Ministers Arrive in Buenos Aires for High-Level WTO Meet, Amid Shifting Landscape on Trade Politics and Policy

9 December 2017

The WTO’s biennial ministerial conference will kick off on Sunday 10 December in Buenos Aires, Argentina, setting in motion the global trade club’s highest-level meeting amid open questions over what the final negotiated outcomes might entail. It also comes amid wider concerns over how to address past divides among members regarding the organisation’s negotiating future, as well as new disagreements that have emerged within a shifting geopolitical landscape on trade. 

The 10-13 December meeting in the Argentine capital city follows several frenzied weeks of talks in Geneva, Switzerland, where the WTO has its headquarters, as members worked to ramp up their negotiating pace to facilitate a successful conference. However, as the clock ran down to the start of the ministerial, officials confirmed that the Geneva negotiations would not be completed prior to Buenos Aires, and that ministers will need to take up these topics when the event begins.

“I have been calling for prioritisation for some months. I appreciate members' efforts here, but limited progress has been made on this front. We still have a lot of issues in play for the ministerial – many issues to deal with, in a very concentrated time period,” said WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo in late November, reporting back to members in a meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee.

The subsequent days saw members continue meeting in different negotiating groups, aiming to lay the groundwork for when ministerial-level deliberations begin. As officials prepared to leave Geneva and their respective capitals for the Buenos Aires conference, it remained unclear how much they would be able to agree on at the ministerial as negotiated outcomes, and what would need to fall under a future work programme of topics.

Geneva preparations conclude

Leaving Geneva, members were divided on a host of topics, ranging from how to frame the final outcome document, to what should feature in any decisions for ministers to adopt by consensus at the meeting’s close. 

WTO ministerials usually conclude with some type of outcome document, normally a ministerial declaration, along with a series of associated decisions. While work had begun in Geneva to draft the planned ministerial declaration, that process was brought to a halt in late November following objections raised by the United States involving two sections that were being drafted for the declaration, those reaffirming the centrality of the multilateral trading system and the development dimension of the organisation’s work.

As for the subject-specific negotiations, the final weeks of Geneva preparations have also seen members moving increasingly towards endorsing some interim outcomes now, and leaving additional work on these and other topics for a post-Buenos Aires work programme. What that programme might look like also remains to be seen.

Talks among WTO members on disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies continued in Geneva until 6 December, at which point negotiators forwarded a draft decision for their ministers to continue working on in Buenos Aires. Those talks are held within the “rules negotiating group” at the global trade body.

The draft ministerial decision on fisheries subsidies shows various articles under consideration among members. Some of these articles or phrases are in brackets, where members have laid out possible alternatives for ministers to consider. This does not preclude new additions from being put forward by members during the conference.

On the parts of the text that are not in brackets, members are now aiming to continue negotiations past Buenos Aires, with the draft decision stating that they would “agree to continue to engage constructively,” towards clinching a deal in two more years that would ban subsidies for overfishing and overcapacity, and get rid of subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU fishing).

Up for negotiation, however, is where members would engage in these talks “with a view to” adopting an agreed set of disciplines by 2019, making that a slightly more aspirational approach, or if they would commit outright to adopting a deal by that time.

The next section of the text outlines a series of alternatives for how to word an article addressing subsidies for IUU fishing, which is among the more developed of possible substantive commitments. The first alternative has members agreeing outright “not to grant or maintain subsidies that contribute” to IUU fishing, pending the adoption of a final agreement. The subsequent alternatives feature different formulations, some of which involve endeavouring to or agreeing to get rid of subsidies to IUU fishing “set out in paragraph 3” of the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IPOA-IUU), with different variations. One of these includes a provision that would exclude developing countries from commitments if they lack the necessary capacity, and implementing would then be contingent on receiving capacity-building or technical support.

There is also a bracketed article on overfished stocks. Proposed text to replace that placeholder article has been tabled separately by some members, and would involve not providing subsidies to fishing that negatively affects overfished stocks “until a negotiated agreement is adopted.” The language on whether this would have members agree or endeavour not to provide these subsidies is in brackets. Another bracketed article involves a standstill on subsidies contributing to overfishing and overcapacity, with additional brackets on how to treat developing country needs.

There also un-bracketed text recommitting members to uphold their notification requirements under current WTO subsidy rules, though whether they would take steps beyond that remains unclear, along with whether additional transparency efforts would be calibrated around developing countries’ capacity limitations. Also un-bracketed in the draft text is language confirming that the decision would not have implications for territoriality or sovereignty issues. Remaining in brackets, for now, is language that would ensure this interim deal does not “prejudge” future negotiating positions and whether the ministerial decision’s terms would be subject to dispute settlement. 

