Azevêdo: Time for WTO Members to Shift to Action-Oriented Mode

28 July 2016

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo has encouraged members to shift from “reflection to action” mode, as delegations prepare to consider what outcomes they might strive for at the organisation’s 2017 ministerial conference.

The WTO chief met twice with the full membership this week, informally on Monday at the level of “heads of delegation,” along with the scheduled 27 July meeting of the organisation’s General Council.

Remarking on the meetings held in various formats among the membership since last year’s Nairobi ministerial conference, Azevêdo welcomed the ideas put forward and the initial circulation of proposals and other documents. However, he reportedly suggested that members prepare to begin a process of text-based negotiations this fall when they return from the annual summer hiatus.

“If we want to deliver new outcomes in the near future, then we need to accelerate our work significantly in the autumn,” he said.

Along with remarks from Azevêdo, updates were provided by chairs of individual negotiating groups that have met during the first half of this year.

One of the major areas where delegations have begun testing the waters on possible outcomes is agriculture, as many WTO members have indicated interest on this traditionally thorny topic in time for the global trade body’s eleventh ministerial conference (MC11).

While domestic support has been referred to as a “clear priority” by many delegations, other areas also being raised include market access and export competition, though sources say the latter has attracted the least interest to date, particularly given that an outcome in that area was already reached at the Nairobi ministerial. (See Bridges Weekly, 21 July 2016)

Meanwhile, talks on industrial market access have seen comparatively few advances in recent months, with no specific consultations on the subject since May and no indications of convergence. However, some members have reportedly indicated an interest of examining issues such as tariff peaks and discrepancies in tariff lists, as well as the topic of non-tariff barriers. With services, while there has been some interest in renewing talks on domestic regulation and e-commerce, areas that have also been floated in the past.

Whether to pursue a global deal on disciplining fisheries subsidies is also an area that WTO members have begun debating in recent months, though delegations have not yet agreed on how to proceed in this area.

For example, questions have been raised over whether this issue needs to be balanced with other areas within the so-called “rules” negotiations, where this topic is usually addressed, along with how to address the special needs of developing countries in this area.

The chair has asked members to bring forward their proposals should they wish to see a fisheries outcome by MC11, indicating that progress in this area must be member-driven.

E-commerce

WTO members also discussed on Wednesday the issue of e-commerce, and where they might seek to move ahead in this area, including in potentially creating new rules further down the road.

While the organisation has had a work programme on e-commerce since 1998, advances in this context have been relatively limited in the years since. However, the past several months have seen a significant renewal of interest in the subject, with various groups of members tabling a flurry of submissions ahead of this week’s General Council meeting.

One group of countries – Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey, and Australia – also held a dedicated workshop on e-commerce in early July. (See Bridges Weekly, 7 July 2016)

Among the issues that members have raised is what to do with the current moratorium on duties involving e-commerce transactions, which is currently renewed biennial during the organisation’s ministerial conferences.

Some members have renewed calls to make this moratorium permanent, or at least extend the renewal period for longer than the traditional two years, sources say.

Argentina, Uruguay table bids for MC11

Meanwhile, the process to determine which country will be the next ministerial conference host is now underway, with two South American nations tabling their respective candidacies this month.

Argentina circulated its bid on 11 July, with Buenos Aires suggesting in the document that its candidacy means to reaffirm “its commitment to the multilateral trading system.”

Uruguay then announced its own candidacy earlier this week, suggesting that the city of Punta del Este would be an appropriate location should the South American country win the bid, while noting the country’s own role in trade history as the host to the eponymous round that created the WTO.

Ambassador Harald Neple of Norway, who chairs the General Council, has asked that any other members interested in hosting the next ministerial should apply before the end of August, in order for the global trade body to have consensus on the venue by October.

Coming up

With Azevêdo now finishing his third year of his first four-year term, Geneva sources say that the process to confirm either a second term for the WTO chief – or to approve another director-general – is set to begin later this year and continue into 2017.

WTO heads can serve for a maximum of two four-year terms, and Azevêdo has reportedly indicated that he will be available for another term should members wish.

While previous WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy ran unopposed for his second term, there is no rule preventing other candidates from putting themselves forward. Should this occur, new candidacies would need to be announced during the month of December, which would then kick off a process of consultations and presentations in early 2017 before members determine who will be at the organisation’s helm for the next four-year cycle.

ICTSD reporting.

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