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WTO Stumbles Again on Doha Round, Looks to December Ministerial

Thursday, August 13, 2015
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

World Trade Organization members missed a July 31 deadline for completing a work program aimed at restarting the long-running Doha Round negotiations. Some observers say progress is still possible at the WTO’s next ministerial meeting in Kenya this December, but others say that will only happen if the scope of the deal is narrowed.

There had been some hope that a December 2013 agreement on trade facilitation, agriculture and developing country issues could revive the moribund talks, which stalled years ago over disagreements on whether and how to further liberalize global trade in agricultural products, industrial goods and services. Instead, observers are increasingly coming to the conclusion that comprehensive, multilateral deals like the Doha Round and those that preceded it are being supplanted by plurilateral deals that are more limited in scope and participation, such as the Trade Facilitation Agreement and pacts currently under discussion involving information technology products, environmental goods, and services. Many WTO members have also placed more emphasis on bilateral and regional free trade agreements.

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo told WTO members recently that the failure to meet the July 31 deadline should not become an obstacle to achieving outcomes at the December ministerial but “should be a wake-up call about our prospects for success.” He asserted that there has been “excellent engagement” on Doha Round issues in recent months but that “substantive progress toward convergence has remained very limited.” He therefore called on members to “put an intense, relentless focus on substance” when they return in September to seize what he called “a real chance of delivering meaningful outcomes” at the ministerial.

Others are not so upbeat. European Union WTO Ambassador Angelos Pangratis said “the most recent debate in the negotiating groups showed that some members have hardened their views” and in some cases have even “moved backward.” Pangratis concluded that to reach an acceptable compromise “the ambition has to be lower … and this adjustment needs to take place across all negotiating areas.” In practical terms, he said, this means there must be acceptance that no WTO member will give concessions requiring major reforms of its trade and agricultural policies.

A group of 50 members said they acknowledge the need to “revisit the ambitions we might have held at earlier stages in the negotiations” and the concomitant responsibility for all members to “engage effectively toward a meaningful and balanced agreement.” However, they also indicated that “the largest of the WTO’s members” have a particular responsibility to “show the leadership necessary” to make the ministerial a success.

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