WTO environment talks — official text with 70 members: China, US, Israel too

The post-Ministerial Conference “structured discussion” would only be among some members and would, follow a proposed timetable.

By Peter Ungphakorn

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”

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

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”

Draft chair’s text July 2021 for the WTO agriculture negotiations

Circulated by Ambassador Gloria Abraham Peralta on July 29, 2021

See also
New agriculture draft suggests nervousness in divided WTO

By Peter Ungphakorn

Note: the official draft text is here with a small correction here. It was circulated on July 29 by Ambassador Gloria Abraham Peralta of Costa Rica, the present chair of the negotiations.

A revised version was circulated on November 23, 2021

The original starts with an assessment by the chair, with a long introduction, eight subject headings, and a conclusion. Then comes an annex with draft texts for decisions or agreements on each of those subjects.

Here, the text has been reorganised so the assessment and draft text for each subject are brought together under a single subject heading:

  1. Introduction (on this page)
  2. Domestic support and draft
  3. Market access and draft
  4. Export competition [where export subsidies might be hidden] and draft
  5. Export restrictions and draft
  6. Cotton and draft
  7. Special safeguard mechanism (SSM) and draft
  8. Public stockholding for food security purposes (PSH) [where purchases at government-set prices are trade-distorting domestic support] and draft
  9. Transparency and draft
  10. Conclusion (on this page)
Continue reading “Draft chair’s text July 2021 for the WTO agriculture negotiations”

Optimism after WTO ministers meet on fisheries subsidies, despite splits

Did ministers bring real hope to the WTO fish subsidies talks or are WTO leaders clutching at straws?

By Peter Ungphakorn

Update: As the talks resumed after the summer break and headed for the year-end Ministerial Conference, there was little sign of any compromise on the outstanding issues.

India circulated a new proposal (not public) calling for a 25-year exemption from overfishing subsidy prohibitions for developing countries not engaged in distant water fishing. A number of delegations complained in a session on September 24 that this and other ideas in the proposal “had no element that could help bring about a compromise between members” (Amiti Sen in Hindu Business Line, September 26, 2021).

See more updates, as negotiators go through the chair’s draft line by line almost daily in October 2021.

The two people managing the negotiations on fisheries subsidies in the World Trade Organization (WTO) said they were more confident that an agreement can be reached after 104 ministers or their representatives participated in an online meeting on July 15, 2021.

“This is the closest we have ever come towards reaching an outcome — a high-quality outcome that would contribute to building a sustainable blue economy,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told the ministers at the end of the meeting.

“The prospect for a deal in the autumn ahead of our Ministerial Conference has clearly improved,” she said.

The next Ministerial Conference — the WTO’s top decision-making body — meets from November 30 to December 3 this year

Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, who chairs the negotiations, echoed Okonjo-Iweala. He told a press conference afterwards that he was also more optimistic that an agreement can be reached in time.

But some of the statements that have been made public, with some reading between the lines, show that major differences still remain.

Continue reading “Optimism after WTO ministers meet on fisheries subsidies, despite splits”

UPDATES: the WTO fisheries subsidies talks

Links to some key documents and news

By Peter Ungphakorn

The drive for a WTO agreement on fisheries subsidies accelerated in 2021 and eventually led to a slightly stripped down agreement at the Geneva Ministerial Conference in June 2022.

The first target had been missed to conclude all or most of the subject by July 2021, but the aim was still for a formal agreement to be struck at the ministerial conference at the end of the year. That was postponed, and negotiators headed into 2022 aiming to conclude as quickly as possible. Agreement was achieved on June 17, 2022.

Updates will be added here for the latest developments, with links to new documents and news items.

June 17, July 13, 2022— WTO members agree on the final fisheries subsidies text (see also identical draft sent to ministers). Article 5, originally on “subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing”, is stripped down to brief provisions on “other subsidies”. The agreement would terminate after four years of entering into force if “comprehensive disciplines are not adopted”, unless the General Council agrees to extend it.

A cover page accompanying the agreement is a protocol, ie, a legal instrument for adding the agreement to the WTO rule book as an amendment annexed to the WTO Agreement. A document certifying that the protocol is a “certified true copy” was circulated on July 13.

The agreement now goes to members to ratify (“accept”) it. It enters into force in the ratifying countries after their number has passed two-thirds of the membership. It does not enter into force in countries that have not ratified it. See explanation.

Photo of Wills on the phone during all an all night session
All-round praise: Santiago Wills’ handling of the fisheries subsidies agreement received acclaim at the Ministerial Conference | WTO

June 10, 2022 — Chair Santiago Wills submitted his latest draft to the June 12–15 Ministerial Conference, “without prejudice to any Member’s positions or views, whether or not reflected herein”. Attached was a 23-page explanatory note. He told delegations:

“I am very pleased to say that, this evening, I finished working on a revised draft of the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies which has been sent to ministers for their consideration at [the Ministerial Conference]. In some places the draft text is my best attempt to suggest an outcome that I think is most likely to attract consensus. In some areas I am delighted to say it is not my work at all. Instead, the text presented came from groups of members with very different starting positions and who, working together, resolved their differences and presented to the plenary a text they could all accept.

