WTO Ministerial Launches, As Regional Leaders Make Public Call for Support of Multilateral System

11 December 2017

The WTO’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference formally began on Sunday 10 December, with leaders from various countries issuing the “Buenos Aires Declaration,” highlighting the importance of strengthening the multilateral trading system and its value for meeting sustainability objectives. 

The declaration was signed during the opening ceremony, an event which featured speeches from a host of regional leaders, including Argentine President Mauricio Macri, Brazilian President Michel Temer, Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes, and Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez, with a webcast speech from Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and statements from other regional dignitaries. 

“On the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947, the objectives of improving people's standard of living, achieving full employment, and increasing the production of and trade in goods and services remain every bit as relevant while at the same time contributing to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals,” the declaration says, which was read out by Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie. 

The current signatories include Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Guyana, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, and Uruguay. Leaders in Buenos Aires urged others to join, with Vázquez arguing that doing so would be key “so this isn’t just on paper, but sees tangible actions and results that have benefits for the daily lives of our people.”

“Each of us needs to give way and look for the collective benefit, and as long as we do that, that will benefit all. International systems work when the national responsibilities of each government and peoples are balanced and consistent with international responsibilities,” said Macri. Halso warned against falling prey to the “primacy of national interest,” adding that the problems of the global trade club can only be addressed with “more WTO, not less WTO.” Speeches from fellow regional leaders reflected similar sentiments.

Gearing up for negotiations

With formal negotiations set to get underway on Monday, General Council Chair Xavier Carim, South Africa’s WTO Ambassador, also updated the audience on the talks’ state of play prior to the ministerial, while Susana Malcorra, the Argentine official serving as the Ministerial Conference Chair, led the meeting with the adoption of the ministerial conference agenda and her own remarks.

At the ceremony, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo also called for backing the multilateral system, highlighting the organisation’s role in providing “stability and certainty” during the financial crisis, and noting that it “is essential, it works, and it’s the best we have.”

Earlier that day, Malcorra and Azevêdo gave an opening press conference in the Hilton, the hotel which is serving as the main ministerial venue, previewing the coming days and noting the challenges ahead. High-level plenaries and meetings on specific subject areas, led by “minister-facilitators,” are due to begin tomorrow as previously announced.

“There are still, of course, gaps between positions, and they are big, but that is often the case in ministerial conferences,” said the WTO chief, who also referred to the wider context, including public concerns over the effects of trade and trade policy.

Malcorra, meanwhile, reminded the audience that the sentiment coming out of an earlier mini-ministerial in Marrakech this year was that Buenos Aires is “just one step in the continuous negotiation process on the various issues which we have to deal with.” She added that WTO members will “have to try to set a timeframe or roadmap for future discussions,” and consider how to address new issues that have drawn growing interest from some members. 

Both in the corridors and at the opening press conference, questions continued over how the US will approach the ministerial once the plenaries and negotiations get going on Monday. Regarding his planned meeting on Sunday afternoon with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Azevêdo told reporters that he would be asking him to show “political will” and “flexibility,” and also to hear his views.

“What I will tell him will not differ very much from what I tell every other member, which is essentially that we have to recognise the importance of the system for the world and global economy,” he said.

Coalitions gear up for agriculture talks

Ministers from different groups also staked out their claims in the fiercely contested area of agricultural trade, which also featured in various leaders’ statements during the opening ceremony.

The G33 developing country coalition, coordinated by Indonesia but also including China, India, and some 30 other nations, issued a joint declaration on Saturday. On the same day, farm leaders from the Cairns Group of agricultural exporters also met, ahead of a ministerial Cairns Group meeting slated for Monday. The two groups have often been at odds in the negotiations, with Cairns countries calling for rapid, far-reaching liberalisation of agricultural trade, and the G33 arguing for developing countries to benefit from slower market opening and special treatment to protect smallholder farmers.

The G33 advocates for a special safeguard mechanism (SSM) to allow developing countries to raise tariffs temporarily in cases of a sudden import surge or price depression, as well as a “permanent solution” to the constraints some developing countries say they face when buying food at subsidised rates under public food stockholding programmes.

“Members must make every effort to arrive at meaningful development-centred outcomes on the special safeguard mechanism and public stockholding at MC11,” said Enggartiasto Lukita, the Indonesian trade minister, at a press briefing on Saturday.

The G33 declaration said that WTO members ought to “refrain from making any linkages with other issues,” in a clear reference to the farm exporting nations’ stance. Meanwhile, conclusions released today by the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU stated that “domestic support in agriculture is closely linked to the question of public stockholding for food security purposes.” 

