Don’t be fooled by the smiles. The next WTO Ministerial Conference is only a year away but the atmosphere is worse than before the previous one
By Peter Ungphakorn and Robert Wolfe
POSTED FEBRUARY 26, 2023 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 26, 2023
Time flies. It was only last June that the World Trade Organization (WTO) emerged from a morale-boosting Ministerial Conference, hailed as a success simply because members could at least agree on what to do next, often in the vaguest possible terms, and not on everything.
They did strike a deal on curbing harmful fisheries subsidies but even that was gutted of its most important element: tackling subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, the top priority of UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 Target 6.
The June success is already a distant memory.
Continue reading “Belief in the multilateral trade system is eroding, and that spells trouble”
It would be impossible for India to make a case for what ‘compensation’ it is owed in return for more commitments undertaken by others — Hamid Mamdouh
By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED FEBRUARY 7, 2023 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 9, 2023
India and South Africa are questioning the right of 62 World Trade Organization (WTO) members to implement their agreement to streamline domestic regulation in services, but experts question whether the two can prevent the deal from becoming legal.
The deal was concluded in December last year. Since then, most of the participants have submitted what they have each agreed to do, in the form of draft revised “schedules” (or lists) of commitments in services.
Altogether there are 35 schedules of commitments covering the 62 members (counting the EU as 28), meaning 8 of the 70 participants have not yet sent in theirs. (See details below.)
Estimates by the WTO and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggest the agreement could potentially save trade costs by about US$150bn annually. The 62 WTO members that have submitted new draft schedules account for about 89% of world services trade — 92.5% if all 70 are counted, WTO Deputy Director-General Anabel González says.
By putting the deal in individual members’ schedules of commitments, the participants have avoided the need for consensus approval by the whole WTO membership.
Continue reading “Experts: India, S.Africa unlikely to succeed in blocking WTO services deal”
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.
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”
The WTO director-general says she discouraged negotiators from trading give-and-take across issues
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,
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’?”
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
Delegates on the terrace at the WTO headquarters, Geneva, night of June 15, 2022 | WTO
Brand new, decades old, or in between? Exclusive or applying to all members? Proper negotiations or just talk? Which is which, and what are the subjects?
By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JANUARY 3, 2022 | UPDATED MAY 26, 2023
As World Trade Organization (WTO) members struggle to reach consensus on numerous issues, many see talks among “the willing” as the way to modernise the organisation and in many cases to update its trade rules. But the approach is controversial.
These talks and resulting decisions among only some WTO members are called “plurilateral” to distinguish them from “multilateral” activities and agreements among the WTO’s whole membership.
Continue reading “Explainer: The 18 WTO plurilaterals and ‘joint-statement initiatives’”
The post-Ministerial Conference “structured discussion” would only be among some members and would, follow a proposed timetable.
By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 5, 2021 | UPDATED DECEMBER 12, 2021
On November 4, the US reportedly announced it was joining other World Trade Organization (WTO) members in calling for “structured discussions” on trade, environment and sustainability — a fortnight after China reportedly did the same (on October 22).
This was confirmed on November 15, when the participants released the text as a public statement for the November 30–December 3 WTO Ministerial conference. By then Israel had also joined, bringing total participants to 57 WTO members. On December 3 a revision was circulated adding 13 new participants bringing the total to 70, but with no change to the main content.
With so much attention being paid to environmental issues, not least during the fortnight of the UN Climate Change conference in Glasgow, agreeing on an innocuous text like this should be straightforward.
But it isn’t. Why? And why isn’t this automatically part of the work of the WTO’s Trade and Environment Committee?
Continue reading “WTO environment talks — official text with 70 members: China, US, Israel too”
Creating new rules without officially calling them ‘rules’ solves an immediate problem but leaves long term questions
Skip this update and go straight to the article
This article was revised in December 2021, but follows the structure of the original version from September 2021.
UPDATE, DECEMBER 3, 2021:
The deal was eventually announced in Geneva on December 2, 2021, even though the Ministerial Conference had been postponed.
A lightly revised version of the September “reference paper” was released along with a list of the 68 participating members (counting the EU as 28) that had submitted “schedules” (lists) of commitments to streamline domestic regulation. These were combined into a single declaration.
