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’?”

Two last-minute agriculture proposals land as WTO conference approaches

Brazil submits first ever counter proposal from “non-demandeurs” on domestic support in public stockholding

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JUNE 3, 2022 (REPLACING THIS ORIGINAL PAGE) | UPDATED JUNE 3, 2022

Less than two weeks before the re-scheduled World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference, two new proposals were circulated on May 31, 2022, on the most difficult subject in the agriculture negotiations — including the first from a “non-demandeur”.

The two proposals are from opposite sides on how to deal with domestic support in developing countries’ stockholding programmes for food security.

The debate in a meeting of WTO ambassadors two days later showed how far apart members still are on this with only 10 days to go before their ministers meet in Geneva. Members are now holding round-the-clock meetings to prepare for their June 12–15 Ministerial Conference

Continue reading “Two last-minute agriculture proposals land as WTO conference approaches”

Two last-minute agriculture proposals land as WTO conference approaches

Brazil submits first ever counter proposal from “non-demandeurs” on domestic support in public stockholding

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JUNE 1, 2022 | UPDATED JUNE 1, 2022

Less than two weeks before the re-scheduled World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference, two new proposals were circulated on the most difficult subject in the agriculture negotiations — including the first from “non-demandeurs”.

The two proposals are from opposite sides on how to deal with domestic support in developing countries’ stockholding programmes for food security.

… This has been updated and re-posted here

Can a WTO member be expelled? No. But …

The response from almost all legal experts is simple: there are no provisions in the WTO agreements allowing expulsion or suspension

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MARCH 23, 2022 | UPDATED MARCH 26, 2022

Can a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) be expelled? The short answer is no. There is no legal means of doing that.

The question arises because of a number of calls to expel Russia, to suspend its membership or to suspend its ability to act in the WTO, in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

Those three are not exactly the same. The first two — expulsion or suspending membership — are clearly legal issues. They require decisions by the WTO’s membership.

The response from almost all experts in WTO trade law is simple: there are no provisions in the WTO agreements that would allow expulsion or suspension.

Continue reading “Can a WTO member be expelled? No. But …”

Ukraine invasion—what Russia and Belarus face in the WTO system: so far

The feasible actions are unilateral. Anything requiring formal decisions in the WTO such as suspending membership is likely to fail

This blog post contains a list of actions that countries have taken against Russia and Belarus. It will now only be updated occasionally. The point was to examine how they work, where WTO decisions might be needed and the implications, and how they relate to WTO provisions such as non-discrimination (MFN) or the security exceptions. That should be clearer now.

See these sources for closer monitoring:

Global Trade Alert

A considerably longer list of sanctions announced against Russia is available at Global Trade Alert. Many are outside the WTO system. Some may be within the system, such as export restrictions on dual-use products and restrictions on shipping services (but not air traffic rights). Russia’s retaliation is here.

Global Trade Alert was originally set up by Simon Evenett and his team at St Gallen University, Switzerland. It is now run by an independent foundation.

PIIE

Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) has created a timeline that tracks all the actions taken by various countries on all sides: Russia’s war on Ukraine: A sanctions timeline.

A number of other sources are available. This one (details paywalled) is Europe-centred.


By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MARCH 4, 2022 | UPDATED MAY 10, 2022 (SEE ALSO ENTRY DATES)

This is a summary of actions taken or proposed so far against Russia within the WTO system. Some are also against Belarus, which is not a WTO member.

They are deliberately described as “within the WTO system” and not “in the WTO” — or worse “by the WTO” — to avoid confusion.

Continue reading “Ukraine invasion—what Russia and Belarus face in the WTO system: so far”

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
POSTED JANUARY 3, 2022 | UPDATED MARCH 24, 2022

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’”

Hamid Mamdouh — WTO reform imperative: a possible way forward

Posted by Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED NOVEMBER 9, 2021 | UPDATED NOVEMBER 9, 2021

This is a short proposal on World Trade Organization (WTO) reform by Hamid Mamdouh, former director of the WTO Secretariat’s Trade in Services Division and a recent candidate to be WTO director-general.

Mamdouh proposes members start from overall principles and cover all three of the WTO’s main functions:

This should be done, he suggests, in a new working party to start work in the new year.

He is not alone. The EU Commission and Council have also floated the idea of a working group on WTO reform in a trade policy statement presented to the European Parliament on February 18, 2021 (page 18 of this). The EU is understood to be discussing the proposal privately with other delegations in Geneva.

Continue reading “Hamid Mamdouh — WTO reform imperative: a possible way forward”

‘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

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


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
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”

India and South Africa pour cold water on alternative approach to WTO talks

On the day she started her term as new WTO chief, Okonjo-Iweala faced a challenge to her vision

SEE ALSO
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”

Yes, the WTO needs fixing—but not the way this NY Times piece imagines

Farah Stockman’s ideas won’t work because they don’t ‘get’ the WTO

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED DECEMBER 27, 2020 | UPDATED DECEMBER 28, 2020

There’s a little anecdote on the World Trade Organization’s website, right at the start of “Understanding the WTO”. As the name suggests, “Understanding” is the principal explainer of how the WTO works. The anecdote goes:


Participants in a recent radio discussion on the WTO were full of ideas. The WTO should do this, the WTO should do that, they said.
     One of them finally interjected: “Wait a minute. The WTO is a table. People sit round the table and negotiate. What do you expect the table to do?”

If we keep that in mind as we read Farah Stockman’s New York Times opinion piece (“The W.T.O. Is Having a Midlife Crisis”, December 17, 2020), then it’s easier to see why so much of the piece is wrong.

Continue reading “Yes, the WTO needs fixing—but not the way this NY Times piece imagines”