WTO 8th Ministerial Conference – No Surprises
JB Cronjé, tralac Researcher, comments on the upcoming Eighth WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva
On 15-17 December 2011 the highest decision-making body of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will hold its Eighth Ministerial Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. This will mark the fourth conference of its kind since the launching of the current Round of trade negotiations among the WTO Members more than a decade ago.
The Round is also commonly known as the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) due to its objective to place “the needs and interests” of developing countries “at the heart of the Work Programme” adopted in the Doha Ministerial Declaration (WT/MIN(01)/DEC/1). The Preamble to the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization provides “there is need for positive efforts designed to ensure that developing countries, and especially the least-developed among them, secure a share in the growth in international trade commensurate with the needs of their economic development”. Subsequently, the Declaration launching the first Round of trade negotiations since the establishment of the WTO provides that “enhanced market access, balanced rules, and well-targeted, sustainably financed technical assistance and capacity-building programmes have important roles to play” to reach this objective. In particular, WTO Members are “committed to addressing the marginalisation of least-developed countries in international trade and to improving their participation in the multilateral trading system”. However, international trade regulation serves different and sometimes competing objectives and it is difficult to strike a balance between them.
Over the years the negotiations have progressed and stalled at different times for various reasons. The negotiations have now reached an impasse. According to the Director-General, Pascal Lamy, this stalemate can primarily be attributed to “different views as to what constitutes a fair distribution of rights and obligations within a global trading system, among Members with different levels of development” (Report by the Chairman of the Trade Negotiations Committee to the General Council on 30 November 2011). That is the essential problem. Today the WTO faces a multipolar world. The advent of large emerging economies such as India and Brazil has changed the political economy at the WTO. The accession of China in December 2001 had a profound impact on decision-making and the eminent accession of Russia will further change the negotiating dynamic in the WTO. The Director-General also added in his report that this problem “is a political question to which a political response will be required”.
It is against this background that the upcoming Ministerial Conference will take place along three broad themes namely the importance of the multilateral trading system and the WTO; trade and development; and, Doha Development Agenda. In preparation of the Ministerial Conference, the General Council reached consensus on certain issues that fall under these themes at its meeting on 30 November 2011. A document titled “Elements for Political Guidance” in all three areas – systemic, development and DDA – will be forwarded to the Ministers of the Eight Ministerial Conference for endorsement. The Ministers will have the opportunity to review the work of the WTO and to provide political guidance for future work.
They have agreed to neither change the original negotiating mandate nor to abandon the principles of single undertaking, inclusiveness and transparency as enshrined in the Doha Ministerial Declaration. In particular, they “remain committed to work actively, in a transparent and inclusive manner, towards a successful multilateral conclusion of the Doha Development Agenda in accordance with its mandate” (WT/MIN(11)/W/2). Some Members have suggested that different negotiating approaches should be considered in an attempt to break the impasse. They have argued for a plurilateral approach where Members with similar interests negotiate only certain issues in smaller groups. Such an approach would allow Members not to negotiate the whole Doha package with the full membership. Others have argued that the world has changed since the launching of the Doha Round and that the underlying developmental mandate that underpins the negotiations should be reconsidered. In particular the need to reclassify the commitments emerging economies should undertake. Some Members also expressed the need to explore the links between trade and energy, food security, competition and investment as part of the negotiations.
The most promising development is, however, Members’ indication to advance negotiations at least in those areas on which provisional or definitive agreements could be reached before the full conclusion of the single undertaking. Notwithstanding this, the essential problem remains.