EU-Mercosur talks underway

On the sidelines, trade officials from the EU and Mercosur, the bloc which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, met on Sunday to advance efforts at inking a framework deal.

“Beef and ethanol are the most controversial issues,” one source told Bridges in emailed comments. While the South American countries would like to expand access to the lucrative EU market in the form of duty-free quotas for their exports, European producers are concerned that they could be undermined by increased competition.

Mercosur is also working on launching trade talks with South Korea, with officials meeting in Buenos Aires on Sunday and affirming “the importance of launching negotiations rapidly” and that a future deal should be “commercially significant, comprehensive and balanced, addressing goods and services trade, investment, economic cooperation, and other areas of mutual interest.”

Developing country coalitions lay out positions

Ministers from least developed countries (LDCs) adopted their declaration yesterday, outlining their positions for the upcoming talks. The declaration, a draft version of which has seen by Bridges, is nearly identical to the final document, which welcomes certain developments such as the Trade Facilitation Agreement’s entry into force, as well as the Amendment to TRIPS Paragraph 31. It also cites “serious concern” with the pace of implementing past LDC decisions, notably those related to duty-free, quota free (DFQF) market access, preferential rules of origin, the services waiver, and cotton.

The draft declaration urges members to agree on the remaining areas of the Doha Round, including eliminating trade-distorting farm subsidies, establishing disciplines on harmful fisheries subsidies that exclude inland fisheries and aquaculture, and adopting proposals on special and differential treatment – a central element of ongoing WTO negotiations, which remain unresolved partly due to long-standing divisions on “differentiation” among developing countries.

In services, LDCs have pushed against new domestic regulation disciplines, concerned that these may limit policy space.  Countries in favour of these disciplines argue that enhanced rules could serve to help services suppliers who may otherwise face difficulty in being able to access certain markets effectively, among other benefits.

The operationalisation of Article 66.2 of the TRIPS Agreement requiring developed countries to give incentives for technology transfer is an LDC priority area. The declaration asks for a TRIPS Council decision to further define the notion of these “incentives.” In the past there have been diverging views about what incentives mean and the notion of a “sound and viable technological base.” Other LDC areas of interest include the implementation of the 2012 accession guidelines, which were adopted by the General Council and meant to facilitate the process of joining the WTO. The draft text also underlines the particular challenges for LDCs posed by sanitary and phytosanitary measures and technical barriers to trade. 

The document refers to “new issues” and says that LDCs would discuss these on an “exploratory” basis only. “We support the continuation of the 1998 work programme on electronic commerce,” reads the draft text, which refers to the digital divide and LDC’s specific constraints. “Until now no consensus could be achieved on how to put this issue forward for MC11, not even within the group,” said an official familiar with the deliberations. 

Yesterday, Honduras circulated a ministerial declaration of the informal group of developing countries, reaffirming development as a core WTO objective as well as the principle of special and differential treatment. The declaration refers to the need to address the specific challenges of small, vulnerable economies (SVEs) and landlocked developed countries (LLDCs). Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St Vincent and the Grenadines yesterday circulated a proposal that would entail the recognition of flexibilities for Caribbean countries and SVEs recovering from natural disasters.

A separate developing countries’ ministerial declaration echoes the LDC document on the need to make the WTO accession process easier and quicker, especially for these economies. Recently acceded LDCs have long argued that joining the WTO can be an extremely difficult process, especially given the sometimes challenging demands requested by current members, which can go beyond those that other LDCs and developing countries faced previously.

Select trade ministers from a coalition dubbed the g7+, which is separate from the G7 coalition of major economies, launched the g7+ WTO Accessions Group on Sunday. It aims to help post-conflict and fragile economies become better integrated into the multilateral trading system through reforms to the process of joining the WTO. This includes setting up “credible economic and trade policy frameworks and institutions, and promoting transparency and good governance, based on international best practices” as well as information sharing.

“Having this group is the best way to assist countries to join the WTO,” said Estanislau da Conceição Aleixo Maria da Silva, Timor-Leste’s Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries.

The g7+ WTO Accession group is a subgroup of the larger g7+, a coalition of conflict-affected and fragile states. Out of the latter association’s 20 members, there are a mix of current members, some recently acceded, as well as those working to join and one considering submitting an application. The latter one is South Sudan.

“You cannot alleviate yourself of poverty without joining the international community,” said Moses Hassan Ayet, South Sudan’s trade minister.

ICTSD reporting.

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