EU -Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA): public services still at risk

EU - JAPAN flag

(12 July 2018) Next week the European Commission (EC) and Japanese Government will sign the EU Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).    

Commissioner Malmström in the EC Press Release of 6 July said that in concluding the EPA “we are sending a strong signal to the world that we still believe in open trade and that protectionism is never the answer…. I  now call on the European Parliament to approve this agreement quickly so that European firms, citizens and farmers can reap the benefits of this deal as soon as possible." 

EPSU however considers that, on the contrary, the European Parliament (EP) should take a long, hard look at the content of the EU Japan EPA before giving any approval. In particular the EP should verify the claim that the Agreement “…maintains the right of EU Member States' authorities to keep public services public and it will not force governments to privatise or deregulate any public service at national or local level. Likewise, Member States' authorities retain the right to bring back to the public sector any privately provided services. Europeans will continue to decide for themselves how they want, for example, their healthcare, education and water delivered.(*) And, in doing this the EP should assess whether Europeans can make  decisions about public services more easily – or not – than they can under the recent EU Canada (CETA) agreement.

With CETA, EPSU and many others worked hard to prevent the Agreement undermining public services, but we identified a number of shortcomings in the final text. These relate to CETA’s liberalisation commitments, the potential undermining of general interest regulation, the weak sustainable development chapter and the inclusion of special rights for investors. The European Commission made a last minute attempt to mitigate some of these shortcomings through drafting an ‘Interpretative Declaration’ and the issue of investors' rights is pending the outcome of a European Court of Justice ruling. Given the controversy over CETA, EPSU would have expected some assurances from the Commission and Member States that the EU Japan EPA is at least as protective of public services, regulatory space, and workers’ rights as CETA. Instead we are offered bland assurances on public services that tell us little about the differences between CETA and the EU Japan EPA.      

EPSU considers therefore that rather than give speedy approval, the European Parliament should fully assess the content of the EU Japan EPA. In particular Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) should undertake a thorough evaluation of differences between CETA and the EU Japan EPA in terms of market-opening, to ensure that the EU is not moving backwards rather than forward. EPSU also reminds the EP that it previously agreed that a negative listing of liberalisation commitments in CETA should not become a precedent for future negotiations. Any assessment should cover:

  • the extent of commitments in public services such as water and sanitation, waste, education, health and social services (especially long-term care)
  • the scope of regulatory cooperation
  • whether ‘in-house’ provision of services is adequately protected in the public procurement chapter and whether socially and environmentally sustainable contracts are possible, and indeed encouraged
  • whether the section on State-Owned Enterprises, which  aims at  a ‘level-playing field’ between public and private companies, may put pressure on the identity and mission of public companies, which is to provide public services in the general interest
  • the commitments on workers’ rights and respect for International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards, that should cover all workers irrespective of status

More details about a  number of these and other concerns are highlighted in a joint letter that EPSU and others sent in May 2018  to national parliaments (**).

The EU Japan EPA is now in the EP’s hands. In presenting the Agreement on 9 July to the EP’s  trade committee INTA, the European Commission also chose to present the EU Japan EPA as a beacon against ‘protectionism’. But what is wrong with protecting public services and workers’ rights?  Frankly, we need to hear more than ‘Europeans will continue to decide for themselves how they want, for example, their healthcare, education and water delivered.’ Europe faces growing inequalities in access to public services (***),ongoing tax evasion and fraud, and pressure on workers’ rights and sectoral collective bargaining. Europeans need to hear that the ‘shared values’ of the EU and Japan include tangible commitments to the provision of affordable, accessible and high quality public services for all, to measures to combat tax fraud and evasion and for guarantees for workers’ rights, including the right to information and consultation and to collective bargaining for all workers.

(*) EC Memo accompanying the EPA

(**) Letter to national parliaments 22 May 2018

(***) See Eurofound ‘quality of life survey’  and EPSU article

Other sources of info :

ETUC RENGO joint statement on agreement 9 July 2018

EPSU the PSI Japan Council letter 30 June 2017

Other organizations