WTO members achieve breakthrough, but the tough part is what happens next

It might seem churlish to draw attention to what was lacking, but the achievements that were rightly hailed are not the end of the story.

See also
The successful WTO Conference saw one big failure: agriculture | Have we just seen the funeral of the WTO ‘single undertaking’? | Our scorecards

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED JUNE 30, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 30, 2022

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.

Much has already been written about the achievement of the 12–17 June WTO Ministerial Conference, after it was extended by almost two days of sometimes chaotic round-the-clock bargaining.

Most of the analysis focuses on what was achieved, often with a sense of relief that the WTO was back on track, mixed with a warning that much still needs to be done.

Perhaps the biggest success was that a package was agreed by ministers, including an Outcome Document — which the previous ministerial conference failed to do.

Often missing is recognition of how hard it was to achieve this limited outcome.

Continue reading “WTO members achieve breakthrough, but the tough part is what happens next”

Have we just seen the funeral of the WTO ‘single undertaking’?

The WTO director-general says she discouraged negotiators from trading give-and-take across issues

See also
WTO members achieve breakthrough, but the tough part is what happens next | The successful WTO Conference saw one big failure: agriculture | Our scorecards

By Robert Wolfe
POSTED JUNE 21, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 21, 2022

Observers of multiple World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conferences felt gloomy early during the June 12–17 meeting, when Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala warned against mingling the issues.

She was reported to have urged ministers to make trade-offs within the same issue rather than across the package of issues.

In an interview with the Financial Times’ Alan Beattie (paywalled) she confirmed her approach.

“Sometimes, all this leveraging and cross connections between outcomes I think in the past has led to the failure to achieve anything, because then everything just doesn’t work and collapses. I was really determined from the get-go that wasn’t going to happen and I was trying to discourage members from linking one thing to another,” she said.


I was trying to discourage members from linking one thing to another

— Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala,
Financial times

Those of us who analyse the WTO have a mental model of how members could reach agreement. When the process seems too slow, or it fails, analysts think: if the Secretariat or members could do it differently, then the obstacles could be overcome. This reasoning is counterfactual, meaning something that has not happened but might happen under different conditions.

Continue reading “Have we just seen the funeral of the WTO ‘single undertaking’?”

How did the Ministerial Conference do? Our scorecards

There were a number of concrete results, which was a relief for many, but how significant are the outcomes?

By Robert Wolfe and Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JUNE 19, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 19, 2022

In our curtain-raiser before the June 12–17 World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference — “Touch and go at the WTO. Is the director-general’s optimism justified?” — we suggested a set of score cards for assessing the result. Based on the actual outcome, we’ve adjusted the scorecards slightly and filled them in.

The scorecards are in this note. It includes an invitation to comment


Updates: none so far

Image credit:
Delegates on the terrace at the WTO headquarters, Geneva, night of June 15, 2022 | WTO

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Touch and go at the WTO. Is the director-general’s optimism justified?

The meaning of “success” is not the same for the Ministerial Conference’s organisers as it is for outsiders

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED JUNE 9, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 12, 2022

How many times can a curtain go up and down? This is our second curtain-raiser for the World Trade Organization’s 12th Ministerial Conference, now rescheduled for June 12–15, 2022.

As we wrote when the meeting was postponed in late 2021, the WTO risks disappearing into a chasm of petty procedural wrangling over what to talk about, and how to move forward.

After delays in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, and more recently the threat to multilateralism posed by Russia, the fact of it happening at all will be taken as a success. But have WTO members been able to move closer to significant agreement on anything?

This time our curtain-raiser proposes some benchmarks for assessment. There’s even a scorecard at the end for anyone following along at home.

Continue reading “Touch and go at the WTO. Is the director-general’s optimism justified?”

