MC11 may become platform for future plurilateral talks

The WTO Ministerial Conference this December could see the launch of plurilateral negotiations on a number of contentious new issues if multilateral agreements in areas under the existing work programme cannot be reached.

by D. Ravi Kanth

GENEVA: The World Trade Organization’s eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11), which will take place in Buenos Aires on 10-13 December, is likely to become a platform for launching plurilateral trade negotiations on investment facilitation, disciplines on micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), electronic commerce and even fisheries subsidies, trade envoys told the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).

Such an outcome, they added, will be part of a Plan B if there are no substantive multilateral agreements on the outstanding Doha Development Agenda (DDA) issues because of differences among member states.

In all probability, Buenos Aires could spell a death knell for multilateral trade negotiations, the sine qua non of the WTO, and pave the way for ambitious plurilateral trade negotiations, thereby undermining the multilateral framework for years to come, said a South American trade envoy who asked not to be quoted.

Given the paucity of time and the continued opposition from major developed countries, particularly the United States, to credible and substantive agreements on issues such as the permanent solution for public stockholding programmes for food security, outstanding Doha agriculture issues (particularly domestic support), rules and services among others, attempts are being made to ensure that the Buenos Aires meeting is used for launching plurilateral negotiations as part of Plan B, the trade envoy said.

There will be neither formal nor informal indication from the WTO secretariat and the Director-General (DG) Roberto Azevedo to the effect that the eleventh ministerial meeting is going to be used as a platform for launching plurilateral negotiations, particularly on new issues such as investment facilitation and disciplines for MSMEs, and e-commerce, the envoy said. If anything, the secretariat will deny that such a prospect is being envisaged at this juncture, the envoy added.

But powerful members of the WTO are aware of such a development.

[Any such move for negotiations on new issues, without formally bringing to a close the multilateral negotiations launched at Doha in 2001, will be a clear violation of the decisions of the WTO General Council in July 2004 (after the collapse of the Ministerial Conference in Cancun in 2003) that managed to relaunch the Doha negotiations, stipulating that until they were concluded, there would be no negotiations on new issues. – SUNS]

Recently, the US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, had said that the eleventh ministerial meeting is “unlikely” to produce any negotiated outcomes, according to a report in the Washington Trade Daily (WTD) of 19 September.

“There are some areas where the United States would like to see action, but it appears that members are unable to agree on any issues,” Lighthizer said, and “at best, the Buenos Aires meeting will end with agreement on an agenda for moving forwards on issues next year”, according to the WTD.

DG’s roadmap

Against this backdrop, an informal meeting of heads of delegation (HoD) convened on 21 September at the WTO presented a picture of business-as-usual, with the Director-General issuing an ambiguous report on how the negotiations on substantive issues will be conducted in the run-up to Buenos Aires.

Prior to the HoD meeting, Azevedo had held one-on-one consultations with trade envoys from the European Union, China, the United States, India, Brazil, Japan and Australia, among others, to discuss both substantive as well as process-related issues.

Azevedo, however, did not inform members at the HoD meeting about his consultations, said an African trade envoy.

At the brief HoD meeting, which lasted for about an hour, Azevedo called for prioritizing issues that are doable in terms of negotiated outcomes and the unresolved issues that will require a work programme.

He said these two baskets of issues must be finalized before proceeding to Buenos Aries. Azevedo suggested that chairs of the Doha negotiating bodies are immersed in work with members on agriculture, fisheries subsidies and developmental flexibilities.

He called for a consensual document on the format to be adopted at the Buenos Aires meeting so as to avoid the Nairobi ministerial process. He said that members had complained about the previous Ministerial Conference – which was held in Nairobi in 2015 – even though it had produced good outcomes, according to a person who was present at the HoD meeting.

While he insisted that the negotiating process will be a chair-led transparent process, Azevedo did suggest that there will be ministerial intervention in the run-up to the Buenos Aires meeting. Ministerial intervention in different formats is also going to take place at Buenos Aires, he suggested.

Effectively, Azevedo suggested two baskets of issues that must be decided at Buenos Aires – one of issues involving doable negotiated outcomes and the other, non-doable issues requiring a work programme.

He urged the proponents to explain to their counterparts what they are expecting in terms of concrete outcomes and what should be left for the post-Buenos Aires process.

The DG said that he will hold consultations with the Argentinian minister, group coordinators and ministers in the coming days. By mid-October, he wants members to finalize a clear picture in terms of what is doable and not doable.

The General Council chair, Ambassador Xavier Carim of South Africa, informed members that he agreed with the DG’s roadmap.

Carim said that he is holding consultations on e-commerce with members on the issue of a moratorium for not levying customs duties on e-commerce transactions as well as on other e-commerce issues such as the demand for a new work programme.

Carim also touched on issues concerning the organization for the Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference. There is no single model for organizing work at a ministerial, he said, arguing that from the first ministerial in Singapore to the tenth ministerial in Nairobi, different formats were adopted.

Carim said that he will work with members on what needs to be included in the outcome document of the conference, emphasizing that there were ministerial declarations in some previous conferences and chair’s summaries in other conferences such as in 2009 and 2011.

The General Council chair said a bottom-up and inclusive process will be followed. He urged members to avoid contentious issues so as to accomplish smooth outcomes at Buenos Aires.

African Group statement

According to an African trade envoy who asked not to be quoted, “following the Nairobi MC10, the African Group has repeatedly raised the issue of getting the process right”.

Although the group had prepared a statement for the HoD meeting, it did not issue it at the meeting. Members did not make any statements at the meeting after Azevedo’s concluding remarks.

According to a copy of the statement obtained by SUNS, the African Group underscored “the importance of upholding the principles of full participation, inclusiveness, and transparency in the run up to, as well as during the MC11.”

“In this regard, we stress the process you institute as the TNC Chair [referring to the DG, who also serves as chair of the WTO Trade Negotiations Committee] ensures: that all meetings regardless of their configuration must be representative of all WTO groupings; that groups participating in these meetings have an opportunity to consult during intervals with their constituents; that there will be decent hours to hold these negotiations to ensure group consultations and Ministerial oversight are possible; that a minimum of 24 hours are given to Members to consider any text presented at the closing Plenary session,” the African Group said.

“Buenos Aires must deliver on development-related issues in accordance with the letter and spirit of the Doha Development Agenda,” according to the African Group statement.

“It is from this perspective that the African Group expects an outcome that will constitute a solid foundation for a bright future of our economies notably through:

l elimination of imbalances inherited in the Uruguay Round Agriculture Agreement.

l Provisions for special and differential treatment that create an enabling environment for industrialization in Africa.

l A multilateral outcome in fisheries subsidies with provisions for elimination of subsidies to IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fishing activities, as well as disciplines on subsidies that contribute to overfishing and overcapacity, while taking into account the need for necessary policy space for the development of this sector in many African countries.”

The African Group wants to support the DG’s proposal “to set a time upon which we shall agree on a set of issues to pursue for MC11.”

“Indeed, in our recent communications, we have been calling on Members to abide by the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ requiring any Member pursuing an issue for decision, but not achieving consensus on it 6 weeks before MC11, to not insist on putting the item before our Ministers in Buenos Aires,” according to the African Group statement.

In crux, the African Group have a mammoth task ahead to ensure that the Director-General and the Argentinian chair of MC11 live up to their credible wishes, failing which they can only remain as marginalized members of a trade body that is going to be transformed from multilateral to plurilateral on a lasting basis, said a trade envoy who asked not to be quoted. (SUNS8538)             

Third World Economics, Issue No. 646, 1-15 August 2017, pp7-8