Azevêdo Urges WTO Members to Deepen Engagement for MC11 Outcomes

6 October 2016

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo urged members this week to deepen their engagement as they work to determine possible negotiating outcomes for their Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11), which will be held in the Argentine capital city of Buenos Aires in late 2017.

“This is the time to engage. This is the moment to ensure that your priorities and concerns are reflected – to ensure that they are on the table,” said Azevêdo at a meeting of the organisation’s General Council on Monday.

The General Council is the organisation’s highest decision-making body outside of the ministerial conference, with this week’s meeting marking the first since the WTO’s August hiatus.

“We can only go as far as our legs allow. Whatever we do - on any issue - will not be the end of the road. It will be a first step,” he added.

At an informal meeting last week of “heads of delegation,” some WTO members similarly called for scaling up the negotiating action in order to have a smoother road to Buenos Aires than they had for the previous ministerial in Nairobi in 2015.

“Although we are seeing some positive developments in certain areas of work, we remain concerned about the overall pace of discussions and the engagement of members to advance multilaterally on certain topics,” said EU Ambassador Marc Vanheukelen last week.

“We need to start having clarity on the overall picture soon if we want to avoid the problems we encountered in the runup to Nairobi,” he added.

Indeed, trade sources say that an upcoming “mini-ministerial” in Oslo, Norway, later this month may be able to yield some useful political momentum for negotiators as they begin to ramp up their preparations for next year’s Buenos Aires gathering.

Fisheries, services

Since the previous ministerial in Nairobi, Kenya, last December, WTO members have been engaged in a process of “reflection” in an effort to determine where the organisation should go next, particularly in light of the interest by various members to explore so-called “new issues,” along with the “agreement to disagree” on whether to continue using the Doha Round framework in structuring the WTO negotiations. (See Bridges Weekly, 28 July 2016)

In recent weeks, some new developments have emerged that could signal what direction negotiators will be taking as they begin ramping up their activities ahead of the Buenos Aires ministerial.

One of these areas involves fisheries, where WTO members have said that they hope to achieve some multilaterally agreed outcome in time for the next ministerial after earlier efforts to clinch an outcome in Nairobi failed last December.

Concurrently, a joint initiative by 13 WTO members to begin preparing for negotiations on disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies was announced last month. (See Bridges Weekly, 22 September 2016)

How these two sets of negotiations may proceed in parallel will be a key question moving forward, with sources familiar with the new subsidies initiative saying that this will not preclude pursuing a multilaterally-agreed outcome. However, some WTO members not involved in the new initiative, such as the EU, have said that this topic is best addressed at the multilateral level.

Meanwhile, some members have also expressed interest in revamping the WTO’s work programme on e-commerce, with a dedicated discussion on the subject expected later this month. There has also been a renewed push for outcomes on domestic regulation in services, as well as trade facilitation in the latter.

The WTO’s Working Party on Domestic Regulation is due to meet on Thursday morning, which will see discussions on two new documents circulated in recent days – one by India on trade facilitation in services (TFS), covering all modes of supply, along with a communication from Australia, Chile, Colombia, the EU, Mexico, Norway, South Korea, and Taiwan on so-called “administrative measures” in services domestic regulation.

The Indian concept note is divided into an “illustrative” list of cross-cutting issues – such as publication and availability of information, including electronically – that could be address in a services facilitation deal, along with select topics specific to the four different modes of supply.

“India firmly believes that like the TFA, a well-structured TFS will significantly enhance the potential for trade in services for all members,” the document says. The TFA refers to the existing Trade Facilitation Agreement, which covers goods trade and is in the ratification stage.

US-China grains dispute casts shadow over farm talks

On the subject of agriculture, trade officials told Bridges that they were waiting to see what would happen next in the legal challenge that Washington initiated last month on Beijing’s grain subsidies. (See Bridges Weekly, 15 September 2016)

The US has begun the first step in legal proceedings at the WTO by requesting consultations with China over its support programmes – which some observers say could cast a pall over efforts to negotiate an outcome on agricultural domestic support ahead of the next ministerial conference.

“We’re waiting to see how that plays out,” one source said.

Another trade official said that the US elections also limited how much could be achieved in the talks in the short term, as American officials were effectively unable to engage meaningfully in the process until there was more clarity on the approach the new Administration would take.

The US has reportedly said that it will aim to continue constructive engagement in the WTO talks, while acknowledging the domestic electoral context.

In the meantime, the legal challenge could remain at the consultation stage – possibly even for years – or the US could eventually request that the WTO establishes a dispute settlement panel.

In the meantime, other countries could continue to push for improvements to be made in global farm subsidy rules – with the upcoming Oslo meeting the next opportunity for members to test the waters on this issue, sources said.

Members such as the EU and Brazil are believed to be looking at potential options in this area, sources told Bridges, possibly with a view to tabling an informal paper on the topic at the global trade body.

ICTSD reporting.

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