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
We struggle to grasp unfamiliar detail and nuance. So we invent labels and waste time and energy debating what they mean
By Peter Ungphakorn POSTED NOVEMBER 21, 2022 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 23, 2022
Maybe it was because someone thought it would be a good idea to stick a label on where UK-EU relations might be heading now that the atmosphere between the two is widely reported to have improved. Or perhaps it was just because people were bored while waiting for the football World Cup to start.
Whatever the reason, “Swiss-style ties with Brussels” suddenly became big news over the weekend after the Sunday Times reported (November 20, 2022, paywalled, but some more detail here) that the British government is considering exactly that.
Reactions ranged from “Doubt it. EU hates its relationship with Switzerland & Switzerland hates its relationship with EU” (Mujtaba Rahman, here), to “when someone says ‘Swiss-style’ relationship, rather than hearing ‘a slightly better relationship [than] now’ everyone is like ‘LET ME GET MY NOTES’” (Sam Lowe, here).
The problem here is that “Swiss-style” is being used as shorthand. It’s a label, but one that’s misleading and not really explained. Both of the reactions above are valid, at least to some extent, but they are talking about different things.
Some who attended blamed the ‘vacuum’ caused by a delay in appointing a new chair, and ambassadors reading from prepared statements
By Peter Ungphakorn POSTED OCTOBER 26, 2022 | UPDATED OCTOBER 26, 2022
Monday’s (October 24) “retreat” on agriculture at the World Trade Organization (WTO) was supposed to produce new ideas to help move the stalled farm trade talks forward, but some accounts suggest it was stronger on alerting delegates to new challenges than on developing new negotiating approaches.
This seems to contrast with the brainstorming approach seen in a similar event a fortnight earlier on the fisheries subsidies negotiations (October 10, 2022).
Part of the problem may be that a new chair still has not been appointed for the talks — a problem shared with fisheries subsidies, but apparently not affecting that earlier retreat.
According to one person who attended the agriculture event, the absence of a chair meant the discussion was “like talking in a vacuum”, even though all potential new chairs were present.
The organisers had hoped one would have been appointed by now, but the General Council chair, Swiss ambassador Didier Chambovey, is still consulting members on appointing replacements for both negotiations.
Another attendee said some participants read from prepared statements rather than engaging in genuine free thinking.
If there were new ideas on the negotiations they mostly seem to have been about procedure rather than substance: how the talks should be organised rather new approaches for cutting trade-distorting domestic support — despite a recent suggestion that delegations could consider simplifying the support categories — or for opening markets.
One exception, according people in the retreat, was the gauntlet that one of the expert speakers threw down: a list of questions about how well present concepts in the agriculture negotiations meet present needs.
Even that does not seem to have sparked real brain-storming on the negotiations’ substance.
Vangelis Vitalis, a senior trade official from New Zealand and former chair of the talks, is said to have questioned whether some the “boxes” used to categorise types of domestic support are fit for purpose. (The boxes are defined according to their distorting effect on prices and production levels, and other criteria, explained here.)
As we look out onto the world now, the rules are fragmenting and they are less enforceable than they were
— Vangelis Vitalis, former chair, agriculture negotiations
One of the challenged concepts is the Green Box of supports that are allowed without limits. This is the category where support is considered to cause no (or minimal) distortion. Vitalis is said to have suggested this might not be fit for purpose. He proposed changes to deal with modern environmental challenges. The revisions could include clearer criteria for putting programmes targeting sustainability and climate change in the Green Box.
He also challenged the validity of the Blue Box (support whose distorting impact on prices and production is reduced by limits on production) and perhaps most controversially the Development Box of measures that are allowed in developing countries, such as subsidies for investment, inputs and diversification (Article 6.2). He observed that the original big subsidisers — EU and US — have now been joined by China and India.
Vitalis is said to have warned delegations that they would have to grapple with export restrictions — an issue several experts and delegations said needed better disciplines because of the experience of export restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and food price rises caused by the war in Ukraine.
