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?”

No agreement on India’s call for WTO ministers to discuss COVID-19 waiver

Many delegations argued that ministers meeting online would not be able to break the deadlock

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JANUARY 10, 2022 | UPDATED JANUARY 11, 2022

India’s call for an online WTO ministerial meeting to  discuss the proposed intellectual property waiver for COVID-19 fell well short of consensus at an informal General Council meeting today (January 10, 2022).

Many delegations countering that members would have to be much closer to agreement on the proposed waiver before a meeting of ministers would be able to contribute to a solution, said sources familiar with today’s discussion of just over two hours.

Continue reading “No agreement on India’s call for WTO ministers to discuss COVID-19 waiver”

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”

‘Fisheries subsidies’ has been agreed by WTO ministers. What’s next?

The implications of the next procedural steps are little known. This could still take some time

UPDATE
Agreement was reached at the
rescheduled June 12–17 Ministerial Conference
Consensus was achieved by leaving out disciplines on subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing (Article 5). Members agree to complete negotiations on these in four years or else the new agreement will lapse (Article 12).

The final text is here.
It says the new agreement will be inserted into Annex 1A (goods) after the Subsidies and Countervailing Measures Agreement. An official document certifying that the text is correct was circulated on July 13, 2022.

More updates are listed here
The points raised in the article below still hold even though it was first written before the original 2021 dates for the Ministerial Conference.

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 17, 2021 | UPDATED AUGUST 18, 2022

It was always touch-and-go whether World Trade Organization (WTO) members could strike a deal on curbing harmful fisheries subsidies when their ministers were due to meet first in November 2021, and then rescheduled in June 2022.

The agreement that they did eventually reach is incomplete. Consensus was achieved by leaving out disciplines on subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing. Members agreed to complete negotiations on these in four years or else the new agreement will lapse.

But even with the deal that was struck, there are more procedures to go through before it becomes WTO law and before it applies to WTO members.

That’s right. Even though agreement was reached on June 17, 2022, for now (July 2022) it is still not effective. It is not part of WTO law.

This article is about what is needed to turn the agreement into legal rules. How long that will take is up in the air, but it could be a year or two at least. It might even take longer.

That said, there’s nothing to stop members implementing unilaterally what they agree. On an issue like this they should do so anyway. But they would not be able to use, for example, WTO dispute settlement against other countries because there would be no legal rules yet.

The procedures are worth bearing in mind. They are not well-known, even among people who follow trade.

This was demonstrated when I ran a little poll on Twitter on this subject. Out of 150 people who responded, 86% were wrong.

Continue reading “‘Fisheries subsidies’ has been agreed by WTO ministers. What’s next?”

‘A lot rests on Members’ shoulders’ — sixth WTO fisheries text circulated

“I have seen first-hand members’ collective commitment and dedication. … I genuinely believe that we can deliver a balanced a meaningful outcome on fisheries subsidies by MC12”

UPDATES
See “Update on WTO fisheries subsidies talks”,
including the drafts the chair sent to the rescheduled Ministerial Conference on June 10, 2022 and the final agreement

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 10, 2021 | UPDATED JUNE 11, 2022

The chair of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiations circulated a new draft agreement on November 8, 2021, saying “I genuinely believe that we can deliver a balanced a meaningful outcome on fisheries subsidies” by the Ministerial Conference at the end of this month.

“The eyes of the world are really on us,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told ambassadors at the negotiations meeting where the new text was introduced.

“Time is short and I believe that this text reflects a very important step toward a final outcome. I really see a significant rebalancing of the provisions, including those pertaining to special and differential treatment, while, at the same time, maintaining the level of ambition.”

The new draft is the sixth compiled and circulated by the chair, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, since June 2020, the last three released as public documents since May this year.

It is based on negotiations since September and was presented to a meeting of heads of delegations (usually ambassadors) of the WTO’s 164 members.

Continue reading “‘A lot rests on Members’ shoulders’ — sixth WTO fisheries text circulated”

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”

Optimism v pessimism: what to make of Katherine Tai’s Geneva speech

‘If you will listen to us, we will listen to you, and let’s start the reform process from there.’ But was USTR Tai being disingenuous?

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED OCTOBER 21, 2021 | UPDATED OCTOBER 21, 2021

The reaction among experts to US Trade Representative Katherine Tai’s speech in Geneva on October 14, 2021, has been mixed, some welcoming the optimistic tone, others disappointed at the lack of specifics.

“Unpopular take: Tai’s Geneva speech was actually quite good and clarifying at this stage,” said one privately. “I heard her as being noncommittal but also not prejudging.”

“Sorry I’m with the pessimists on the Tai speech, if nine months into a US administration the best that can be offered is that something might be considered in the future,” said another.

Continue reading “Optimism v pessimism: what to make of Katherine Tai’s Geneva speech”