Latest news, MC13

MC13 status report: fish hopes; agriculture damage limitation, IFD blocked

Working Session: Dispute Settlement Reform, 28 February 2024 Credit: ©WTO/Prime Vision

On the evening of the third day of this week’s thirteenth WTO ministerial conference held in Abu Dhabi, negotiators are still hopeful of concluding an agreement on fisheries subsidies.

But no outcome of any substance is expected on dispute settlement reform. Negotiations on both agriculture and the e-commerce moratorium still have the potential to end in acrimony.

Officials said that the real negotiations on the required political trade-offs were only now getting started.

It is now widely expected that the meeting will run into an unscheduled fifth day, probably wrapping up at some point late on Friday (1 March).

Fisheries: new compromise text on Thursday

The facilitator of the negotiations on fisheries pledged to release a revised compromise text, which is expected to go to delegates on Thursday morning.

The new text will set out proposed ‘landing zones’ for the key areas on which delegations are currently divided.

These include:

  • Subsidy notification requirements for members engaging in ‘distant water’ fisheries
  • A definition of ‘artisanal’ fisheries – i.e. small-scale fishing activities which may be subsidised without limit or notification requirement
  • Special and differential treatment for developing countries. This will cover the length of the phase-in period during which developing countries will be exempted from notification requirements, and the threshold – in terms of percentage of global fish catch – above which developing countries will be required to notify subsidies once this period elapses.

China made a bid on Tuesday to open up the negotiations by stating that it would not make use of the reporting flexibilities to which it would otherwise be entitled as a self-proclaimed ‘developing’ country – but only as long as the text on ‘distant water’ fishing was amended to its satisfaction.

As the text stands at present, China would face stricter disciplines on its annual fishing subsidy notifications under the new agreement as a major catcher of fish in waters outside of its own 200-mile economic exclusion zone.

Other contentious issues include the question of whether or not indirect fuel subsidies should be covered by the agreement, and whether or not there should be a requirement to notify the use of forced labour on board vessels.

Agriculture: new ‘slimmed-down’ text to omit contentious issues

On agriculture, work is under way to produce a ‘slimmed-down’ text leaving out the parts of the prior draft text on farm subsidies on which no agreement seems feasible this week.

In the run-up to MC13, the chair of the agricultural negotiating group in Geneva tabled a 6-page draft text which contained no fewer than 30 sets of square brackets – denoting areas of continuing disagreement.

The entire draft text on the question of public stockholding is currently bracketed.

India has this week doubled down on its demands for a permanent solution on this question.

New Delhi wants a permanent ‘peace clause’ allowing it to overspend its WTO domestic support limits if this expenditure is made in the interests of creating stocks for food security purposes.

It is not at all clear whether leaving out this section of the agriculture text would be acceptable to India.

Dispute settlement:  talks to continue post-MC13

There is general acceptance that there will be no agreement of any substance on dispute settlement reform at this meeting.

This follows continuing US opposition to the idea of a second-tier appeals body for dispute settlement cases – a feature which a large number of WTO members wish to retain.

Officials are now close to finalising a text which will commit members to continue the discussions beyond MC13.

This would be in compliance with the reform mandate delivered at MC12, which spoke of the restoration of a fully functioning dispute settlement system “by 2024”.

E-commerce: Decision awaited on fate of moratorium

A scheduled ministerial session will be held on Thursday morning looking at the question of e-commerce.

The central point of these discussions is the question of whether or not the moratorium on charging import duties on e-commerce transactions should be extended.

India, South Africa, Indonesia and a handful of other countries are still claiming that they will veto the moratorium’s extension.

A final decision on this point will not be made until the final stages of the MC13 negotiations.

Investment facilitation agreement: India, South Africa block ratification

India and South Africa confirmed on Wednesday that they will not approve a request by 125 WTO members to have the recently-concluded agreement on investment facilitation for development – or IFD – incorporated into the WTO’s treaty architecture.

The provisions of the deal, which was negotiated plurilaterally, would only bind its signatory members.

But incorporating a new plurilateral agreement into Annex 4 of the WTO treaty requires the unanimous consent of all members.

New Delhi and Pretoria claim that only agreements which are negotiated multilaterally should have legitimacy within the WTO framework.

The IFD deal incorporates 125 signatories – almost three-quarters of the WTO membership – with well over 80 developing countries and 26 least-developed countries on board.

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