Ministers in Marrakech Grapple with Buenos Aires Deliverables, Future WTO Agenda

12 October 2017

Trade ministers from nearly 40 WTO members concluded a two-day series of meetings in Marrakech, Morocco, this week, with Director-General Roberto Azevêdo stating afterwards that much work remains to ensure that the upcoming ministerial conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, leads to tangible results.

The “mini-ministerial” was pegged as a potentially key checkpoint ahead of the Buenos Aires meeting, which is slated for 10-13 December and serves as the highest level of meeting for the global trade club. The meeting in Marrakech from 9-10 October was co-hosted by the governments of Morocco and Argentina.

"There are some promising issues on the table, but in all areas there is still a lot of work to do. If ministers want to see a successful outcome in Buenos Aires, something more is going to have to happen in the coming days and weeks,” said the WTO chief on Tuesday in remarks to ministers.

Separately on social media site Twitter, Azevêdo said that he was “encouraged by the political support and focused discussions as we approach MC11,” making the remarks following the meeting’s close. MC11 is trade shorthand for the Buenos Aires meeting, known formally as the WTO’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference.

According to a press summary released by meeting co-host Argentina, the meeting was held in a “constructive environment,” with the officials present pledging “to undertake their greatest effort to ensure advances materialise in Buenos Aires in December which strengthen the multilateral trading system in the face of 21st century challenges.”

The same summary said that ministers discussed possible outcomes on fish subsidies, agriculture, services, and developing country issues. Furthermore, the statement reads, “ministers recognised… the importance of having the Eleventh Ministerial Conference give special attention to the new modalities of international trade and the integration of small and medium-sized enterprises into the international marketplace; promoting and facilitating foreign investments; and digital trade.”

Picking up the pace

Over the past several months, negotiators in Geneva have been working to advance a set of possible deliverables either for the Buenos Aires meeting itself, or for inclusion in a future-oriented agenda that WTO members could follow going forward.

Among the key items on the table have been a possible agreement disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies; agriculture-related deliverables in areas such as domestic support and public food stockholding; and efforts to advance outcomes on domestic regulation in services; investment facilitation; and e-commerce.

One recurring theme in public comments from several ministers, however, was that the coming weeks will be intense ones for negotiators, given the amount of work remaining and the current state of play.

“If we want to have a positive outcome in Buenos Aires in December, then we need to focus and pick up the pace,” said EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström on Monday 9 October following the first day of talks.

Others also noted that these efforts should focus not just on what can be achieved in Argentina, but where the WTO goes next.

An MC11 package of outcomes must include “concrete results in agriculture, services, and fisheries,” said Juan Carlos Baker, Mexican Undersecretary of Foreign Trade, on Twitter after the meeting. He also said that after the ministerial, there would need to be “a clear road map to address other subjects in a post-Buenos Aires agenda.”

Meanwhile, sources familiar with the talks confirm that much technical and political work remains in these areas, and that members still hold diverging views both on how to execute some of these objectives, as well as harbouring long-standing divides on how and whether to address so-called “new issues” such as e-commerce and investment facilitation in a multilateral framework. Sources say that some of these newer areas could ultimately advance in the form of plurilateral initiatives.

“Trying hard to ensure multilateral WTO remain[s] intact, despite huge pressures,” said Suresh Prabhu, Indian Minister of Commerce and Industry, on social media site Twitter. The statement did not elaborate on such pressures, while noting that the Indian official was meeting with several of his counterparts individually.

There were also continued public calls from some countries, such as South Africa, to address the outstanding topics from the WTO’s Doha Round of trade talks. Ministers in Nairobi two years ago agreed to disagree on whether to reaffirm the Doha Development Agenda and subsequent declarations on the subject, noting that “members have different views on how to address the negotiations.” (See Bridges Daily Update, 19 December 2015)

Another persistent question between now and Buenos Aires will be how WTO members address the recent stalemate over starting a selection process to fill two empty seats on the Appellate Body, which serves as the highest global trade court. By the time of the ministerial, that number will rise to three once another Appellate Body member’s term expires.

Members have disagreed on whether to start the selection processes jointly or sequentially – while the US has disagreed with starting any selection process at all until other “systemic” questions are addressed. (See Bridges Weekly, 14 September 2017).

Furthermore, US trade officials have repeatedly said in recent months that they do not foresee major negotiated outcomes in Buenos Aires, while expressing interest in crafting a future agenda for the WTO’s work.

However, the US has lately made its position clearer on some ministerial-related issues – such as its views on having a stringent ban on subsidies involving overfished stocks – and has recently co-sponsored a draft ministerial decision with Kenya and Uganda on pesticide-related issues under the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures.

Agriculture negotiations

Among the public outcomes from the Marrakech meeting was the issuing of a joint statement from the European Union and members of the Cairns Group of agricultural exporters, giving a political push towards reforming domestic farm support.

The Cairns Group members involved were Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, New Zealand, Malaysia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, Uruguay, and Vietnam.

“Despite major reform in some members, there are significant – and in some cases growing - distortions in agricultural trade and existing rules are not fully sufficient to adequately discipline trade distorting subsidies. The 11th WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires is an opportunity to make progress on addressing this challenge,” the statement reads.

Furthermore, it advocates for “focusing on a new discipline on the overall level of the most trade-distorting domestic support, with due consideration to the development needs of developing members.”

Earlier this year, the EU, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay had put forward a proposal on capping trade-distorting support, which has already been discussed in WTO negotiating meetings on the subject. (See Bridges Weekly, 20 July 2017)

All of these proponents were among the group endorsing the joint statement released on 6 October.

Media reports suggest that the issue of crafting a “permanent solution” on public food stockholding was also on the agenda in Marrakech, being raised by India and other members of the G-33 coalition of developing countries. While interim solutions were agreed in past ministerials, different approaches have lately been backed by the EU, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay relative to India and other G-33 members. (See Bridges Weekly, 20 July 2017)

Fish and agriculture meetings coming up, draft decisions circulated on digital

Back at WTO headquarters, talks on fisheries are due to pick up again in the coming days under the “rules negotiating group,” with a Geneva trade official confirming that negotiators plan to convene from 12-13 October.

Negotiators met twice last month and again last week to review a matrix of the various proposals tabled to date. Proponents of the various proposals on the table are working to put forward a single text for members to consider as they take the negotiations into the next stage. (See Bridges Weekly, 5 October 2017)

Next week, a meeting of the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session is slated for 19-20 October in order to continue the farm trade negotiations. Among the items on the docket is a new proposal from the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) Group on agricultural domestic support.

Meanwhile, a flurry of draft ministerial decisions and proposals on e-commerce have also emerged in recent weeks for continued negotiation among members.

These include a draft ministerial decision on a “WTO E-commerce for Development Agenda” put forward by Costa Rica and featuring six areas of proposed work; a draft ministerial decision from Russia calling for a “Working Group on Electronic Commerce;” and a separate draft ministerial decision from Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan on setting up a working group.

A separate proposal from a wide cross-section of countries and circulated by Singapore calls for discussions between now and MC11 to focus “on how the e-commerce work programme could better facilitate more focused work and holistic discussions on e-commerce.”

Meanwhile, high-level discussions on investment facilitation are reportedly set for 3-4 November in Abuja, Nigeria, bringing together interested WTO members who are looking at a possible draft declaration for the ministerial, according to local press reports.

ICTSD reporting; “WTO meet in Morocco: India to bat for permanent solution on food security,” THE HINDU BUSINESSLINE, 8 October 2017; “WTO Coalition Backs Nigeria on High Level Investment Forum,” THISDAY, 11 October 2017.

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