This, together with an appropriate way of dealing with public stockholding, is needed to show that members are serious in dealing with food insecurity, he said.
Vitalis also reportedly reminded negotiators of their commitment to reduce support for cotton in richer countries, which is hurting poor producers, adding that this too is part of the imperative to make production sustainable.
Vitalis had thrown down the challenges. The response seems to have been muted.
Some delegations are said to have reiterated their official position that the “mandate” for the negotiations has to be respected, an argument usually made to resist other members’ attempts to introduce new issues, while existing ones are unresolved.
One attendee said the main message participants would have taken away with them was about the changing context confronting agricultural trade: sustainability, climate change and food security. Analysis covering these challenges were presented in plenary sessions by eight experts.
If we could bottle the spirit we had here today and take it with us … then I really have hope for us to go somewhere with agriculture
— Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, WTO chief
According to a WTO website news story, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala considered the discussions to have been in an “extremely constructive spirit”. She said the objective of “getting everyone out of their comfort zone” had been achieved.
The report says she told participants: “If we could bottle the spirit we had here today and take it with us, it would be a very good takeaway. If we are able to do this, then I really have hope for us to go somewhere with agriculture.”
Okonjo-Iweala seems to have been more upbeat than some attendees.
Unlike the one on fisheries subsidies, which was in Evian in neighbouring France, this retreat was on-site at the WTO headquarters in Geneva.
With delegations from most of the 164 members, gathered in the WTO’s largest and most formal meeting room, organisers would have struggled to create informality.
Participants were said to be mainly ambassadors to the WTO, accompanied by an additional delegate, usually an agriculture attaché.
The break-out sessions of the retreat were held under the Chatham House rule — what was said can be reported but not attributed to individual speakers or their affiliation.
The eight experts’ presentations were in two plenary sessions, with no restrictions on attribution:
Máximo Torero, Chief Economist and Assistant Director General, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) — “Contemporary Challenges in the Food and Agriculture”
Trudi Hartzenberg, Executive Director, Trade Law Centre (TRALAC) — “Food Security Challenges of Africa: Some Reflections”
Johan Rockström, Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Professor in Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam — “Food system challenges of breaching Planetary Boundaries”
Quentin Grafton, Professor of Economics, Australian National University — “Water Risks Today and into the Future and Impact on Food”
David Laborde, Senior Research Fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) — “Addressing Food Security for the Future”
Simplice Nouala Fonkou, Head of Agriculture and Food Security Division, African Union Commission — “Accelerating CAADP [Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme] Implementation to Strengthen the Resilience of African Food Systems”
Marion Jansen, Director, Trade and Agriculture Directorate, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — “The Landscape of Agricultural Support”
Vangelis Vitalis, Deputy Secretary, Trade and Economic, New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry, former chair of WTO agriculture negotiations — “Reforming WTO Agriculture Trade Rules in Light of Contemporary Challenges”
Among the themes they discussed were stresses on food systems caused by “climate-induced water insecurity and drought, environmental degradation, the war in Ukraine, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the WTO website says.
Also discussed were: food insecurity in Africa, its global repercussions and strengthening its resilience; the current landscape of agricultural support; and reforming WTO agricultural trade rules in light of contemporary challenges
The numbers don’t look good, and this is something that is happening across the world
— Máximo Torero, FAO
Máximo Torero on food security: Chronic undernourishment in the last two years has increased by 150 million people, while around 2.3 billion people in the world lack access to adequate food and the international community is far from achieving global nutrition targets.
“The numbers don’t look good, and this is something that is happening across the world,” said Mr Torero, adding that trade under a universal, open and non-discriminatory multilateral system has never been more crucial to ensure food security and development, as well as to promote environmental sustainability.
Trudi Hartzenberg on Africa: It faces “fundamental food system vulnerability that has many dimensions. … There are growing concerns not only about the immediate crisis dimensions, but a deteriorating trend in food security, at least over the past decade.”
