WTO Talks Collapse

BUENOS AIRES (CMC) | Caribbean countries have expressed disappointment at the collapse of talks towards a final outcome document at the 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

“The reality is that we’ve had countries take entrenched positions, and unless we are prepared to be flexible, we will not come to any meaningful solutions,” said Maxine McClean, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade for Barbados, who is also acting coordinator and spokesperson for the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group at MC11. The talks broke down despite the best efforts by the Argentina’s Ambassador, Susana Malcorra, who chaired the threeday meeting to get member states to agree to a “scaled down” ministerial declaration. Trade observers said no substantive agreements had been achieved during the talks although decisions were passed on e-commerce duties, MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) and a commitment made to round up negotiations on fisheries subsidies by the next ministerial meeting in 2019. WTO director general Roberto Azevedo admitted the outcome was “disappointing,” adding “we can’t deliver at every ministerial.

“It’s not every time that ministers meet that they are going to be able to strike deals of the magnitude of what we achieved in (the 9th and 10th ministerial conferences) in Bali and Nairobi… We knew progress here would require a leap in members’ positions. We didn’t see that,” he told the closing ceremony. The result was partly expected, as negotiations by Geneva-based envoys over the past two years failed to generate a draft ministerial declaration by the time MC11 commenced. Three days of political wrangling in Buenos Aires were unable to turn the tide, and the Americans put the final nail in the coffin when it rejected a last-ditch draft declaration circulated just a day before meetings closed.

The ACP Secretariat said that for its members, it means the fight continues for global trading rules that benefit poorer nations as much as they do more powerful players. It has also sparked a drive to explore parallel tactics to boost the ACP’s meagre share of world trade, which currently stands at less than two per cent. In addition to rigid positions, ACP countries faced an increasing disinterest from powerful economies in terms of committing fully to a system where 165 countries have an equal say in setting the rules.

Consensus at the WTO is notoriously hard to achieve, and some countries are turning more towards deals with individual or a few countries at a time. “The core focus on multilateral trade rules seem to be taking a back seat to some of the developed world’s efforts to focus on bilateral arrangements. That to my mind is detrimental in many respects for the countries of the ACP as developing countries said McClean.

“There are real asymmetries in terms of trading power and therefore our best hope is under a regime that is global, transparent, that seeks to address the real situations that we face as small developing countries,” she added.

The deadlock here was mainly over two key issues including the reaffirmation of the Marrakesh Agreement, which supports a rules-based multilateral trading system as well as “special and differential treatment” for developing countries that promotes their industrialisation and structural transformation. Officials said the second issue relates to development as enshrined in the Doha Development Agenda (DDA), whose fundamental objective is to improve the trading prospects of developing countries. Some developed states refused to reaffirm these principles, calling instead for a review of the meaning of ‘development’, and other key reforms to the WTO. But the ACP Group is adhering to the principles as agreed in Marrakesh and Doha.

“When we talk about moving away from the agreements we made in Doha, that does not bring us comfort…We cannot abandon what constitutes the foundation of what we must build upon,” said McClean.

“To my mind there can be two parallel tracks – seeking to address the commitments that we made, and as we try to address them, we will recognise that changes perhaps have to be made, but there cannot be an abandonment of those commitments.” The Barbados minister said that going forward, countries must also seek other strategies in addition to the world done within the WTO and the ACP to boost trade.

“Within the context of the ACP, we have the capacity to engage in intra-ACP activity and we need to focus on that. As we try to fix the situation that we are facing in the context of the WTO, I believe that we have also have to turn our attention to how we can strengthen our own trade relations,” she said. “There is the demand, there capacity to engage in trade, we know what the constraints are, and we therefore should work towards addressing those constraints,” said McClean, who had made a final plea to fellow ministers and negotiators to return to their respective capitals and to Geneva and seriously explore how to increase trade within and amongst ACP countries. Discussions are set to take place in the first quarter of 2018, to reflect on strategies moving forward.