Optimism after WTO ministers meet on fisheries subsidies, despite splits

Did ministers bring real hope to the WTO fish subsidies talks or are WTO leaders clutching at straws?

Did ministers bring real hope to the WTO fisheries talks or are WTO leaders clutching at straws? | WTO

By Peter Ungphakorn

Update: As the talks resumed after the summer break and headed for the year-end Ministerial Conference, there was little sign of any compromise on the outstanding issues.

India circulated a new proposal (not public) calling for a 25-year exemption from overfishing subsidy prohibitions for developing countries not engaged in distant water fishing. A number of delegations complained in a session on September 24 that this and other ideas in the proposal “had no element that could help bring about a compromise between members” (Amiti Sen in Hindu Business Line, September 26, 2021).

See more updates, as negotiators go through the chair’s draft line by line almost daily in October 2021.

The two people managing the negotiations on fisheries subsidies in the World Trade Organization (WTO) said they were more confident that an agreement can be reached after 104 ministers or their representatives participated in an online meeting on July 15, 2021.

“This is the closest we have ever come towards reaching an outcome — a high-quality outcome that would contribute to building a sustainable blue economy,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told the ministers at the end of the meeting.

“The prospect for a deal in the autumn ahead of our Ministerial Conference has clearly improved,” she said.

The next Ministerial Conference — the WTO’s top decision-making body — meets from November 30 to December 3 this year

Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, who chairs the negotiations, echoed Okonjo-Iweala. He told a press conference afterwards that he was also more optimistic that an agreement can be reached in time.

But some of the statements that have been made public, with some reading between the lines, show that major differences still remain.

For example, India’s Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal said: “India is very keen to finalize the agreement because irrational subsidies and overfishing by many countries is hurting Indian fishermen and their livelihood. However, I am disappointed to note that we are still short of finding the right balance and fairness in the agreement.” He continued with a long list of complaints.

Whether there were real grounds for optimism or whether the director-general and chair were clutching at straws remains to be seen.

The purpose of the meeting was never to achieve a breakthrough, or to conclude the talks unless members were already on the verge of agreement beforehand. Okonjo-Iweala and Wills wanted political impetus to carry the talks forward. The proof of that will be in the coming months.

Optimistic: Wills (left) and Okonjo-Iweala say the meeting would help produce agreement | WTO
Optimistic: Wills (left) and Okonjo-Iweala say the meeting will help produce agreement | WTO
Tough bargaining aheadBack to top

When the talks resume in September, after the European summer break, negotiators face less than three months of tough and intensive bargaining. Those with the biggest stakes in ocean fishing — from both developed and developing countries — will have to make painful concessions if an agreement is to be sealed at the Ministerial Conference.

Okonjo-Iweala and Wills had asked ministers two questions and were happy with the answers:

  • Did ministers agree that the chair’s latest draft text would be the basis of further negotiation? They all said yes.
  • Did they agree that there should be lenient terms (“special and differential treatment”) for subsidies given to small scale fishing (“artisanal”) in poorer countries? They all said yes.

Those are very broad questions, and at this stage ministers could hardly be expected to say “no”.

Take the use of that text as a basis for the talks. Negotiators have been working for some time on the chair’s drafts. The first version was circulated on May 11, and the feedback from a series of negotiating sessions allowed Wills to circulate a revision on June 30, which captures most if not all of their positions.

Asked what difference the ministers’ reply made, Okonjo-Iweala said negotiators would now work through the text line by line.

That task is less straightforward than it sounds. The June 30 draft contains 84 pairs of square brackets in only eight pages. The square brackets indicate text that has not been agreed, in some cases with alternatives offered. Negotiators still have to sort out principles and concepts, not just the wording.

Despite the apparently unanimous positive answers to those broad questions, major differences remain on the details, such as:

  • Special treatment for developing countries — how to accommodate developing countries’ demands for room to develop their fishing capacity, without giving major fishing countries among them a free hand, for example China, Peru, Indonesia, India and Vietnam. One controversial proposal is to list countries that would be eligible for special treatment, instead of allowing them to decide for themselves whether they qualify
  • Whether countries can offset limits on harmful subsidies when they spend to support sustainable stocks
  • How to deal with fuel subsidies that are not specifically for fishing but where fishing vessels have access, and how to measure fuel subsidies, such as comparing the price with world prices

All of those are difficult issues.

In a press conference after the meeting, Okonjo-Iweala was asked repeatedly about ministers’ reservations over special treatment provisions for developing countries.

She insisted that despite disagreement, all were united on the need for a provision that does offer lenient terms for poorer countries without jeopardising the protection of sustainable fish stocks. She did acknowledge there were differences over how much “policy space” developing countries should be given.

No interaction: Oman’s minister speaking online while Geneva-based delegates listen | WTO
No interaction: Oman’s minister speaking online while Geneva-based delegates listen | WTO
No interactionBack to top

The way the July 15 meeting was organised prevented real negotiation or any interaction among the ministers. This was worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and Switzerland’s rules on distancing and gatherings, which forced Okonjo-Iweala to hold the meeting online.

With over 100 ministers listed to speak, each was given a 3-minute slot. This is similar to plenary sessions at formal Ministerial Conferences, where ministers essentially sum up their positions and few others are listening.

This meeting was about one subject with two specific questions, and therefore the statements were more focused.

But a key point remains: Countries do not negotiate in meetings of the full membership, even behind closed doors.

And because this meeting was online, the sequence of speakers was determined by time zone, starting with the western Pacific and ending with the Americas. Some may have gone to bed before others spoke. Long online meetings are also notorious for participants dropping out when they have said their bit.

If the meeting had been in person, the ministers would have had more incentive to listen to each other. They would have had opportunities to huddle over coffee outside the meeting room or even to participate in organised small-group sessions.

There were no such arrangements on July 15. The chances that ministers would really listen to each other’s concerns were limited.

This adds pressure on negotiators to conclude the talks before the Ministerial Conference. It is still possible that the conference cannot be held in person, unless the pandemic eases, not just in Switzerland, but in the ministers’ own countries. Some delegates are arguing that the Ministerial Conference should be scrapped if it has to be held online.

The talks are 20 years old. They began in 2001, in a package called the Doha Round. They are now a stand-alone subject.

Wills emphasised his role as a “facilitator” to help members move towards agreement, but also that the onus was on them to achieve it.

“Twenty years is long enough, and if we continue for another 20 years, there won’t be any fish left,” he said after the meeting.

MoreBack to top

This blog post is developed from a Twitter thread posted on July 15, 2021

October 10, 2021 — adding the reference to almost daily meetings in October 2021
September 27, 2021 — adding update from Hindu Business Line
July 17, 2021 — adding closing statements of Okonjo-Iweala and Wills under “more”

Image credits: All images 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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