Latest news, WTO crisis and reform, WTO food & agriculture

Outside the box: How the WTO is trying revive long-stalled talks

From experimenting with new negotiating formats to thinking ‘outside the box’ in agriculture subsidy matters, Geneva is buzzing with new ideas on trying to break some long-standing negotiating deadlocks.

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The mood at last week’s WTO public forum in Geneva was unmistakably more upbeat than in previous years.

The organisation has spent most of the last 15 years having to cope with a succession of problems, from financial and supply chain crises to wars and pandemics – and a series of missed negotiating deadlines.

But the so-called ‘Geneva package’ of measures which were agreed at the WTO ministerial meeting back in June has given the organisation a significant new lease of life.

There has been a new multilateral agreement to celebrate, in the form of an agreement on fisheries subsidies – albeit one which was smaller in scale than had been expected.

And new or re-shaped work programmes are under way on a possible extension of the new TRIPS Covid-19 waiver, as well as on e-commerce and agriculture – and further talks on fisheries.

Perhaps most significantly of all for the 27-year-old organisation, the membership also now has a mandate to discuss WTO reform.

This injection of negotiating activity has created, if not exactly a ‘feelgood factor’, then at least much less of a ‘feel-bad factor’ than might have been the case if the MC12 meeting had ended in failure.

Can the WTO do things differently?

So how can the WTO move forward from MC12?

The organisation’s director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has frequently voiced her view that the WTO needs to ‘do things differently’, if it is to break free of the political paralysis which has so often been prevalent in the past.

An early example of this was the unprecedented ‘virtual ministerial’ meeting last July, at which ministers from around the world – literally – signalled their support to push for a deal on fisheries subsidies at MC12.

Close observers of the negotiations believe this event played a critical role in creating the high-level political momentum that was necessary to get to an eventual agreement.

Day-long ‘retreats’ for agriculture and fish negotiators

There is now further evidence of some fresh thinking about how longstanding political logjams might be broken.

Negotiators in both the fisheries and agriculture working groups are to attend day-long ‘retreats’ during October. These will be informal meetings at which delegations will be invited to explore new approaches to finding ways of disciplining subsidies in the relevant sectors.

“The idea is to brainstorm on the key issues,” said Edwini Kessi, director of the WTO’s agriculture and commodities division, at one public forum session.

“Should we start afresh? Some developing countries say we can’t get rid of our existing mandates. But others believe that the mandates are in fact the problem.

“So we have a big task. We hope that the retreat will give us some ideas on how to move forward.”

Time to ditch the farm subsidy ‘boxes’?

Few WTO dossiers are quite as blocked as the talks on reducing domestic support to agriculture.

But in a striking example of fresh thinking, it has emerged that the WTO secretariat has now informally floated the idea of abolishing the ‘amber’, ‘blue’ and ‘green’ boxes which have been used to categorise farm subsidies since the WTO agreement on agriculture came into effect in 1995.

WTO officials have suggested that this structure be replaced by a much simpler concept whereby all members simply agree to keep farm spending within ‘de minimis’ levels – currently 5% of the value of agricultural production for developed countries, and 10% for most developing countries.

The one rather important exception would be a new ‘sustainability box’, under which farm support payments would be exempt from disciplines if they contributed towards sustainability objectives – however these might be defined.

The idea is that creating a new concept for agricultural subsidy classification might make it a little easier for negotiators to work out politically viable ways of scaling subsidies back.

Little to lose by trying something different

Would such an idea fly – assuming it were to be formally tabled?

Given the interminable arguments which have dogged the agriculture subsidy debate over the last 20 years or more, it seems highly unlikely that the new plan will lead to an instant breakthrough and widespread acceptance on all sides.

But it has been three months since a WTO ministerial at which there was no agreement at all on agriculture, and there are potentially less than 18 months to go until MC13, which is now being tentatively pencilled in for February 2024.

Clearly, the calculation among Geneva officials is that now is as good a time as any to start thinking afresh about the blocked agriculture dossier – and that there is little to lose by trying something different.

It is not yet clear whether a similar ‘retreat’ will be organised for those charged with the task of reforming the WTO, and in particular overhauling its dispute settlement function.

But the WTO general council meeting scheduled for later this week (6 and 7 October) will be a good test of whether delegations shows signs of finding common ground in the task of making the organisation work better.

Risk of post-MC12 complacency

And yet, in spite of all the multiple challenges that lie ahead, some observers believe that one of the biggest risks facing the WTO in the next few months might be complacency.

The successful completion of the Geneva package, and the unaccustomed positivity that it has generated, may in itself be generating some risks.

“We must guard against the risk that the successes of MC12 act as a tranquiliser,” one seasoned WTO observer warned at the forum.

He drew a parallel with the last ‘successful’ WTO ministerial in Bali in 2013, when ministers reached a global agreement on trade facilitation.

“That was followed by a long period in which no progress was made at all. We now have some forward momentum at last – but that doesn’t mean that the WTO motor has been fixed.

“We have to keep pressing forward,” he said.

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