WTO Members Prepare for Autumn Negotiations, Endorse Update to Trade Policy Review

27 July 2017

WTO members adopted changes to their “Trade Policy Review Mechanism” on Wednesday 26 July, during a General Council meeting that also addressed preparations for the WTO’s ministerial conference this December, given the organisation’s upcoming August break.

The General Council is the organisation’s highest-level body outside of its ministerial conference, with this meeting’s agenda including the election of vice chairs for the ministerial, along with updates on the WTO’s e-commerce work programme and related submissions from members, among other topics.

Trade Policy Review: changes approved

Members endorsed on Wednesday changes to the Trade Policy Review Mechanism, the transparency-focused exercise which allows for regular scrutiny of members’ trade policies and macroeconomic environment.

These reviews, which apply across the WTO’s 164 members, involve reports prepared by both the organisation’s secretariat as well as the member under scrutiny; questions submitted by the remaining membership; and a meeting at the WTO’s headquarters.

The changes confirmed this week were submitted for consideration early this year, and revise the timeframes for hosting trade policy reviews of WTO members.

Specifically, the organisation’s four largest traders will be subject to review every three years, as opposed to the current biennial reviews; the subsequent 16 will face reviews every five years, instead of every four; and all remaining members reviewed every seven years, instead of the current six.

The revised timeframe will apply from January 2019 onwards, according to the amendment’s text. This unanimous decision marks the first time that the mechanism has been revised in three decades, and has been explained as a way to improve the system in light of the organisation’s growing number of members.

Negotiations: preparing for autumn

The annual August break is a time which allows delegates to consult with capitals before negotiations resume this autumn. When they return to Geneva, they will have only a few months before the WTO’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, slated for 10-13 December. Sources say a planned “mini-ministerial” in early October in Marrakech, Morocco, could give some political momentum to the process, along with shedding more light on what might form a final set of outcomes.

In preparation for the Buenos Aires event, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo met earlier this week with Susana Malcorra, the former Argentine foreign minister who will be chairing the December ministerial, along with the chairs of the various WTO negotiating groups.

The WTO chief also reported on the status of the negotiations at multiple meetings of the membership this week, including at the Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) and at the level of Heads of Delegation, both on Tuesday.

“I think greater urgency is required across the board, if we are to see progress,” he said that day.

Azevêdo highlighted in particular the attention being given to the topics of agriculture, services, and rules, the last of these being the area where fisheries subsidies are discussed. While welcoming a recent uptick in the submission of textual proposals in negotiating areas, he called for the talks to become “more focused” as the ministerial approaches, and suggested that members would need to be “realistic” in what could constitute Buenos Aires deliverables and what might take additional work.

“We need to increase the intensity of our work markedly if we are to make the progress that I think most members want to see – including, crucially, steps on development and in support of [least developed countries],” he added.

Concerns over the pace of the talks was also raised by a 47-member coalition this week, who issued a joint communication on the subject for both the General Council and at the informal meeting at the level of Heads of Delegation the day prior.

“To date, the political will to find compromises and to forge consensus is lacking. Even the legitimacy of discussing topics of interest to members has been put into question,” said the group, which included various developed and developing country members.

They also noted that some non-negotiating issues involving the WTO’s regular work, including dispute settlement and notifications, are under strain, and stressed that the Buenos Aires ministerial “presents an important opportunity to reaffirm the centrality of the WTO.”

To date, WTO negotiations for MC11 have focused on a diverse set of areas. This includes the possibility of a deal disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies, with proposals from seven different groups or individual members on the table in the “rules negotiating group” within the WTO. According to a Geneva trade official, an updated proposal from six Latin American countries on the fish negotiations was submitted this week, revising an earlier iteration. (See Bridges Weekly, 20 July 2017)

A host of proposals have been put forward in the agriculture talks over the past fortnight, addressing topics such as agricultural domestic support and public food stockholding for food security. (For more on the agriculture talks, see related story, this edition)

Among other recent developments was renewed activity in another negotiating area, when the EU, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, and Singapore tabled a proposed ministerial decision this month within the group on non-agricultural market access (NAMA).

That document outlines transparency-focused articles on regulations involving two WTO agreements – those on sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS) and technical barriers to trade (TBT). For example, it puts forward the suggestion of a public internet portal, language on ensuring public consultations, and special and differential treatment. While that subject generated positive feedback from some delegations last week, according to the WTO, others questioned the difficulties of putting it in practice and whether this negotiating forum was the best place for the discussions the subject.

E-commerce work programme, digital proposals

During Wednesday’s meeting, the chairs of the Council for Trade in Services, Council for Trade in Goods, and the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) all submitted reports to update the General Council on progress to date within the WTO’s existing e-commerce work programme, which has been in place for nearly two decades.

Ahead of the General Council, several members also put forward communications outlining proposed ways to advance within the work programme, including at the ministerial. Those communications were tabled by Japan; Russia; and a group comprised of Australia, Canada, Colombia, Qatar, and Singapore. With some variations, all refer to the need for greater clarity on how to move forward in this area.

For example, Japan has suggested that members use the existing work programme to “comprehensively evaluate whether the clarification or strengthening of the existing WTO rules are necessary over the course of next one year after MC11,” which would then help inform members on whether to launch a decision on formal negotiations. Japan has attached an “illustrative list of issues” to consider in this context.

Meanwhile, Russia has suggested setting up a “Working Group on Electronic Commerce” within the General Council umbrella, also based off the existing work programme and member submissions, to review areas where members might “make substantial progress,” along with suggesting which tasks or topics could form that group’s mandate.

The country group submission has called upon members to review how the existing work programme “could better facilitate more focused and holistic discussions on e-commerce,” such as issues or improvements worth reviewing further, while still keeping the work programme “exploratory” in nature. That communication also called for a ministerial decision on the subject to guide future work.

How the topic of e-commerce and the digital economy will be addressed in Buenos Aires remains, for the moment, unclear. Under the decision adopted at the 2015 Nairobi ministerial, members agree to hold periodic reviews, such as the one held at this week’s General Council, on the work programme and report to MC11 on the result. (See Bridges Daily Update, 19 December 2015)

ICTSD reporting.

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