WTO Fish

WTO ministerial delivers political impetus on fish subsidies – but divisions persist

Trade ministers from more than 100 WTO member countries have recommitted to negotiating a multilateral deal to curb fisheries subsidies this year.

But at a virtual ministerial meeting dedicated to the topic on Thursday (15 June), it became clear that divisions over the issue remain substantial – and it remains unclear at present what the next steps will be.

WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who had convened the virtual ministerial, declared the meeting “a success” at her end-of-conference press conference – although her assessment was based on a fairly narrow frame of reference relating to process rather than substance.

“Today we were looking for political guidance from ministers, and for support to move forward with the negotiations,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

“Now, for the first time in 20 years, we have a text that has been agreed and blessed by all members. We couldn’t have wished for a better outcome. It means that we can now move to the next steps.”

The Director-General has staked much of her authority on getting a deal on fisheries subsidies this year, after long years of indecision since the issue was first placed on the WTO agenda in 2001.

No decisive breakthrough on the substance of the talks had been expected at the day-long round of talks – the first WTO ministerial of any description since the Buenos Aires conference in 2017.

Text-based negotiations can now intensify – Wills

But Santiago Wills, the Colombian WTO ambassador who is chairing the fisheries negotiations, proclaimed himself satisfied that all delegations have now formally agreed to move forward on the basis of the draft text which he tabled at the end of June.

“I think a big takeaway is that it is clear from ministers that continuing the status quo is not an option. And we have a shared responsibility to bring these talks to a meaningful, balanced and credible conclusion well before MC12 [the WTO Ministerial scheduled for the end of this year],” Wills told journalists.

With 104 interventions over the course of the day, all by video link, this meeting was always going to represent an exercise in taking the temperature of the talks, rather than an opportunity to negotiate solutions.

Wills said after the meeting that he was no clearer at the end of the meeting how his draft text should be finessed and adapted in order to move towards a negotiated agreement.

But, he said: “We are going to be consulting over the coming days to see how best to proceed and how to engage. Hopefully at next Friday’s [23 July] meeting of the Trade Negotiating Committee meeting we will get some more clarity.”

Special and differential treatment remains a thorny issue

One of the biggest issues to be resolved in the negotiations is the question of how the WTO code of ‘special and differential treatment’ should apply to developing countries in the context of fisheries subsidies.

Okonjo-Iweala said after the meeting that there was now a basic acceptance among all participants that different rules should apply to developing and least developed countries, and that government help for artisanal and subsistence fishing should continue.

However, the issue is not a straightforward one. Developing countries now account for 12 of the world’s 20 biggest fishing nations, and because of this developed country members are insistent that a simple blanket exemption from all disciplines for developing countries is not appropriate.

There were positive signals at the meeting, with EU trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis telling colleagues that, in the EU’s view, Wills’ text “can be the basis for an agreement”, as it “contains many elements for landing zones”.

But, in a scenario reminiscent of the latter stages of the ill-fated Doha Round negotiations, the US and India find themselves pitted against each other on this point, with India demanding far-reaching carve-outs, while the US is calling for special and differential treatment to be more limited.

Objections to ‘sustainability’ carve-out

For their part, developing countries are objecting to language in Article 5 of the text which would allow countries to continue to subsidise their fishing activities as long as they demonstrate that the payments are framed in a way which contributes to sustainability objectives.

Critics say this would give carte blanche to the EU and other rich countries which have overarching fisheries management programmes in place to continue to operate more or less as before.

“Any future agreement with too many loopholes would undermine the WTO’s sustainability goals,” said Isabel Jarrett, of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The Washington-based organisation cited research by scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, which claimed that a WTO deal which eliminated all harmful fisheries subsidies could restore 12.5% of fish biomass to the ocean by 2050 – but said the most recent draft of the WTO agreement text was only likely to yield an increase of 1.59% over that same period,

“The current text of the negotiations is providing permanent loopholes for the big subsidisers while cutting off the ability of developing countries to develop domestic fishing industries to fish their own waters,“ said Adam Wolfenden of the campaign group Pacific Network on Globalisation.

Push for a deal ‘well ahead’ of MC12

All members have at least agreed in principle that a deal should be reached ‘well ahead’ of MC12, which starts on 30 November.

This is in part because the WTO ministerial may have to be in virtual format – although WTO official still hope that, if Covid permits, it will be staged in Geneva.

There is general acceptance that it will not be possible to conduct the kind of intensive negotiations needed to conclude complex deals if participants are not physically present.

In the meantime, however, Wills expressed an eagerness to engage delegations in Geneva in “line-by-line examination” of his draft text as soon as possible.

Negotiators are expected to spend much of September and October poring over the draft agreement in search of an acceptable compromise.

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