disciplines

Total coverage  The agreement covers all internationally-traded services — for example, banking, telecommunications, tourism, professional services, etc. It also defines four ways (or “modes”) of trading services:

services supplied from one country to another (e.g. international telephone calls), officially known as “cross-border supply” (in WTO jargon, “mode 1”)
consumers or firms making use of a service in another country (e.g. tourism), officially “consumption abroad” (“mode 2”)
a foreign company setting up subsidiaries or branches to provide services in another country (e.g. foreign banks setting up operations in a country), officially “commercial presence” (“mode 3”)
individuals travelling from their own country to supply services in another (e.g. fashion models or consultants), officially “presence of natural persons” (“mode 4”)

Most-favoured-nation (MFN) treatment  Favour one, favour all. MFN means treating one’s trading partners equally on the principle of non-discrimination. Under GATS, if a country allows foreign competition in a sector, equal opportunities in that sector should be given to service providers from all other WTO members. (This applies even if the country has made no specific commitment to provide foreign companies access to its markets under the WTO.)

MFN applies to all services, but some special temporary exemptions have been allowed. When GATS came into force, a number of countries already had preferential agreements in services that they had signed with trading partners, either bilaterally or in small groups. WTO members felt it was necessary to maintain these preferences temporarily. They gave themselves the right to continue giving more favourable treatment to particular countries in particular services activities by listing “MFN exemptions” alongside their first sets of commitments. In order to protect the general MFN principle, the exemptions could only be made once; nothing can be added to the lists. They are currently being reviewed as mandated, and will normally last no more than ten years.

Commitments on market access and national treatment  Individual countries’ commitments to open markets in specific sectors — and how open those markets will be — are the outcome of negotiations. The commitments appear in “schedules” that list the sectors being opened, the extent of market access being given in those sectors (e.g. whether there are any restrictions on foreign ownership), and any limitations on national treatment (whether some rights granted to local companies will not be granted to foreign companies). So, for example, if a government commits itself to allow foreign banks to operate in its domestic market, that is a market-access commitment. And if the government limits the number of licences it will issue, then that is a market-access limitation. If it also says foreign banks are only allowed one branch while domestic banks are allowed numerous branches, that is an exception to the national treatment principle.

These clearly defined commitments are “bound”: like bound tariffs for trade in goods, they can only be modified after negotiations with affected countries. Because “unbinding” is difficult, the commitments are virtually guaranteed conditions for foreign exporters and importers of services and investors in the sector to do business.

Governmental services are explicitly carved out of the agreement and there is nothing in GATS that forces a government to privatize service industries. In fact the word “privatize” does not even appear in GATS. Nor does it outlaw government or even private monopolies.

The carve-out is an explicit commitment by WTO governments to allow publicly funded services in core areas of their responsibility. Governmental services are defined in the agreement as those that are not supplied commercially and do not compete with other suppliers. These services are not subject to any GATS disciplines, they are not covered by the negotiations, and commitments on market access and national treatment (treating foreign and domestic companies equally) do not apply to them.

GATS’ approach to making commitments means that members are not obliged to do so on the whole universe of services sectors. A government may not want to make a commitment on the level of foreign competition in a given sector, because it considers the sector to be a core governmental function or indeed for any other reason. In this case, the government’s only obligations are minimal, for example to be transparent in regulating the sector, and not to discriminate between foreign suppliers.

Transparency  GATS says governments must publish all relevant laws and regulations, and set up enquiry points within their bureaucracies. Foreign companies and governments can then use these inquiry points to obtain information about regulations in any service sector. And they have to notify the WTO of any changes in regulations that apply to the services that come under specific commitments.

Regulations:  objective and reasonable Since domestic regulations are the most significant means of exercising influence or control over services trade, the agreement says governments should regulate services reasonably, objectively and impartially. When a government makes an administrative decision that affects a service, it should also provide an impartial means for reviewing the decision (for example a tribunal).

GATS does not require any service to be deregulated. Commitments to liberalize do not affect governments’ right to set levels of quality, safety, or price, or to introduce regulations to pursue any other policy objective they see fit. A commitment to national treatment, for example, would only mean that the same regulations would apply to foreign suppliers as to nationals. Governments naturally retain their right to set qualification requirements for doctors or lawyers, and to set standards to ensure consumer health and safety.

Recognition  When two (or more) governments have agreements recognizing each other’s qualifications (for example, the licensing or certification of service suppliers), GATS says other members must also be given a chance to negotiate comparable pacts. The recognition of other countries’ qualifications must not be discriminatory, and it must not amount to protectionism in disguise. These recognition agreements have to be notified to the WTO.

International payments and transfers  Once a government has made a commitment to open a service sector to foreign competition, it must not normally restrict money being transferred out of the country as payment for services supplied (“current transactions”) in that sector. The only exception is when there are balance-of-payments difficulties, and even then the restrictions must be temporary and subject to other limits and conditions.

Progressive liberalization  The Uruguay Round was only the beginning. GATS requires more negotiations, which began in early 2000 and are now part of the Doha Development Agenda. The goal is to take the liberalization process further by increasing the level of commitments in schedules.


back to top

The annexes: services are not all the same

International trade in goods is a relatively simple idea to grasp: a product is transported from one country to another. Trade in services is much more diverse. Telephone companies, banks, airlines and accountancy firms provide their services in quite different ways. The GATS annexes reflect some of the diversity.

Movement of natural persons  This annex deals with negotiations on individuals’ rights to stay temporarily in a country for the purpose of providing a service. It specifies that the agreement does not apply to people seeking permanent employment or to conditions for obtaining citizenship, permanent residence or permanent employment.