“Overall, the draft Agreement sent to ministers this evening represents my best and honest effort at presenting to them a draft that is as clean as possible with only a few decisions for them to focus on, negotiate, and agree. After over 20 years, it is long past time for the WTO to deliver on its promise to agree to rules that will stop subsidies for illegal and excessive fishing.”

May 20, 2022 — At the end of five days of negotiations, the chair, Santiago Wills briefed the media on progress made and the on remaining differences, and called for agreement on the text in the week of May 30, 2022. His statement to the media is here. See also this Twitter thread, and the WTO website news story.

April 7, 2022 — “In Focus: A Draft WTO Agreement to Curb Harmful Fisheries Subsidies”, a 10-minute video explanation of the draft by Alice Tipping and IISD

February 15, 2022 — “From these various consultations, I got the general sense that members are interested in using the current period to continue trying to make progress toward concluding the negotiations as soon as possible,” the chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia told an informal meeting. (Chair of fisheries subsidies negotiations reports on consultations with members, WTO news story)

December 10, 2021Chair of fisheries subsidies negotiations outlines next steps for work in the new year (WTO news story) Fisheries subsidies negotiations aim to conclude as quickly as possible in the new year, the chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia reported.

November 26, 2021WTO General Council decides to postpone Ministerial Conference indefinitely (WTO news story)

November 24, 2021 — revised 9-page draft (WT/MIN(21)/W/5) and 18-page explanation (WT/MIN(21)/W/5/Add.1) issued as official ministerial documents. See also this WTO news story, including statements by the chair. One issue seems to be settled: it’s proposed as an “agreement”

November 18, 2021If ‘fisheries subsidies’ is agreed by WTO ministers, what then? The implications of the next procedural steps are little known. This could still take some time

November 8, 2021‘A lot rests on Members’ shoulders’ — sixth WTO fisheries text circulated, including chair’s statement for media. Links to the chair’s revised 8-page draft (TN/RL/W/276/Rev.2) and 20-page explanation (TN/RL/W/276/Rev.2/Add.1). See also this WTO news story

October 29, 2021 — The WTO website reports a possible breakthrough, but gives no details. Talks chair Santiago Wills says:

“I continue to have a strong sense of optimism that we will conclude these negotiations, notwithstanding the differences that we still need to bridge. The next few weeks will not be easy as this is the time to bridge those differences. I will be continuing to reach out to different members in different configurations, to listen carefully and to prepare the ground as much as possible for MC12 [the November 30–December 3 Ministerial Conference].”

October 4–5, 2021 — As negotiators worked through the chair’s draft, there were signs that transparency might be a compromise alternative to banning fuel subsidies that are not directly for fishing (India’s new proposal; EU willing to consider). But members remain divided on (1) transparency from developing countries although the African Group suggested technical assistance to achieve this might help, and (2) the US proposal for countries to supply information on use of forced labour.

Members remained blocked on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing — how to determine fishing is IUU, and whether prohibitions should apply only to IUU boats or to whole fleets containing IUU boats.

Daily meetings are scheduled for October 11–29, going through the draft line by line.

See also WTO negotiations on fisheries subsidies hit “dark” patch, SeafoodSource, October 8, 2021

September 24, 2021 — Negotiators discussed new papers from India and the African-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) countries (with the African Group), with little sign of movement towards compromise. Several delegations said India’s proposal was not oriented towards a solution and “had no element that could help bring about a compromise between members” (see Amiti Sen in Hindu Business Line, September 26, 2021).

August 30, 2021WTO members gear up for marathon fishing subsidy negotiations starting September (WTO website)

Continue reading “UPDATES: the WTO fisheries subsidies talks”

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.

Continue reading “Dire WTO General Council meeting shows scale of Okonjo-Iweala’s task”

The WTO is surprisingly busy — considering it’s supposed to be dead

The reports of the WTO’s death are greatly exaggerated

By Peter Ungphakorn

As December approached last year, a steady stream of news reports and other articles warned of the impending death of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Deathday (December 10, 2019) came and went and still the WTO is alive and kicking.

If anyone needs proof, they could look at the schedule of meetings for the coming year. Continue reading “The WTO is surprisingly busy — considering it’s supposed to be dead”

Introducing the WTO elephant and its dodgy health

People’s understanding of the WTO is a bit like the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant. Even those who have spent their lives working on it stress different aspects

By Peter Ungphakorn

There’s been an elephant in the room ever since the discussion of Brexit and trade began. Gradually, bits of the animal have become visible, but what we’ve seen has not always been accurate. It’s time to complete the picture, and to understand why the beast isn’t in the best of health. Continue reading “Introducing the WTO elephant and its dodgy health”