A deal to discipline harmful fisheries subsidies had long been considered one of the potential big deliverables from this year’s ministerial, particularly in light of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 14.6. This calls for finalising those disciplines and eliminating subsidies by IUU by 2020, while “recognising that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the World Trade Organization fisheries subsidies negotiation.”

However, given technical difficulties and political challenges across various aspects of these talks, negotiators have lately moved towards clinching a limited deal now and a more comprehensive one later on.

On agriculture, Kenyan Ambassador Stephen Karau, who chairs those negotiations, told members last week that the more likely areas for agreed outcomes would be public stockholding for food security purposes, building off an agreement reached four years ago by ministers when they met in Bali, as well as on export prohibitions and restrictions, and potentially cotton.

Geneva trade officials familiar with the talks say that an outcome on domestic support at the ministerial is growing less likely by the day, and instead may be one of the items to feature in a post-Buenos Aires work programme, along with other possible topics such as market access and export competition. Meanwhile, some members have circulated draft ministerial decisions on different agricultural topics.

This includes a submission from Russia on continuing domestic support talks post-MC11 and endeavouring to cut back on trade-distorting support, along with improving notifications, as well as a submission from Rwanda for the African Group on continuing domestic support negotiations. The latter also outlines some initial requirements for those discussions, such as how to address cuts in countries’ aggregate measure of support (AMS), along with curbing and eventually removing production-limiting “blue box” programmes” and set some rules on “green box” support, which is meant to be only minimally trade-distorting. 

Singapore has also put forward an updated proposal on transparency in export prohibitions or restrictions, addressing the notification of any new temporary measures involving “critical shortages of food stuffs,” along with stating that foodstuffs bought for humanitarian use under the World Food Programme must not face such prohibitions or restrictions, while calling for more work on this area.

Meanwhile, the Philippines has put forward its own proposal on a “partial outcome” for the special safeguard mechanism (SSM), which is a tool for addressing import surges and price falls, setting out a price-based SSM to be agreed in Buenos Aires and committing members to negotiate a volume-based one thereafter.

There has been one draft decision forwarded to ministers from the WTO’s General Council, specifically on the WTO’s work programme on small economies. The one-page draft decision would have members under the Committee on Trade and Development’s (CTD) Dedicated Session continue their work, reviewing “in further detail” current and future submissions, “and where possible, and within its mandate, make recommendations to the WTO’s General Council.

Other proposals have emerged on a range of topics, including draft decisions by groups of members, along with statements or questions from individual members and negotiating coalitions. These cover a wide array of topics, including investment facilitation, a proposed work programme on micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises, domestic regulation in services, the e-commerce work programme, and special and differential treatment, often reflecting known positions of different member groups.

The days ahead

The opening ceremony of the ministerial will begin at 4 PM local time on 10 December, with official negotiating work to begin the following day with the start of high-level plenaries. Designated “minister-facilitators” will also convene meetings on Monday on specific subject areas – e-commerce, development, agriculture, fisheries, and services/non-agricultural market access – to support the Buenos Aires process, working with the negotiating chairs. These meetings will be held back-to-back so all members can attend. Each full working day will close with a meeting of “heads of delegation,” and Azevêdo has confirmed that there will not be any closed-door, “green room” sessions, though he may hold consultations with members.

The speaking order for plenaries has many major players due to make their high-level statements on the first full day of work, 11 December. The list of speakers for that morning includes the US, the EU, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, and India, among others.

One open question for many members will be how US officials approach the WTO ministerial deliberations, given their muted engagement and repeated statements of “scepticism” during the negotiations in Geneva, as well as their move to block the drafting process of the ministerial declaration. The US has instead expressed interest in discussing “institutional reforms” to the global trade club.

Meetings in the margins

While the WTO ministerial conference and related negotiations are the main event, these high-level meetings have traditionally afforded ministers the chance to meet on the margins and make progress on other bilateral, regional, or plurilateral priorities.

In parallel to the ministerial conference, joint ministerial declarations from groups of WTO members are expected on trade and women’s economic empowerment, as well as on fossil fuel subsidy reform. Additionally, ministers from the European Union and the four Mercosur countries are slated to meet in the hopes of announcing a political deal in their trade negotiations, now nearly two decades old.

ICTSD reporting.

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