While everyone was busy discussing the TPP and NAFTA renegotiation during the presidential election, very few noticed that another trade agreement, possibly the biggest and with a stronger potential impact to the economy, was being negotiated behind the scenes.
In January 2013, Ambassador Ron Kirk notified U.S. Congress on Obama’s intentions to enter negotiations for a new trade agreement on international trade in services with 20 trading partners, called the Trade in Service Agreement (TiSA).
What is it exactly? Honestly, we have no idea.
It appears to be an effort to open markets and improve rules in areas such as licensing, financial services, telecoms, e-commerce, and professionals moving abroad temporarily to provide services. Unlike the TPP, which was just put to bed by President Trump, TiSA deals with the exchange of services instead of products, which makes it a lot more complex once it goes into action.
Let’s try to make it simpler:
- TiSA would facilitate the trade of services, like financial trading, e-commerce, e-law and telecommunications.
- It currently involves 23 members from around the world, who account for 70% of world trade in services.
- China expressed its desire to join negotiations but WikiLeaks claims that the U.S. blocked its entrance. Interesting though, both Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei are part of the agreement.
- The treaty was negotiated outside of the WTO and aims to give service suppliers the same level of access in the service sector of all nations’ involved.
- A simple example of TiSA’s impact would be: removing restrictions on the ability to make payments electronically in other countries.
- The U.S. government argues that “three out of four Americans currently work in the service sector, and further opening the services trade can support broader U.S. services exports and even more American jobs.”
After the 2013 announcement, it took the government over ten months to inform the public about the negotiations, which were already past the beginning stages. The 2013 statement gave little to no information about the draft of the agreement.
More than a year later, the United States and the European Union published a joint statement in which they talked about the approach both were taking on the trade of public services, but again, did not reveal any details about TISA.
While the press releases didn’t incite curiosity in the public, it did catch WikiLeaks' attention. Shortly after the 2015 press release, WikiLeaks released 17 secret documents from the ongoing negotiations, criticizing the secrecy of the deal. As of now, WikiLeaks has released documents on eight occasions, last one being in October 2016.
WikiLeaks states that “the current TiSA text would heighten risks of financial instability and handcuff government's ability to respond to a domestic or global financial crisis at a time when everyone (except the finance industry and its political allies) agree that we need more financial regulation, not less."
European Organizations have also highlighted the risks of TiSA:
“We are concerned that TiSA will restrict the ability of the EU and its member states to maintain their right to regulate in the future” — Johannes Kleis, European Consumer Organization
And with good reason. We’re talking about a treaty that would set the trading rules for over 70% of the world’s service traders. This would allow the free movement of people who are considered service providers, making it easier for visa access in the countries involved and for practicing law from one country to another. Few people understand the impact it could have on the national arena, especially since most have no idea it even exists
Furthermore, China expressed a desire to partake in the negotiations, but was blocked by Washington, even while other countries were interested in Beijing’s involvement. China is a big importer of services, and a strong partner for the EU, which begs the question of why it was excluded from negotiations in the first place.
According to the European Parliament Thinktank, trade ministers from India, Brazil, South Africa warned that “plurilateral initiatives (deals negotiated outside of the WTO) go against the fundamental principles of transparency, inclusiveness, and multilateralism.”
Regarding the secrecy of the draft, Professor Jane Kelsey from the University of Auckland commented: "The secrecy of negotiating documents exceeds even the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and runs counter to moves in the WTO towards greater openness… It is impossible to obey a law or know how it affects you when the law is secret."
By November 2016, nearly 4 years after negotiations began, 21 negotiation rounds had taken place, and there is no clear deadline for ending the negotiations. In the last WikiLeaks publication, it was mentioned that members intended to finalize the deal by end of year 2016, but for some reason, unknown to the public, they didn't.
President Trump has made no statement on TiSA or whether he plans to continue negotiations or pull out of what sounds like a “done” deal. However, Trump’s inclination to reduce regulations on financial services may give TiSA a favorable prognosis.