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WTO Chief Optimistic on Prospects for Agreement at Upcoming Ministerial

Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

World Trade Organization Director-General Roberto Azevedo says that the dynamic of negotiations toward a limited package of trade liberalization measures “has changed profoundly” in the last two weeks but that a “further intensification” of the talks will be necessary for agreement to be reached at the WTO’s December ministerial meeting in Bali. Azevedo praised negotiators for “no longer talking past each other” and instead being “seriously engaged in finding compromises on the issues that divide them.” However, he cautioned that “time is not our friend” and that WTO members “should not underestimate the challenges ahead with positions still far apart on a number of the key negotiating issues.”

The aim of the Bali ministerial is to conclude an agreement on trade facilitation, some elements of agriculture and specific development issues. Azevedo told a Sept. 23 meeting of the Trade Negotiations Committee that recent discussions on these topics have been “focused, precise and business-like,” with members “actually negotiating and interacting in a constructive manner.” For example, members have agreed to “explore a due restraint provision [which has also been referred to as a “peace clause”] as a possible interim solution” with respect to a proposal concerning public stockholding for food security and domestic food aid purposes. There was also a revised submission from least-developed countries on preferential rules of origin that “most considered … as a step in the right direction.”

At the same time, Azevedo emphasized the need for continued leadership and direction from national capitals because “many of the issues still pending are political” and “there is a limit” to what Geneva-based negotiators can accomplish. Some of the issues “where positions are not yet converging” include customs cooperation, customs brokers, pre-shipment inspection, and flexibilities for developing and least-developed countries in implementing trade facilitation commitments. In addition, disagreements on special and differential treatment are holding up further progress on the administration of tariff-rate quotas on agricultural products.

Azevedo concluded by pointing out that the Bali ministerial is only 10 weeks away and urging that the bulk of the negotiations be wrapped up by the end of October. He outlined an active schedule of discussions, including two half-day sessions for agriculture and development issues and two full days for trade facilitation. He also advised delegations to be ready to participate in meetings he may convene “at short notice and at unusual hours.” He noted that he is “a lot more optimistic about where we are now than two weeks ago” but added that “there is a long way to go.”

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