Informal WTO Ministerial gathering on the sidelines of the WEF emphasises the need for political discussion on development

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Informal WTO Ministerial gathering on the sidelines of the WEF emphasises the need for political discussion on development

Informal WTO Ministerial gathering on the sidelines of the WEF emphasises the need for political discussion on development
Photo credit: WTO

The Informal World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial Gathering on the side-lines of World Economic Forum (WEF) was convened by Switzerland on 26 January 2018 as an opportunity for an open and frank exchange among invited Ministers on the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

It offered an opportunity for an assessment of the 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11) held in Buenos Aires, Argentina and to reflect how to ensure the WTO’s relevance to all Members. The meeting was attended by 29 countries from across all regions.

The meeting noted that global trade grew by 3.2% in 2017 and emphasised the need for collective action to ensure sustained global trade growth that supports economic growth and job creation.

However, the participants noted with concern that MC11 yielded limited outcomes and resulted in Ministerial Decisions on just five issues and with limited scope. This includes decisions to secure a deal on elimination of fisheries subsidies by MC12 in December 2019; a rollover of the moratoria on taxation of electronic transactions, with continuation of the e-commerce work programme, and non-violation complaints under the TRIPS Agreement; continuation of the work program on Small Economies; and the establishment of a working party for South Sudan’s accession. On Agriculture, NAMA, Services and Development, there were no outcomes or agreed work programmes. Furthermore, there was no agreed Ministerial Declaration.

Many participants in the meeting emphasised the centrality of the WTO in promoting a rules based trading system, and acknowledged that the WTO is facing challenges which include among others the lack of progress and divergent views on the Doha Development Agenda, as illustrated by statements at MC11 and the approach to dealing with the new issues such as e-commerce in a way that supports inclusive development and promotes a digital industrial policy.

Concerns were also raised with the current impasse in the filling of the open positions of members of the WTO Appellate Body and the risk this poses to a functional dispute settlement mechanism.

There was a shared sentiment in the meeting that a political dialogue is needed to ensure the WTO remains relevant and serves the interests of all its Members. Most Members emphasised the need to continue work on fisheries subsidies with a view to have an outcome in the next Ministerial Conference towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goal 14.6.

Speaking on behalf of the Africa Group, Minister Davies re-iterated concerns with lack of outcomes on development issues of interest to Africa. He agreed with the need for a deeper reflection in the WTO that takes into account the backlash against globalisation and trade due to growing inequality and uncertainty amongst citizens, as well as a political discussion on development.

“To regain support and legitimacy, we should promote an inclusive developmental multilateralism. The test of any and all rules is whether they promote inclusivity and development or its opposite: marginalisation and inequality. For Africa: ‘Agenda 2063’ is the overarching framework for integration, industrialisation and structural transformation and the WTO should support these objectives and provide policy space for developing countries to industrialise,” said Minister Davies.

On the remaining Doha issues, Minister Davies re-iterated the need to continue to explore possibilities for outcomes on agriculture, especially disciplines in trade distorting domestic support, a core issue of interests; cotton; food security; and industrialisation. He also stressed the need to respect past ministerial decisions.

The meeting thanked Argentina for the excellent hosting of MC11.


DG Azevêdo calls on members to match words of support for the WTO with deeds

In his comments at the meeting, the Director-General reflected on the outlook after MC11. He said:

“Despite the energy and activity we saw on various issues at MC11, clearly the overall outcome was disappointing. We need to face up to the problems before us. Everyone seems ready to pledge their support for the system. But while political support is essential, it is not sufficient. Words need to be matched by deeds. If we believe in multilateralism, we have to be ready to take the steps needed to make it work. 

“After MC11 it can’t just be business as usual. We need to find ways to avoid repeating unsuccessful approaches, and reaching the same unsatisfactory result. We need to reflect – but to do so in an active way. Development, and particularly the prospects of the LDCs, must remain at the heart of our work.”

On a positive note, the Director-General also touched on new developments from the Buenos Aires meeting:

“I also want to acknowledge the positive progress made in Buenos Aires by groups of members on e-commerce, investment facilitation, micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, and women’s economic empowerment. It’s encouraging that proponents are clear that these initiatives will be as open, inclusive and transparent as possible.”

Commenting on the broader trade debate, he continued:

“Trade has been high on the agenda in Davos this week. There are growing fears that tensions will continue to rise, with damaging consequences. These risks were what everyone was talking about in Davos last year as well. But they didn't actually materialize. Leaders showed some restraint and the trading system did its job once again.

“While the risks still remain very real, global trade is actually performing well. Growth in 2017 was stronger, and forecasts for 2018 are also quite encouraging. We need trade to keep playing its role in supporting economic growth and job creation in all our economies. Therefore I hope we will see similar restraint from governments this year – and I call on all WTO members to play their part in that effort.”