WTO Chief Calls for Additional "Clarity and Purpose" in Buenos Aires Preparations

11 May 2017

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo urged members earlier this week to press on in their negotiating efforts ahead of this December’s ministerial conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as meetings continue in various configurations to prepare for the high-level event.

Speaking on Monday 8 May at an informal meeting of heads of delegation, the WTO chief noted work underway in a host of negotiating areas, referring specifically to papers and other documents being tabled in areas such as domestic regulation in services and services facilitation, among others.

However, he cautioned members that time is beginning to run short before both the global trade body’s annual summer hiatus and the ministerial itself in December.

“By the summer our preparations for Buenos Aires should be advancing with a much greater sense of clarity and purpose. As I have said before, proponents have a particular responsibility here to build momentum behind their ideas,” said Azevêdo on Monday.

Other officials present at the meeting reportedly welcomed the increased level of activity seen in Geneva so far, while similarly urging for more to be done to pave the way for outcomes at the December ministerial.

“Colleagues, the time that separates us from MC11 is short” said EU Ambassador Marc Vanheukelen on Monday, according to a copy of his statement. “And at this moment in time, none of the issues that we are collectively discussing is ripe for any sort of decision. This is troubling in itself.”

The EU official also warned against the possibility of linkages being made between different areas of the WTO talks, which could harm their prospects for moving forward.

Indeed, the past weeks have seen a flurry of meetings on various negotiating areas relating to the ministerial preparations. Talks have resumed on agriculture, for example, after members resolved an earlier impasse over who should chair those negotiations. (See Bridges Weekly, 27 April 2017)

Meanwhile, the rules negotiating group is due to hold its next “cluster” of meetings next week, which is expected to focus on a submission tabled by New Zealand, Iceland, and Pakistan a few weeks ago. The rules group is currently looking at whether deliverables on disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies might be possible in time for the Buenos Aires meeting, with various proposals on the table. (See Bridges Weekly, 4 May 2017)

WTO members have also been looking at the possibility of some type of outcome in the areas of domestic regulation in services, as well as services facilitation. However, members are reportedly at odds over whether and how to continue informal discussions on developing domestic regulations in services, along with how to then capture the results of these discussions and what substantive outcomes should come from them.

Consultations also continue over a separate proposal from India on a possible “Trade Facilitation Agreement in Services,” sources say, which aims to build partly on the success of negotiating a trade facilitation pact governing goods trade.

General Council update

Meanwhile, reports emerged as Bridges went to press that Wednesday’s General Council had seen a disagreement among members over how to proceed with an agenda item regarding trade and investment facilitation.

Taking place just days after the informal heads of delegation gathering, the General Council agenda was due to include a report on negotiations to date and on the implementation of the Bali and Nairobi outcomes; election of officers and other topics related to the ministerial; a submission on micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs); and the agenda item on trade and investment facilitation. 

Specifically, trade sources say that India blocked the adoption of the meeting’s agenda, citing the inclusion of the investment facilitation item. India reportedly said that the General Council was not the right place to discuss such issues. India was backed by Uganda on this subject, with sources saying that India also received some support from Bolivia and Ecuador.

Sources say that China was among the members who pressed for the meeting to continue, and had said that the move to include an investment facilitation item on the agenda was not to try launching formal talks on the subject, but instead to speak informally. Various others backed China on the subject, along with raising systemic concerns over the blocking of the General Council meeting agenda – which is a rare move in the WTO context.

The meeting was therefore closed, and sources suggested that it was unclear when the General Council might resume.

Ahead of the meeting, various members had submitted documents on the subject, including a communication from the “MIKTA” group – Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey, and Australia – as well as the Friends of Investment Facilitation for Development, Russia, and Argentina and Brazil.

The MIKTA countries, in their submission, highlighted a series of reflections following a workshop they held on the subject earlier this year, referring to what role the global trade body could play in this area, and noting a “high level of interest and willingness among some WTO members to engage in open and inclusive discussions on investment.”

For example, they note that investment facilitation “could be a good starting point for discussions to complement the recently concluded Trade Facilitation Agreement and current discussions on trade facilitation in services.”

The joint communication from Argentina and Brazil, meanwhile, raised the subject of “possible elements of a WTO instrument on investment facilitation,” while noting the importance of avoiding “well known contentious issues” in looking at the larger subject of investment.

China’s communication also involved possible elements on investment facilitation, while the communication from the Friends of Investment Facilitation for Development – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan – refers to a proposed informal dialogue on the subject.

ICTSD reporting.

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