Good news and bad news from the scrapped WTO Ministerial Conference

WTO members have more time to deal with issues that they might, at a pinch, agree on, but momentum could be lost too

New dates
On February 23, 2022, WTO members meeting as the General Council
agreed to reschedule the Ministerial Conference for the week of June 13

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED DECEMBER 6, 2021 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 24, 2022

What was lost by postponing the World Trade Organization’s 12th Ministerial Conference? Procedurally, not much. What happens next depends on whether WTO members make the best of the opportunity.

Before the conference was scheduled to start, we argued that the solutions to the impasse in the WTO must come from the capitals of the WTO’s 164 members before anything significant can be done at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters — in effect: “reform in capitals before reforming the WTO in Geneva”.

We still think that, but at least momentum has been created in some governments. The danger is that this opportunity will be lost.

Continue reading “Good news and bad news from the scrapped WTO Ministerial Conference”

The WTO is regularly in crisis, but this time could be different

The WTO Ministerial Conference is almost upon us. The chorus of calls for “WTO reform” puts too much emphasis on Geneva when the real solutions require fundamental changes in and between the capitals of its 164 members.

New dates
On February 23, 2022, WTO members meeting as the General Council
agreed to reschedule the Ministerial Conference for the week of June 13

The Ministerial Conference had been “postponed indefinitely” on November 26, four days before it was due to start, as Switzerland tightened travel restrictions because of the new omicron COVID-19 variant

By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED OCTOBER 30 AND NOVEMBER 26, 2021 | ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY COSMOPOLITAN GLOBALIST SEPTEMBER 28, 2021 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 24, 2022

On December 8, 2019, The New York Times predicted the possible “end of the […] World Trade Organization itself.” Earlier, a Bloomberg headline spoke of a “fatal blow” to the WTO.

Two years later, the WTO is still up and running. Even the crisis in dispute settlement, where first-stage rulings can no longer be appealed — the cause of those doom-mongering news reports — has failed to stop it.

Yet the WTO does face serious problems. Dealing with them has become more urgent.

This piece was originally published in September. We are now only days away from when WTO ministers are due to meet in Geneva, where “WTO reform” is a major item on the agenda.

We have heard various upbeat statements from events like the G20 trade ministers’ October 12 meeting in Sorrento, the G7 ministers in London 10 days later, the optimistic sounds coming from Geneva, and apparently a new signal from Washington.


A cacophony of cans being kicked down the road

As the November 30–December 3 Ministerial Conference approached, activity increased, including from some ministers.

The US strengthened its call to talk.

Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng visited Geneva to rally delegations to produce “concrete outcomes on key initiatives” at the Ministerial Conference. She met the Ottawa Group of members working on WTO reform, the WTO director-general, the chair of the fisheries subsidies negotiations, ambassadors from India, South Africa, EU and Mauritius, and the US chargé d’affaires.

Nevertheless, the only likely deal to be struck is on services regulation among a small group of members. We are also told a last-minute WTO-wide breakthrough on fisheries subsidies might be possible — after 20 years of negotiation and at least one missed deadline. In reality a lot of difficult issues still remain at the last minute.

Aside from those two subjects, we remain sceptical that anything substantial will be delivered.

Continue reading or jump down the page to:
Round the clock activity | No stranger to crisis | The misunderstood role of the WTO | Dispute settlement | The real problem: low priority | ‘Reform’ and the ministerial conference | Two strands of WTO reform | Find out more

See also: Hamid Mamdouh — WTO reform imperative: a possible way forward

Continue reading “The WTO is regularly in crisis, but this time could be different”

How wide should the window be set? Short read on WTO transparency

With the clamour to reform the World Trade Organization it’s time to re-examine how information is handled. This is a summary of a 4-part long read on the WTO and transparency

Set wide the window. Let me drink the day
― Edith Wharton, Vesalius In Zante, from Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verses


By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED APRIL 26, 2021 | UPDATED MAY 27, 2021

SUMMARY

SEE ALSO THIS 4-PART LONG READ
1. Introduction | 2. External transparency | 3. Negotiations and the constraints on transparency | 4. Does transparency help or hinder?

