TiSA: free trade, but for who?

CETA, TTIP, TPP, TiSA. Anagrams that just won’t unscramble or puzzles on the back of a cereal box perhaps? In this case, the sets of letters represent a collection of some of the most comprehensive and influential international trade negotiations in discussion. Yet few understand exactly what they are, and even fewer have a say in what they might become.

In fact, they all signify agreements between countries aimed at liberalising the trade of goods or services. They aim to cut red tape and promote free and efficient trade across global partnerships. Yet they also have a shared tendency to be shrouded in secrecy and to promote trade at the cost of liberty and the environment.

As the jigsaw pieces of liberalised trade agreements are pieced together, the exclusion of many developing countries is a growing concern. Developing countries outside discussions are likely to know little of the details behind the incomprehensible acronyms of these agreements during negotiations, yet are likely to be shackled to their terms and conditions once in place. Liberalising trade in itself is not inherently bad, but it is so often the case that those doing the negotiating are the nations to whom benefits will inevitably accrue.

TiSA, or the Trade in Services Agreement is the latest, most expansive and perhaps least widely understood acronymic sibling to join the family. Where TTIP, CETA and TPP deal with the trade of goods, TiSA concerns services such as e-commerce, banking and even healthcare. TiSA dwarves most other international trade arrangements in negotiation, covering around 1.85 billion people across 50 partner countries compared with TTIP’s 500 million. TiSA’s partner countries represent 66% of global GDP and 71% of global trade in services, but just 23% of the world’s population.

Map of the world showing TiSA countries highlighted

Parties to Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) © Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


Those not involved are conspicuous in their absence, and include Russia, South Africa, India and Brazil. China formally applied to the agreement in 2013, but has been blocked by a combination of the US and Japan, likely in a bid to exclude what they see as a direct economic competitor. Amongst the 50 participants there are just a handful of Asian and Latin American representatives and only a single African partner nation, Mauritius.

Although damaging for these countries, it is for those developing countries far less empowered, both in and not in the agreement, that the implications of TiSA are most significant. TiSA presents a threat to developing countries for two main reasons. Firstly, developing countries are, by very nature, in a state of transition and flux – politically, economically and demographically. Any restriction on creating domestic policies and altering or applying regulations, which TiSA appears to do, may render them less able to respond and adapt to changes inevitable in their development. TiSA aims to remove ‘barriers’ in order to liberalise trade in services. Yet these barriers may include regulations which ensure energy efficiency, water quality or transportation standards. The risk associated with removing these barriers is that regulations are watered down to a lowest mutual point, restricting the establishment of more progressive policies. This can pose the dilemma to a developing country of having to pit economic access against domestic policy and standards.

Protest banner that has TiSA TTIP AND CETA with a line through, with a man standing behind the banner and a large model eye on a stick

Greenpeace – along with Wikkileaks – has published secret documents from the TiSA negotiations (c) Greenpeace Switzerland


Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the nature of an agreement such as TiSA is that developing countries may be partially or entirely excluded from the negotiations. To date, TiSA has been conducted with little transparency, only receiving broader acknowledgement thanks to Wikileaks publications. Whilst the countries outside the discussion may have no say in the rules, they will ultimately have to play by them should they wish to continue trading with TiSA countries. This may have far reaching implications as developing countries attempt to grow and establish higher value services industries only to find they are ensnared in a web of Ts, Ps, Is and As which work in favour of the more powerful nations that agreed them.

Trade deals such as TiSA warrant careful watching. The recent resistance to the EU – Canada deal, CETA, shows this. Parties to TiSA hope to conclude discussions by December this year but the implications for developing countries could be widespread, significant and worryingly unequal.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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