“We need a concerted effort, new approaches, innovative approaches to addressing food insecurity in Africa within the context of our own trade agenda, just as much as we need new approaches, new thinking, new solutions at the multilateral level,” she said.
Johan Rockström on food systems: He noted a growing scientific call for a transformation of the current food production system that not only addresses health resilience and sustainability but also the stability of world trade.
“This is urgent,” he declared. “A lot of attention is required, not least from a WTO that can glue together the global resilience of the food system in the world for the future.”
Unless we do something different … also in terms of current agricultural trajectories and water extractions, we are going to be in serious trouble
— Quentin Grafton Australian National University
Quentin Grafton on water scarcity: Net food imports will increase in the next decades as a result of greater water stress situations “which are not going away”. In fact, he emphasized, water scarcity will get worse with climate change and rising populations.
“Unless we do something different, unless we move away from business as usual, not only in terms of CO2, methane and greenhouse gas emissions but also in terms of current agricultural trajectories and water extractions, we are going to be in serious trouble,” said Professor Grafton. “And the people who will suffer the most are those poor and vulnerable, particularly in poor countries and large food importing countries.”
David Laborde on food security: It is “all about inequalities” and that opening up markets without thinking about technology transfer will not address sustainability issues that WTO members face.
He also urged members to keep in mind the specific challenges faced by small economies which are likely to get worse in the future and to consider not only responses to current problems in agricultural trade but also those that may need to be addressed in the decades ahead.
Simplice Nouala Fonkou on the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP): It is an initiative that aims to help African countries eliminate hunger and reduce poverty by raising economic growth through agriculture-led development.
Given natural resource constraints, climate change, and various other shocks, accelerating the implementation of CAADP was critical in strengthening the resilience of African food systems and food security on the continent, he said.
Marion Jansen on support policies: the OECD’s annual Agricultural Policy Monitoring and Evaluation report, published in June 2022, “has information on 54 OECD and EU countries plus 11 emerging economies,” she noted. “It contains qualitative information on policy changes in those countries, but also quantitative information that shows how agricultural support is provided to individual producers — often in ways that distort markets and trade.”
Vangelis Vitalis on updating agricultural trade rules: it’s urgent that members come together and grapple with the challenges facing them.
“We have a war that is affecting agricultural trade,” he said. “We have COVID. We have the risk of food security and famine. And of course we have a climate crisis. Clearly, as we look out onto the world now, the rules are fragmenting and they are less enforceable than they were.
“We can find common ground and, colleagues, it is urgent that we do so.”
Updates: None so far
Image credits: African farmer and baby | Annie Spratt, Unsplash licence Photos from the retreat | WTO/Franck Abdulrahman Ghannam (See slide show on this page)
Brain-storming. Blue sky thinking. Wiping the slate clean. Thinking outside the box. Pick your cliché. World Trade Organization (WTO) members’ ambassadors and agriculture attachés go on a “retreat” tomorrow (October 24) as they try to discover solutions where none have been found for over a decade.
The common impression is that the WTO agriculture negotiations have achieved nothing since they started almost a quarter of a century ago in 2000.
This is partly because after just over a year (in 2001), the talks were rolled into the newly launched and broader Doha Round of WTO negotiations. And now the Doha Round is widely considered to be dead.
Officially the position is more complicated. Some members say the Doha Round is over. Others say the original mandate continues — they refuse to endorse the end of the round.
In practice some parts of the Doha Round have been concluded, such as the Trade Facilitation and Fisheries Subsidies agreements. Other parts are in limbo or the talks have dried up, at least among the full membership. What has faded away is the idea of the talks as one unified package or “single undertaking”.
