Trade ministers from around the world are once again meeting in an attempt to conclude the Doha Development Round of trade negotiations. The WTO’s Ninth (9th) Ministerial Conference opened December 3rd, 2013 in Bali, Indonesia and is scheduled to conclude on December 6th.
When they last met at the WTO’s Eighth (8th) Ministerial Conference in Geneva (December 15th – 17th, 2011), the trade ministers left the meeting with no clear path toward concluding the Doha Round negotiations. Launched in November, 2001, the negotiations began with an apparent commitment to liberalize trade while addressing the longstanding concerns of developing countries, particularly continued agricultural subsidies by developed countries. Since then, however, the outcomes contemplated when the Round was launched are no longer an option. Several factors account for this reality:
Emerging Issues: Trade issues and concerns, particularly for the developed countries that drive the agenda, have changed since the launch of the Doha Round in 2001. At the top of these issues is recovering from the economic depression and identifying and addressing the new protectionist approaches by which countries attempt to gain a competitive, if unfair, advantage. Issues such as currency manipulation and climate change compete for attention, and at times make the 12-year old Doha agenda seem obsolete. At the same time, the unaddressed issues remain and developing countries have refused to take on new obligations while their concerns remain unaddressed.
Shrinking WTO Agenda: In compromise, the Doha Round negotiating agenda has been shrinking. The agenda in 2011 had shrunk from the goal of reaching agreement on a comprehensive deal to four main areas — agricultural market access, market access for industrialized goods, trade in services, and trade facilitation (streamlining customs and port procedures). Two years later, it’s been further distilled to focus on areas of primary interest to developing countries – agriculture, trade facilitation, and special and differential treatment, particularly for least developed countries. To keep the business interests in the developed world engaged, however, pressure is being placed on emerging countries, notably the “BRICS”, to lower tariffs and give greater access to their markets, even in a seemingly neutral area such as trade facilitation. Meanwhile, the emerging countries continue to identify with other developing countries, particularly with respect to the technical and other non-tariff barriers that their goods face upon entry to developed country markets. Without such compromises, however, it is unclear that developed countries will be willing to sign off on a deal.
Consensus around Development
In fact, however, a renewed focus on “development” may be what’s needed. There is already some consensus about what needs to be done for the “poorest of the poor” countries – the LDCs. For the broader group of developing countries, removal of negotiations on services is already a disappointment but any progress on addressing non-tariff barriers to developed country markets would be welcomed. And the election this year of Brazil’s Roberto Azevêdo as the current WTO Director-General provides some hope that he can bridge the divide that exists between developed and developing countries.
Hoping against hope, we watch the progress of the 9th Ministerial.
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