Explainer: The 18 WTO plurilaterals and ‘joint-statement initiatives’

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

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.

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‘Plurilateral’ WTO services deal struck after breakthrough text released

Creating new rules without officially calling them ‘rules’ solves an immediate problem but leaves long term questions

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This article was revised in December 2021, but follows the structure of the original version from September 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

See also:
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

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.

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Dire WTO General Council meeting shows scale of Okonjo-Iweala’s task

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.

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