It all began light-heartedly. Someone tweeted: “What advice do you have for young people going into public service?” A trade journalist replied: “When a reporter calls, pick up the phone …”.

This led to a much more serious debate about transparency, particularly in trade and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Would more transparency help? Would less?

Transparency in one sense is the purpose of the WTO — reliable information about government rules and practices reduces uncertainty about the conditions of trade. It also provides accountability for taxpayers’ money.

And yet in some circumstances too much information can impede governments’ ability to achieve their objectives in the WTO.

We try to clarify the distinction and to suggest that doing better ought to be part of the WTO reform agenda.

Continue reading “How wide should the window be set? Short read on WTO transparency”

How wide should the WTO window be set? 1 Transparency

With the clamour to reform the World Trade Organization it’s time to re-examine how information is handled. Some overall thoughts. First of four parts

Set wide the window. Let me drink the day
― Edith Wharton, Vesalius In Zante, from Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verses


By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED APRIL 26, 2021 | UPDATED APRIL 26, 2021

IN THIS 4-PART LONG READ
1. Introduction | 2. External transparency | 3. Negotiations and the constraints on transparency | 4. Does transparency help or hinder?

See also: The short version

It all began light-heartedly. Someone tweeted: “What advice do you have for young people going into public service?” A trade journalist replied: “When a reporter calls, pick up the phone …”.

As often happens, the exchanges quickly became heated. It led to a much more serious debate about the four “Ws” — who should be transparent, about what, when, and why. Plus a fifth “W” — the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The journalist argued seriously that democracy depended on openness, that governments owe their citizens full information on what they are doing, not spin, information control or obfuscation, and that all officials at all levels should always respond to requests for information.

But is it wise for inexperienced staff to talk to journalists about complex and sensitive subjects? If the organisation supervises its officials when dealing with the media is that censorship and is it anti-democratic? And more broadly, are there times when confidentiality can actually help produce good results, for example in negotiations?

Continue reading “How wide should the WTO window be set? 1 Transparency”

How wide should the WTO window be set? 2 External transparency

With the clamour to reform the World Trade Organization it’s time to re-examine how its information is handled. Second of four parts: external transparency

Madman, thou errest: I say, there is no darkness
but ignorance

          ― William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 4 Scene 2


By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED APRIL 26, 2021 | UPDATED JANUARY, 2022

IN THIS 4-PART LONG READ
1. Introduction | 2. External transparency | 3. Negotiations and the constraints on transparency | 4. Does transparency help or hinder?

See also: The short version

An organisation like the World Trade Organization provides public information primarily for accountability. A better understanding of the WTO can also help generate public support, at least for the system, even if not necessarily for all of the trade rules it produces. Accountability and approval give the organisation legitimacy.

The WTO is, after all, funded by taxpayers via governments’ contributions to its budget. The WTO’s relevance depends on governments complying with the agreements they negotiated. It relies on their commitment to modernise the system through new negotiations. To achieve both of those, WTO governments need the support of public opinion.

This works at several levels and raises several questions. Does the WTO resonate well domestically with the public, farm lobbies, business interests, and others? Are officials around the world, in rich and poor countries, learning about what is at stake, as they work on domestic issues — from agriculture and state aid to banking and the environment?

Continue reading “How wide should the WTO window be set? 2 External transparency”

How wide should the WTO window be set? 3 Negotiations

With the clamour to reform the World Trade Organization it’s time to re-examine how its information is handled. Third of four parts: negotiations

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman
― Louis D Brandeis, Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It, 1914


By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED APRIL 26, 2021 | UPDATED JUNE 6, 2022

IN THIS 4-PART LONG READ
1. Introduction | 2. External transparency | 3. Negotiations and the constraints on transparency | 4. Does transparency help or hinder?

See also: The short version

In part 2, we said we believe external transparency should be the default in the World Trade Organization (WTO). But we also recognise that some confidentiality is needed at least for a limited time.

This is particularly the case in some stages of negotiations, but with limits. Here’s why.

Continue reading “How wide should the WTO window be set? 3 Negotiations”