Services Openings Eyed by Some WTO Members

7 March 2012

A subgroup of WTO members is currently holding "exploratory talks" on the possibility of a services liberalisation agreement, sources close to the talks have confirmed. The subgroup currently includes 16 of the organisation's members, including the US, Australia, and the EU.

The countries discussing a possible services agreement are part of a group called the "Real Good Friends" of services (RGF), one official explained.

"Everything" is on the table, as far as the possible industries that might be included in a services pact, US Ambassador to the WTO Michael Punke told reporters on Friday.

The discussions are still at an early stage, a developed country official involved in the RGF talks confirmed to Bridges. There is absolutely no clarity yet on what timeframe the talks might take, the official added, as members are still trying to define the initiative and its parameters.

While the discussion is taking place in context of the RGF group, the talks are open to countries outside the group, the official said.

Participation

With regards to whether emerging economies might join in the RGF initiative, Punke told reporters last week that "there is no question that I think everyone's preference is for the emerging economies to be part of all the discussions we have in Geneva because those are the markets that everybody is most interested in."

"You need the emerging economies" in any sort of initiative in this area, one developing country official commented.

The possibility of a services pact had already been hinted at earlier this year, with Assistant US Trade Representative Carol Guthrie telling Reuters in February that "there is a broad and growing interest in this concept" among some developed and developing country members (see Bridges Weekly, 15 February 2012).

"Not very warm" reception by some members

The discussion regarding a services pact "is a change, if you wish, in this year's conversations," said an official from a country not part of the 16-member group.

The reception to the initiative was "not very warm" among some countries, the official added. "Essentially the preoccupation is a systemic preoccupation about the plurilateral nature of initiative."

"Several countries have expressed this concern because this would represent a departure from the multilateral approach adopted so far in the talks," the official said. "We'll have to see it."

Responding to the possibility that some members might be concerned about the change from the multilateral approach, Punke told reporters that "there's a lot of hypocrisy built into that suggestion [of undermining Doha by going plurilateral] because of course what virtually every member of the WTO is engaged in is negotiations outside of the multilateral ‘single undertaking' context."

Talking about the RGF initiative as a plurilateral pact "should be avoided," another developing country official said. "Should something come out of these discussions, it would need to be multilateral."

The objective of this RGF initiative, rather, is to establish a "stepping stone," with the objective of eventually reaching a multilateral agreement, the official continued.

"The good news is that at least countries are showing interest in sitting down at the table and seeing what options are available," the delegate commented.

‘Enchilada' talks scheduled

Discussions regarding services liberalisation are set to be held among a broader group of members on 20 March in what is known as an "enchilada" format - which the chair of the Special Session of the Council on Trade in Services, Ambassador Fernando de Mateo of Mexico, has frequently used in the past to bring together a range of countries.

The objective of this month's ‘enchilada' talks is to discuss how to make progress on services based on what ministers agreed at December's Ministerial Conference (MC8) regarding new negotiating approaches focused on advancing the Doha talks in areas where progress might be possible.

Over 30 countries have been invited to the ‘enchilada' talks, a developing country official confirmed.

ICTSD reporting; "WTO Members Seek Services Accord as Doha Stalls, U.S. Says," BLOOMBERG, 2 March 2012; "US steps up push for WTO services trade talks," REUTERS, 2 March 2012.

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