New WTO fisheries subsidies text published as talks head for endgame

Colombian chair says special treatment for developing countries is the most difficult issue

Heading for endgame? The chair wants to produce a clean text by July | Wim van ’t-Einde, Unsplash, CC0

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MAY 11, 2021 | UPDATED MAY 13,2021

Santiago Wills, chair of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations, announced the start of a new phase in the talks on May 11, 2021 with a revised text released publicly for the first time, and accelerated talks leading to an end-game meeting of ministers on July 15.

The latest revision is “a crucial step for presenting a clean draft to ministers,” said Wills, who is also Colombia’s ambassador to the WTO. The latest version includes portions in square brackets, usually indicating disagreement among members.

The 9-page new text is here, with a 26-page explanation from the chair. See also this WTO news story

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wants the July meeting “to review a very advanced, hopefully final, text”.

Among the issues still needing to be settled, Wills said the most difficult is special treatment for developing countries.

Leaked earlier drafts that were not released publicly reflected differences of opinion on at least three issues. They were:

  • who should be eligible — all developing and least-developed countries, or those meeting criteria based, for example, on national income levels
  • how long they would be exempt from at least some of the disciplines
  • whether least-developed countries could extend their transition for a few years after the UN upgrades them from the category.

Wills said his new text formulates the special treatment “in part, as an exemption for subsidies granted to low income, resource-poor or livelihood fishing and fishing-related activities close to shore, and this exemption could be time-bound.

“Furthermore, for the overfishing and overcapacity pillar in particular, the new text proposes an alternative [special treatment] mechanism where all developing members could seek an initial time-bound exemption.

“Thereafter, developing members with a limited share of global fish catch and a limited total amount of fisheries subsidies, could seek an extension,” through the relevant WTO committee, he said.

Special treatment for developing countries is the third “pillar” at the heart of the draft. The other two are proposed disciplines to limit the effect of subsidies on fish stocks, and on fishing fleets and their activities (“overfishing and overcapacity”).

For his latest draft, the chair said: “Where the choice was between more ambition and less, I opted for more, given the sustainability objective of the negotiations.” He added that members had consistently asked for higher ambition in various meetings.

Wills said he will talk to each delegation privately, individually or in groups (known as “confessionals”), on May 21 and 22, “so delegations can flag key issues in the text that are the toughest for them”. Talks would then continue week by week on specific issues with the aim of agreement by the July meeting.

Even if a handful of issues are unresolved by then, they could be settled in the autumn before the formal ministerial conference begins on November 30.

But members could also find themselves in other intensive negotiations in that period. The chair of the agriculture negotiations aims to produce a draft text by the summer break (end of July), and talks on electronic commerce, domestic regulation in services, and investment facilitation are also aiming for decisions at the year-end meeting. Having the bulk of the fisheries subsidies talks out of the way by July would help with the other tasks.


Below is a statement released at a press briefing on May 11, 2021, summarising what he told ambassadors earlier the same day:


Chair’s statement

Summary of the statement of Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, Negotiating Group on Rules chair, at the meeting on fisheries subsidies on 11 May 2021

Good day everyone and thank you as always for coming to this press briefing. As you know, this morning I introduced to heads of delegations a new draft text on fisheries subsidies where I propose compromise language for areas where differences have persisted. It’s a crucial step for presenting a clean draft to Ministers on 15 July.

With just two months to go, I hope this sincere and honest attempt at balancing ambition and necessary flexibility will help Members agree on landing zones that will make a substantial contribution to the health of our oceans. I know it will not be easy for 164 Members to reach consensus, but it is doable. It’s time to sprint for the finish line.

Turning now to the text—this draft reflects language from WTO Members themselves, whether reflected in their proposals, or a facilitator’s work, or expressed during our meetings and consultations.

And where the choice was between more ambition and less, I opted for more, given the sustainability objective of the negotiations. This also reflects what all Members have continuously stated in the Negotiating Group and in the TNC (Trade Negotiations Committee) on the need to deliver a meaningful outcome.  

Regarding special and differential treatment (SDT) for developing and least developed countries. This has been the toughest area to find convergence given that Members’ views are so divergent on its intended purpose. In drafting the SDT provisions, I have to keep in mind, that because the draft disciplines themselves contain built-in flexibility that can be used by all Members to provide fisheries subsidies in a sustainable way, SDT in the form of exemptions from the disciplines would allow the provision of subsidies in an unsustainable way. Given that developing Members constitute a large share of global fishing, it is essential to ensure that SDT provide the necessary flexibilities while not undermining the overall effectiveness of the disciplines.

With this in mind, the new text formulates SDT, in part, as an exemption for subsidies granted to low income, resource-poor or livelihood fishing and fishing-related activities close to shore, and this exemption could be timebound.

Furthermore, for the overfishing and overcapacity pillar in particular, the new text proposes an alternative SDT mechanism where all developing Members could seek an initial timebound exemption. Thereafter, developing Members with a limited share of global fish catch and a limited total amount of fisheries subsidies, could seek an extension through a Committee process.

Both Ambassador Didier Chambovey of Switzerland, in his former capacity as Friend of the Chair, and I had held a number of consultations with a view to finding convergence regarding SDT. In my view, the combination of these SDT provisions and the built-in flexibility in the overfishing and overcapacity discipline provides the kind of policy space that developing Members have demanded, during our work with Members. The initial exemption periods and any extensions would allow the gradual introduction of the necessary structures and measures that would eventually enable the Member in question to use the built-in flexibilities themselves, to develop and exploit fisheries in a sustainable way over the long term.

The new text also provides notification and transparency provisions that require Members to submit information, and links notification to the flexibilities in the disciplines. Other changes from previous texts that have been under discussion in the Negotiating Group include the removal of certain language that might have had inadvertent implications for the operation of international fisheries instruments; the sharpening of the focus of WTO work on subsidies and not on fisheries management; and the selection of approaches aimed at capturing basic common ground that has been identified through discussions.

It goes without saying that everything in this text is without prejudice to any Member’s positions or views. The whole text is up for discussion and it will ultimately be up to Members to resolve the issues that remain open.

This brings me to the next steps. On 20 and 21 May, I intend to hold short confessional style meetings so delegations can flag key issues in the text that are the toughest for them. Then, I intend to organize thematic weeks starting the week of 24 May, with each week dedicated to a specific pillar or pillars from the text.

The shared sense of urgency is palpable, and we need to harness that to deliver an ambitious and balanced outcome as Ministers in Buenos Aires mandated us to do, echoing SDG target 14.6. Members have come a long way and their engagement has led us to this point. We now have a complete text in front of us to close the gaps. The health of our very stressed planet is at stake – we cannot afford to let her down.


Updates: May 13, 2021 — adding the link to the AP story on Senegal’s coastal fishing communities

Picture credits:
Fishing boat at sunset | Wim van ’t-Einde, Unsplash, CC0
Santiago Wills | WTO

Author: Peter Ungphakorn

I used to work at the WTO Secretariat (1996–2015), and am now an occasional freelance journalist, focusing mainly on international trade rules, agreements and institutions. (Previously, analysis for AgraEurope.) Trade β Blog is for trialling ideas on trade and any other subject, hence “β”. You can respond by using the contact form on the blog or tweeting @CoppetainPU

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