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T S Vishwanath: Think before you meet

The upcoming Geneva Ministerial holds the key to keeping WTO relevant

T S Vishwanath 

The Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is just over a week away. Unlike in the past, there seems to be very little excitement about the outcome of the meeting that is to be held in Geneva.

The lack of enthusiasm is obvious, given the fact that as of now there seems to be very little on the agenda for taking the Doha Round forward. Most analysts are clear that it will be very difficult to move forward on the Development Round launched a decade ago at Doha (Qatar) unless some of the large developed countries build political consensus within their boundaries to support the conclusion of the negotiations.

The mood of the member countries on the current impasse in the talks was reflected in a recent statement by Pascal Lamy, director general of WTO. He said there is a need for some “soul-searching” to address the failure of coordination in global trade issues. “There is a big problem in the way international trade cooperation works, or more precisely, does not work,” Lamy said at a conference.

The difficulty in moving forward by countries was reflected last month at a meeting of the leaders of G20 and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum; it was acknowledged that the Doha negotiations won’t be completed under the current path. The leaders reiterated the oft-repeated call for a fresh approach to achieve at least some aspects of the agenda.

An important development at the Ministerial in Geneva would be the inclusion of Russia into the WTO fold. Moscow joins Vanuatu and the Samoa Islands in entering the multilateral trade body.

Interestingly, the support for the WTO process across the globe can be understood when one looks at the debate within Vanuatu, which has ratified its accession to the WTO. Church leaders in the country are reportedly opposed to the move to join the WTO. The general secretary for the Vanuatu Christian Council has reportedly said that they do not support the ratification. Besides, there has been a call for much wider consultation with the people throughout Vanuatu. Some senior clergy members have said the Church does not have a clear direction on their next move and that they don’t really understand what WTO is and what the consequences of signing the deal will mean.

The eighth Ministerial at Geneva will be chaired by Nigeria’s Trade Minister, Olusegun Olutoyin Aganga. Though a formal ministerial declaration may not fructify, the Chair is likely to issue a statement on behalf of the members at the end of the Ministerial, which is likely to list out areas where some progress has been achieved over the years in the Doha Round. Further, the member countries will reiterate their commitment to the multilateral process and seek to end protectionism. They are also expected to pay lip service to the need to focus on development to push the case for small and vulnerable economies. They may also make a statement on cotton.

It is clear from the current impasse that WTO as a body that can create new trade rules to increase market access for countries is losing sheen. However, the multilateral body remains an important player in ensuring that trade rules keep multilateral trade fair. The dispute settlement body of the WTO has been instrumental in some very important decisions impacting global trade. Similarly, the trade review process of countries is an important instrument to monitor and measure the level of trade openness in countries.

Good work has been done in several areas in terms of taking the negotiations forward under the Doha Round. This includes nearly all areas of negotiations covering agriculture, industrial goods and services besides some of the other important areas under the Round.

Given the current state of the global economy, two issues that the WTO may want to fast-forward are trade facilitation and non-tariff barriers. Addressing these will improve trade flows across the globe. This will also bring down the cost of doing business and help the large number of small and medium sectors play a more important part in global trade.

The current state of play at the WTO shows there is a need to reinvent the process of negotiations. This calls for some political consensus. The Ministerial at Geneva will provide the setting needed for global trade ministers to step back and take some important decisions to ensure that the multilateral trade body remains a significant platform to keep global trade fair and free.

The author is Principal Adviser with APJ-SLG Law Offices

First Published: Thu, December 08 2011. 00:58 IST