Financial services  Instability in the banking system affects the whole economy. The financial services annex gives governments very wide latitude to take prudential measures, such as those for the protection of investors, depositors and insurance policy holders, and to ensure the integrity and stability of the financial system. The annex also excludes from the agreement services provided when a government is exercising its authority over the financial system, for example central banks’ services.

Telecommunications  The telecommunications sector has a dual role: it is a distinct sector of economic activity; and it is an underlying means of supplying other economic activities (for example electronic money transfers). The annex says governments must ensure that foreign service suppliers are given access to the public telecommunications networks without discrimination.

Air transport services  Under this annex, traffic rights and directly related activities are excluded from GATS’s coverage. They are handled by other bilateral agreements. However, the annex establishes that the GATS will apply to aircraft repair and maintenance services, marketing of air transport services and computer-reservation services. Members are currently reviewing the annex.


back to top

Current work

GATS sets a heavy work programme covering a wide range of subjects. Work on some of the subjects started in 1995, as required, soon after GATS came into force in January 1995. Negotiations to further liberalize international trade in services started in 2000, along with other work involving study and review.

Negotiations (Article 19)  Negotiations to further liberalize international trade in services started in early 2000 as mandated by GATS (Article 19).

The first phase of the negotiations ended successfully in March 2001 when members agreed on the guidelines and procedures for the negotiations, a key element in the negotiating mandate. By agreeing these guidelines, members set the objectives, scope and method for the negotiations in a clear and balanced manner.

They also unequivocally endorsed some of GATS’ fundamental principles — i.e. members’ right to regulate and to introduce new regulations on the supply of services in pursuit of national policy objectives; their right to specify which services they wish to open to foreign suppliers and under which conditions; and the overarching principle of flexibility for developing and least-developed countries. The guidelines are therefore sensitive to public policy concerns in important sectors such as health-care, public education and cultural industries, while stressing the importance of liberalization in general, and ensuring foreign service providers have effective access to domestic markets.

The 2001 Doha Ministerial Declaration incorporated these negotiations into the “single undertaking” of the Doha Development Agenda.  Since July 2002, a process of bilateral negotiations on market access has been underway.

Work on GATS rules (Articles 10, 13, and 15)  Negotiations started in 1995 and are continuing on the development of possible disciplines that are not yet included in GATS: rules on emergency safeguard measures, government procurement and subsidies. Work so far has concentrated on safeguards. These are temporary limitations on market access to deal with market disruption, and the negotiations aim to set up procedures and disciplines for governments using these. Several deadlines have been missed. The current aim is for the results to come into effect at the same time as those of the current services negotiations.

Work on domestic regulations (Article 6.4)  Work started in 1995 to establish disciplines on domestic regulations — i.e. the requirements foreign service suppliers have to meet in order to operate in a market. The focus is on qualification requirements and procedures, technical standards and licensing requirements. By December 1998, members had agreed disciplines on domestic regulations for the accountancy sector. Since then, members have been engaged in developing general disciplines for all professional services and, where necessary, additional sectoral disciplines. All the agreed disciplines will be integrated into GATS and become legally binding by the end of the current services negotiations.

MFN exemptions (Annex on Article 2)  Work on this subject started in 2000. When GATS came into force in 1995, members were allowed a once-only opportunity to take an exemption from the MFN principle of non-discrimination between a member’s trading partners. The measure for which the exemption was taken is described in a member’s MFN exemption list, indicating to which member the more favourable treatment applies, and specifying its duration. In principle, these exemptions should not last for more than ten years. As mandated by GATS, all these exemptions are currently being reviewed to examine whether the conditions which created the need for these exemptions in the first place still exist. And in any case, they are part of the current services negotiations.

Taking account of “autonomous” liberalization (Article 19)  Countries that have liberalized on their own initiative since the last multilateral negotiations want that to be taken into account when they negotiate market access in services. The negotiating guidelines and procedures that members agreed in March 2001 for the GATS negotiations also call for criteria for taking this “autonomous” or unilateral liberalization into account. These were agreed on 6 March 2003.

Special treatment for least-developed countries (Article 19)  GATS mandates members to establish how to give special treatment to least-developed countries during the negotiations. (These “modalities” cover both the scope of the special treatment, and the methods to be used.) The least-developed countries began the discussions in March 2002. As a result of subsequent discussions, Members agreed the modalities on 3 September 2003.

Assessment of trade in services (Article 19)  Preparatory work on this subject started in early 1999. GATS mandates that members assess trade in services, including the GATS objective of increasing the developing countries’ participation in services trade. The negotiating guidelines reiterate this, requiring the negotiations to be adjusted in response to the assessment. Members generally acknowledge that the shortage of statistical information and other methodological problems make it impossible to conduct an assessment based on full data. However, they are continuing their discussions with the assistance of several papers produced by the Secretariat.

Air transport services  At present, most of the air transport sector — traffic rights and services directly related to traffic rights — is excluded from GATS’ coverage. However, GATS mandates a review by members of this situation. The purpose of the review, which started in early 2000, is to decide whether additional air transport services should be covered by GATS. The review could develop into a negotiation in its own right, resulting in an amendment of GATS itself by adding new services to its coverage and by adding specific commitments on these new services to national schedules.

> more on services

> See also Doha Agenda negotiations



show previous page  show next page


Basic principles

All services are covered by GATS
Most-favoured-nation treatment applies to all services, except the one-off temporary exemptions
National treatment applies in the areas where commitments are made
Transparency in regulations, inquiry points
Regulations have to be objective and reasonable
International payments: normally unrestricted
Individual countries’ commitments: negotiated and bound
Progressive liberalization: through further negotiations

show previous page  show next page