The week ahead brought to you by Rob Francis and Chris Horseman.
Countdown to MC12: ‘Decision week’ on fish – but agriculture talks remain stuck
With just three weeks left until the start of the 12th WTO ministerial conference, officials in Geneva are very much in ‘countdown’ mode as the battle to deliver a worthwhile outcome from MC12 intensifies.
Preparations in the coming week are not helped by the fact that the WTO institutions close down on Thursday and Friday (26 and 27 May) for the Ascension Day holiday.
However, discussions between the various delegations are continuing over the key MC12 topics – trade and health, fisheries subsidies, agriculture and food security, WTO reform, and e-commerce – and these talks look set to continue right up until ministers convene for action on Sunday 12 June.
An informal meeting of the WTO’s controlling General Council has been convened for Tuesday (24 May), giving WTO ambassadors a chance to calibrate expectations for the four-day ministerial meeting.
Fisheries: Chair calls for ‘fish decision week’ from 30 May
As far as the fisheries subsidies talks are concerned, it is the week after next which is now shaping up to be the critical week in the quest for a deal.
Addressing journalists on Friday (20 May) at the close of a week-long session on intensive negotiations on the draft fisheries text, the chair of the negotiations – Colombia’s Santiago Wills – declared the week commencing 30 May to be “fish decision week”.
“All members have said that we need to have a clean text ready before ministers gather in Geneva on 12 June for MC12,” Wills said.
Can members agree ‘clean’ text on fish subsidies before MC12?
A Geneva-based official clarified that in light of the fraught political background to MC12, and notably the Russia-Ukraine war, it was unlikely that ministers would be able to engage successfully in complex negotiations during the course of the meeting.
“This is why we are trying to move fast and get a clean text for ministers to endorse,” the official said.
The key outstanding issues on fisheries relate to the basis on which developing countries would be exempted from provisions banning state subsidies to biologically vulnerable fisheries, as well as the scope of controls on non sector-specific subsidies on fuel, and the concessions for support to artisanal fishing.
There are also arguments over the extent of a proposal requirement for members to notify instances of forced labour on fishing vessels – a key US demand.
Arguments persist over agriculture and food security
But while there is still some cautious optimism over the prospects for a deal on fisheries subsidies, the agriculture discussions remain beset by divisions and bickering.
A Geneva-based trade official reported on Friday that the WTO’s Director-General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has taken the step of convening so-called ‘Green Room’ discussions – Geneva-speak for intensive face to face talks between selected groups of delegations – to try and move the discussions forward.
Okonjo-Iweala’s hope is to push for three separate ‘deliverables’ at MC12:
- a ministerial decision to exempt food purchases by the World Food programme for humanitarian purposes from export bans
- a declaration on food security, as “an immediate response” to the food security crisis
- agreement on work programmes for all agriculture topics to guide the post-MC12 negotiations.
The food security question is causing divisions.
Calls by the UK and other developed countries for governments to maintain open markets and refrain from imposing export restrictions have gone down badly with India, which only last week banned exports of wheat in an attempt to bring domestic prices under control.
And Egypt, a net food-importing country which has been especially hard hit by soaring food prices, has called for developing countries to be given more leeway to pay subsidies to its farmers.
But this is opposed by developed nations, who are fearful of essentially offering ‘carte blanche’ to developing nations to subsidise their agri-food systems without any restrictions, claiming this could put the WTO’s overall aim of agricultural market liberalisation into reverse.
The next meeting of agricultural negotiators is scheduled for 1 June – although there is little optimism in Geneva that any significant breakthroughs will be made at that meeting.
TRIPS waiver discussions continue
Discussions continue this week at the WTO on waiving intellectual property rights for COVID vaccines.
Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is urging members to work around the clock to get agreement before the twelfth ministerial conference on 12-15 June. But the signs are not promising.
The recent agreement from the ‘quad’ (EU, India, South Africa, United States) is facing opposition both from other members, who want more time to assess the text, and from its own signatories, such as the US, who now need to consult domestically.
EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council meeting to discuss MC12
On Tuesday (24 May) EU agriculture ministers will be briefed on the 12th WTO ministerial conference which will take place on 12-15 June in Geneva.
Speaking last week in the European Parliament, European Commission vice-president and commissioner for trade Valdis Dombrovskis said that discussions on agriculture at the WTO were “complicated”.
During tomorrow’s meeting the Commission will also update ministers on the market situation for agri-food products in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
European Parliament delegation goes to Chile
A delegation of eight MEPs from the European Parliament’s international trade committee is this week travelling to Chile to discuss the state of the play in the ‘technically concluded’ modernised Association Agreement.
Negotiators agreed on most elements of the text last November. But the new government in Santiago, which came into power in March, wanted more time to analyse the content of the agreement.
The MEP delegation will meet representatives of the new government and parliament, as well as business associations, trade unions and various civil organisations dealing with human rights issues, trade, gender, and women’s rights. Issues on the table include sustainability, gender equality, rights of indigenous peoples, and issues related to the global green transition such as green hydrogen.
“In a context in which we notice a shift from a rules-based to a power-based international system, increasing protectionism and severe supply chain disruptions, it is all the more important to make progress with like-minded partners to stabilise the rules-based trading system,” said the chair of the committee Bernd Lange.
Lange added that the chapter on trade and sustainable development will be “one of our main focuses”,
Earlier this month the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell expressed hopes the deal can be signed by the end of this year. This would mark the 20th anniversary of the original agreement.