The legally binding part of the deal is those commitments, which will be added to the schedules of commitments participating countries already attached to the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services.
The reference paper itself will not be an official WTO agreement, but the new schedules of commitments will refer to the principles in the reference paper, making those commitments legally binding in practice.
By December 2, 2021, the 68 participants were:
Albania; Argentina; Australia; Austria; Bahrain; Belgium; Brazil; Bulgaria; Canada; Chile; China; Colombia; Costa Rica; Croatia; Cyprus; Czech Republic; Denmark; El Salvador; Estonia; European Union; Finland; France; Germany; Greece; Hong Kong, China; Hungary; Iceland; Ireland; Israel; Italy; Japan; Kazakhstan; Korea, Republic of; Latvia; Liechtenstein; Lithuania; Luxembourg; Malta; Mauritius; Mexico; Moldova, Republic of; Montenegro; Netherlands; New Zealand; Nigeria; North Macedonia; Norway; Paraguay; Peru; Philippines; Poland; Portugal; Romania; Russian Federation; Saudi Arabia, Kingdom of; Singapore; Slovak Republic; Slovenia; Spain; Sweden; Switzerland; Chinese Taipei; Thailand; Turkey; Ukraine; United Kingdom; United States; Uruguay
Explainer: The 18 WTO plurilaterals and ‘joint-statement initiatives’ | Participants in WTO plurilaterals | WTO news story | Comprehensive coverage on the independent website on WTO plurliaterals | Hamid Mamdouh on the legal options for adding another plurilateral agreement (investment facilitation) to the WTO rulebook.
By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED SEPTEMBER 29, 2021 | UPDATED DECEMBER 6, 2021
Almost 70 members of he World Trade Organization (WTO) announced a deal to discipline domestic regulation of services on December 2, 2021, two months after they agreed on the rules they would apply.
The final text saw only minor adjustments compared with the original announced on September 27, 2021, and described as a breakthrough allowing the final deal to be struck.
The September announcement paved the way for the participants to agree on the complete package by the Ministerial Conference (November 30 to December 3 this year), the WTO said. At that time the talks’ participants were officially had 65, but actually 66 WTO members. This has now risen to 68 (or officially 67)
All that remained after the September 27 announcement was for the participants to go through each other’s individual commitments on how the new disciplines would be applied, the WTO said.
Continue reading “‘Plurilateral’ WTO services deal struck after breakthrough text released”
If this was an indication of members’ willingness to listen to the new director-general they had picked, then she must be disappointed
By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MARCH 5, 2021 | UPDATED JULY 25, 2021
‘It cannot be business as usual,” she had said when she was appointed. “It cannot be business as usual,” the ambassadors had echoed as they congratulated her. And at the next opportunity they did their utmost to demonstrate the exact opposite.
If Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala needed evidence of how much had to change at the World Trade Organization (WTO), her first few days as director-general offered her plenty to think about. Some who attended the WTO General Council’s first regular meeting of the year said it was one of the worst they could remember.
Continue reading “Dire WTO General Council meeting shows scale of Okonjo-Iweala’s task”
On the day she started her term as new WTO chief, Okonjo-Iweala faced a challenge to her vision
Explainer: The 18 WTO plurilaterals and ‘joint-statement initiatives’
Participants in the present plurilaterals: Technical note
For a taste of the intense debate on this in the WTO General Council,
see this 13-page extract from the minutes (March 2021 meeting)
There are also signs that the “plurilateral” approach can
produce results. See “‘Plurilateral’ WTO services
deal struck after breakthrough text released”
By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED FEBRUARY 22, 2021 | UPDATED JANUARY 10, 2022
It’s tempting to call it a bombshell. But the warning signs have been around for some time. Nevertheless a new paper from India and South Africa signals a tough ride for the new head of the World Trade Organization’s ambitions to drive negotiations forward.
The paper criticises negotiations involving only part of the WTO’s membership. They are called “plurilaterals” and are seen as a way of breaking deadlock when consensus is elusive.
Continue reading “India and South Africa pour cold water on alternative approach to WTO talks”