MC12 preparations: WTO reform and e-commerce take centre stage

Delegations in Geneva have been told to remain on standby for continuous ongoing negotiating sessions over the next two weeks, as the battle to secure a meaningful outcome from the upcoming twelfth WTO ministerial meeting intensifies.

But with only twelve working days remaining before MC12 starts on Sunday 12 June, it is clear that WTO officials are increasingly focusing on salvaging what gains they can from the ministerial work programme – in the interests of avoiding what would be a dispiriting failure to agree on anything at all.

An insight into the state of the negotiations was offered at an informal meeting on Tuesday (24 May) of the WTO’s controlling General Council, at which the topics of negotiations on e-commerce, and reform of the WTO, took centre stage.

Compromise proposal to reinvigorate e-commerce negotiations – and renew moratorium

On e-commerce, there are currently two proposals on the table for MC12.

One, supported by a majority of delegations, advocates that the existing work programme on e-commerce be continued, and that the current moratorium on import duties be rolled over in the meantime. The latter should remain in place until at least the next ministerial meeting – MC13 – in two years’ time.

However, India and South Africa are opposing an extension of the moratorium, claiming that there is currently a lack of clarity over the definition of ‘e-commerce’ which should be cleared up first.

Barbados, on behalf of the CARICOM group, this week tabled a possible compromise formulation.

Its proposal is that the e-commerce work programme should be ‘reinvigorated’, with the development dimension in the talks being given fresh emphasis, and with a role for the General Council in the structure of the talks.

This appears to be a recommendation that the e-commerce negotiations, which have been conducted thus far as a plurilateral ‘joint initiative’, should in effect be ‘multilateralised’.

The moratorium would then be extended until MC13, as supported by a large majority of WTO countries.

But it remains to be seen whether this development-focused initiative can bring the largely sceptical Indians and South Africans on board.

‘Streamlined and brief’ statement sought on WTO reform

On WTO reform, meanwhile, there is now understood to be a push for a “streamlined and brief” work programme which would commit the Organization to making progress towards an agreement on this topic by MC13 – but taking care not to prejudge the content of those discussions.

“It is clear that everyone wants WTO reform, but it is also clear that everyone has a slightly different idea of what form that should take,” a Geneva-based trade official said after the meeting.

According to the General Council’s chair, Swiss ambassador Didier Chambovey, there were three broad points on which all were in favour.

These were: a) that there was a need to reform the WTO, b) that any process put in place to achieve these reforms should be open and transparent, and c) that the process should address the interests of all members.

Given a general desire to avoid conflict by narrowing down these objectives, any text agreed at MC12 may not go far beyond these general principles.

Wording reviewed on trade and gender, environment

The General Council also discussed possible draft wording for MC12 on trade and gender. The text would establish the WTO as a forum for discussion on this topic, with trade-and-gender questions “mainstreamed into new and existing WTO agreements”, according to the trade official.

Discussions have also been taking place around the possibility of adding new language on the environment in the final ministerial declaration.

This is based on a draft text tabled jointly by Ecuador and New Zealand, and it is understood to contain “beefed-up language” on assisting developing countries to respond to environmental challenges.

What form will MC12 ‘outcome document’ take?

A key topic under discussion at this week’s General Council meeting  – and one on which there is as yet no consensus – is the legal form which the ‘outcome document’ to be issued at the end of MC12 should take.

Most delegations have reportedly taken the view that a unilaterally-approved ministerial declaration would be much preferable to a less authoritative ‘chair’s statement’.

But in order to achieve this, some way will have to be found of navigating around the desire of many participants to make some reference to the war in Ukraine – something which Russia would almost certainly veto.

Discussions between WTO delegations are continuing, meanwhile, on other key agenda items for MC12 – on fisheries, agriculture, food security, trade and health, and the TRIPS waiver.

A key milestone on the path to MC12 will be a formal General Council meeting scheduled for Tuesday 7 June, at which a state-of-play report will be drawn up on the various dossiers. This will then be transmitted to ministers prior to their arrival in Geneva.

Meanwhile, a rough working programme has been drawn up for the MC12 meeting itself, which will commence with an opening session at 3pm on Sunday 12 June.

Monday and Tuesday (13-14 June) are then to be dedicated to thematic sessions on the different issues at stake. The meeting is nominally scheduled to wrap up at 6pm on Wednesday 15 June.

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