Thou shall not obfuscate

15 December 2005

If you can bear to, follow me to Annex C, Paragraph 7b of the latest General Agreement on Trade in Services draft text for the Hong Kong WTO ministerial. Here we learn that any group of member states can make a request to any other group for the latter to open their markets in certain services. (I know this is unconscionably dry, but bear with me). Those members "shall enter into plurilateral negotiations to consider such requests".

This has suddenly become the most contentious paragraph of the text, and has fuelled a toothy semantic debate on the meaning of the word "shall". Poor countries have gone so far as to draft an entirely new test, fearing that this "shall" is a sneaky way of the EU achieving its thinly veiled goal of carving open water and banking markets.

Alan Johnson, Britain's head of delegation, says he has consulted a dictionary. "Shall is the same as should,” he concludes, rather unusually.

One seasoned unionist reckons that the EU's protestations that the new GATS deal would still be voluntary are theologically unsound.

"As an atheist, I have trouble understanding Christians," he says. "But am I now to take it from the EU that the word 'shall' is nothing more than a suggestion? If so, is the fifth commandment to be rewritten: 'Not killing people is something you might like to consider.'"

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