Following the ‘success’ in June, the new enthusiasm for ‘retreats’ suggests WTO members don’t actually know what to do
By Peter Ungphakorn POSTED OCTOBER 8, 2022 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 13, 2022
An epidemic of retreats is breaking out at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
On Monday October 10, 2022, WTO members gathered in Evian in France (cross the lake and turn left) to talk about fish. A fortnight later they were back on the Geneva shore to discuss agriculture. Not long after, they talked about “WTO reform”.
There’s even a call to do the same on intellectual property. The list is getting longer. The epidemic could become a pandemic.
Latest developments with links to some key documents and news
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By Peter Ungphakorn POSTED OCTOBER 4, 2022 | UPDATED AS INDICATED
The waiver on patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines was agreed at the WTO Ministerial Conference on June 17, 2022. The text with brief explanations is here. It includes a provision for WTO members to decide within six months (by December 17, 2022) whether or not to expand the waiver to include COVID-19 tests and treatments:
“No later than six months from the date of this Decision, Members will decide on its extension to cover the production and supply of COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics”
By Peter Ungphakorn POSTED AUGUST 30, 2022 | UPDATED SEPTEMBER 26, 2022
Türkiye told World Trade Organization members on August 29, 2022 that it would comply with dispute rulings that said it was violating WTO agreements by giving preferences to locally-produced pharmaceutical products, even though the rulings have not been formally adopted.
And because at the time arbitration was the only route open to Türkiye to appeal the case, neither the first-stage “panel” ruling, nor the findings in the appeal, have been formally adopted by the WTO’s membership.
This raises questions about the status of the rulings in WTO law. When a ruling has been formally adopted, governments (and others involved in trade) can assess with a degree of confidence whether similar policies or measures comply with WTO agreements.
When the membership has not adopted a ruling, that confidence is weakened, although some legal experts suggest the difference is small. The US treats non-adoption as significant without explaining why.
WTO REFORM: The light shed by recent papers on the role of the Secretariat is welcome, but there are unanswered questions
By Peter Ungphakorn POSTED AUGUST 22, 2022 | UPDATED SEPTEMBER 28, 2022
Does the WTO Secretariat have too much influence over WTO dispute settlement rulings? Two experts argue controversially in recent papers that it does, backing their claims with sophisticated analysis of writing styles to detect who might have authored the rulings.
The analysis by Joost Pauwelyn (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva) and Krzysztof Pelc (McGill University, Montreal) also digs down in detail into the reasons behind the role that the Secretariat has been given.
That leads to a discussion covering a wide range of issues, some of them central to the debate about reforming the WTO and its dispute settlement system — including the controversy over whether case history and precedent should have a bearing on new rulings, and to what extent that should be guided by the institutional knowledge of Secretariat staff.
The proposal would apply to notifications under 14 agreements and decisions covering almost the whole of trade in goods
Posted by Peter Ungphakorn JULY 18, 2022 | UPDATED JULY 27, 2022
On July 14, 2022, a group of 57 World Trade Organization member governments renewed their effort to strengthen work that is essential for the WTO to functioning properly — transparency.
They circulated the latest version of their proposal on notifications. It’s an activity most people find deadly dull, but without it the WTO’s trading system simply would not work.
The proposal is certainly the least glamorous part of the effort to “reform” the WTO, one of the priorities that WTO trade ministers set for themselves and their Geneva delegations at their June 2022 conference.
By Peter Ungphakorn POSTED JULY 4, 2022 | UPDATED JULY 10, 2022
The June 12–17 Ministerial Conference has been hailed as a rare success for the World Trade Organization (WTO) because it produced a package of new agreements and consensus statements on a range of issues, including fisheries conservation, health, electronic commerce and food insecurity.
Less attention has been paid to the Geneva meeting’s big failure. There was no outcome on agriculture. That should not be overlooked. It has implications not only for agriculture, but for members’ ability to reach consensus on really tough issues.
As a beautiful sun rose over the World Trade Organization’s lakeside headquarters in Geneva on June 17, 2022, exhausted delegates sealed a package of decisions and declarations that would give the beleaguered WTO new direction for the next couple of years.