There are a number of terms in the trade field that bug me because of their lack of clarity. Different people use terms in different ways, and that makes for an ambiguous public discussion of the issues. One example of this problem is the term "market access."
The EU press release relating to the beginning of the TTIP negotiations describes the main elements of the negotiating mandate as follows: "The negotiating directives set out in very broad terms the topics and the objectives to be achieved in the negotiations. There are essentially three main elements in the mandate: market access, regulatory convergence and trade rules addressing shared global challenges." These three elements then get broken down a bit. "Market access" covers: Tariffs, Rules of origin, Trade defence measures, Services, Investment, Public procurement. So in this context, "market access" is mostly about protectionism, aside from investment rules, which go far beyond that. Taking out investment, I can sort of see how all of this fits together as part of a general category, so I'm not too bothered by it. But then the second category, "regulatory divergence" -- later referred to in the document as "Regulatory Issues and Non-Tariff Barriers" -- comes along. Here, we are talking about differences in regulation across countries, but it also seems to cover regulations that affect trade in some broader way (possibly protectionist, but possibly not). The press release notes that "both sides aim to negotiate an ambitious agreement on sanitary and phyto-sanitary (health and hygiene standards, for example for food products) as well as technical barriers to trade." So wait: SPS and TBT measures are not part of the "market access" category, and instead fall under "regulatory issues"? That seems odd (don't protectionist regulations affect market access?) and makes me want to look into this further. How do others use this term?
On the WTO web site, they say: "Market access for goods in the WTO means the conditions, tariff and non-tariff measures, agreed by members for the entry of specific goods into their markets." It is then noted that: "Market access on specific subjects is dealt with directly under the relevant gateways": Agriculture, Anti-dumping, Balance of payments, Customs valuation, Import licensing, Information technology agreement, Rules of origin, Safeguards, Sanitary and phytosanitary measures, State trading enterprises, Subsidies and countervailing measure, Technical barriers to trade, Textiles, Trade facilitation. So all of these agreements (but not TRIPS, interestingly) have something to do with market access? Is "market access" just whatever WTO rules say? If so, that's not all that helpful in understanding the term.
Then of course there is GATS Article XVI, titled "Market Access", which says
1. With respect to market access through the modes of supply identified in Article I, each Member shall accord services and service suppliers of any other Member treatment no less favourable than that provided for under the terms, limitations and conditions agreed and specified in its Schedule
2. In sectors where market-access commitments are undertaken, the measures which a Member shall not maintain or adopt either on the basis of a regional subdivision or on the basis of its entire territory, unless otherwise specified in its Schedule, are defined as:
(a) limitations on the number of service suppliers whether in the form of numerical quotas, monopolies, exclusive service suppliers or the requirements of an economic needs test;
(b) limitations on the total value of service transactions or assets in the form of numerical quotas or the requirement of an economic needs test;
(c) limitations on the total number of service operations or on the total quantity of service output expressed in terms of designated numerical units in the form of quotas or the requirement of an economic needs test;
(d) limitations on the total number of natural persons that may be employed in a particular service sector or that a service supplier may employ and who are necessary for, and directly related to, the supply of a specific service in the form of numerical quotas or the requirement of an economic needs test;
(e) measures which restrict or require specific types of legal entity or joint venture through which a service supplier may supply a service; and
(f) limitations on the participation of foreign capital in terms of maximum percentage limit on foreign shareholding or the total value of individual or aggregate foreign investment.
It's hard to know how to summarize what's going on with these examples. I can't think of much to say other than "market access" is what is in items (a) through (f).
Let's move now to an article by Bagwell, Mavroidis, and Staiger entitled "It's a Question of Market Access." They say: "In general terms, the GATT/WTO offers a forum within which its member governments may negotiate over market access. Market access is interpreted in the GATT/WTO as reflecting the competitive relationship between imported and domestic products." This sounds a little like non-discrimination, and my 1998 copy of the Dictionary of Trade Policy Terms takes things further in that direction. It talks about competition between imports and domestic goods, and says that "market access" is a term that outlines "the government-imposed conditions under which a product may enter a country under non-discriminatory conditions." So is this just about discrimination? Maybe, but I've heard the argument that the competitive relationship between imported and domestic products is broader than just discrimination. You could have a situation where conditions were altered so that they favored imports less then they did before, but still on the whole favored imports (i.e., there is no discrimination against imports). Perhaps there is something here, although I've never been completely convinced. If you have a measure that makes imports worse off than they were before, that sounds pretty close to discrimination.
So, with all of that in front of us, can we say with much certainty what "market access" means? It seems like it is being used in different ways by different people. It reminds me a lot of "trade barriers," a general term which could cover a range of different measures and behavior. Is "market access" just about discrimination? Does it go slightly further than that, covering the altering of competitive conditions which goes beyond discrimination in some way that is hard to define? Does it cover broad investment obligations such as "minimum standard of treatment"? Does it cover SPS and TBT issues? And if we can't answer those questions, should we abandon "market access" and use other terms instead?