MC12: trade policy community gives sigh of relief

The sun sets on the WTO’s 12th ministerial conference in Geneva to the sound of mutual backslapping and self-congratulation from members.

But in general there is simply relief in the trade policy community that a package of measures was agreed at all despite its low ambitions after seven years of inability to strike any agreement in in the institution.

“The package of agreements you have reached will make a difference to the lives of people around the world,” said WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the ministerial’s closing session.

She continued: “The outcomes demonstrate that the WTO is, in fact, capable of responding to the emergencies of our time.”

“Genuine give-and-take”

India was broadly seen as the disruptor from day one across all issues, to the extent that it was not clear what their strategy was.

Those inside the fabled “green rooms” were often puzzled at New Delhi’s strategy – what are they willing to give up? What are their priorities? Are they just trying to push all their priorities at the same time and hope they all stick?

Okonjo-Iweala struck a positive tone this morning, saying that “among ministers this week, we have seen genuine give-and-take… A willingness to listen to others’ concerns, to depart from long-held positions, to try to overcome the trust deficit and find middle ground. Instead of asking themselves “is this everything we wanted?” members asked “can we live with this?””

This was somewhat undercut shortly afterwards by Indian trade minister Piyush Goyal, who tweeted simply “India secures victory for the poor @WTO”.

“India has emerged as a credible and strong voice for the developing & least developed countries with unprecedented outcomes at the MC12. We have proven unequivocally our ability at constructing consensus for the larger good as a global leader.@WTO,” he continued.

The “give-and-take” referred to by the director-general may be absent from some of the post-MC12 discourse, but the documents tell a different story.

The e-commerce moratorium continues until the next ministerial, despite New Delhi’s insistence this week that it should end immediately, and the deal on the TRIPS waiver only covers vaccines and not therapeutics and diagnostics as demanded by India and others.

On the other side, the fisheries deal has been watered down, thanks in no small part to Goyal, and India’s instance on public stockholding meant that there could be no agreement on a work programme for agriculture. The agriculture work programme will live to fight another day, however.

TRIPS waiver: intractable until the end

This proved one of the most intractable elements throughout the week, with the UK and Switzerland opposing a wide scope and sticking to their guns throughout.

Towards the end, and with the scope limited to vaccines, the UK said it had “joined the consensus”, to wide applause in the room.

“Let me be clear: this is not about waiving IP rights,” said UK trade minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan following the meeting. “This decision should make it easier for developing countries to export the vaccines they produce within existing flexibilities.”

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai called it a “concrete and meaningful outcome to get more safe and effective vaccines to those who need it most”.

But last night’s agreement has not gone down well with the NGO community.

“This is absolutely not the broad intellectual property waiver the world desperately needs to ensure access to vaccines and treatments for everyone, everywhere,” wrote Max Lawson, Co-Chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, and Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam.Put simply, it is a technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives.”

Fish: A deal better than no deal

There is wide acceptance that, when it comes to fisheries subsidies, a deal of some sort is better than no deal.

“We see this as a significant step forward,” said the European Commission vice president and commissioner for trade Valdis Dombrovskis. “Taking this first step is better than not having any agreement at this stage.”

He did however admit that the final text “does not fully deliver on our mandate” under the UN sustainable development goal 14.6 to reduce fishing subsidies.

“The fisheries agreement does not go as far as many members wanted (the UK included),” stated Trevelyan. “But it does go some way to delivering what our oceans need and all those that are dependent on them.”

Even NGOs appeared satisfied with the outcome, with the Pew Charitable Trusts saying it was “pleased” that a deal had been reached.

“This is a turning point in addressing one of the key drivers of global overfishing,” said Pew’s Isabel Jarrett.

“Now WTO members need to bring the treaty into force as swiftly as possible and implement it in good faith. Recognising that there are still outstanding issues for WTO members to discuss, we were pleased to see them commit to recommending further rules on harmful fisheries subsidies at the next ministerial conference,” added Jarrett

E-commerce moratorium: Sense of relieve

Business this morning breathed a sigh of relief that the e-commerce moratorium had been extended until the next ministerial, which is expected to take place next year.

They were not the only relieved parties.

“The United States is pleased with the decision by WTO Ministers to extend the current practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions and to continue examining important issues related to digital trade,” commented Tai.

The USTR said the outcome will “reduce trade costs and provide opportunities for small- and medium-sized businesses while supporting supply chain resilience in a wide range of sectors across manufacturing, agriculture and services that rely on the constant flow of information for their production processes and operations.”

The Global Services Coalition said the moratorium should be made permanent.

“If the moratorium had lapsed, the WTO would have authorised members to impose immediate duties on digital services. It would have been a major setback for the growth of the digital economy and for global trade in general,” said Christine Bliss of the US Coalition of Service Industries.

“Fully-fledged reform across workstreams” by MC13

MC12 sets the WTO on a pathway to reform, although it is not clear what this will look like.

Perhaps of more importance is the fact that the WTO, and the global rules-based trading system, lives to fight another day.

“From a business perspective, the agreed package (agreed at MC12) preserves the multilateral system from some very threatening divisions and offers the prospect of keeping the WTO on track as an important player in international trade,” said the Global Services Coalition.

“To put it bluntly, the package buys WTO ministers a bit more time to get it right. The declarations that have been made can pave the way for further work on reforming the organisation, and for adopting new global trade rules.”

The services industry is also a strong supporter of the plurilateral format which will be covered by the reform discussions.

Commenting on Georgia, Timor-Leste, United Arab Emirates joining the joint initiative on services domestic regulation at the start of the week, the Australian Services Roundtable said this “demonstrates that well-structured plurilateral commitments on an MFN basis create win-win outcomes for participating governments and both local and international investors in the services sectors”.

The EU’s priority now, according to Dombrovskis, is to “follow through on decisions which have been taken” such as on the food security crisis, fisheries, and WTO reform.

He said the EU executive wants this to encompass “fully fledged reform across workstreams”, but this will of course depend on the political will of other members.

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