The World Trade Organization’s 13th ministerial conference, held earlier this month in the United Arab Emirates, yielded little progress on key issues despite being extended several days for additional negotiations.

WTO members failed to reach consensus on two of the issues highlighted as priorities before the meeting: a broader agreement on fisheries subsidies, and export restrictions on food destined for least-developed country members. On other issues WTO members failed to advance talks as much as hoped. For example, a longstanding moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions was extended, but only for two years, after which it appears set to expire. On dispute settlement reform, while U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said “the significant amount of work done” on this issue has “produced more results in one year than previous reform efforts had achieved in decades,” she acknowledged that “additional efforts are needed to finish the work” by the end of this year as members have previously agreed.

Tai said there were some smaller achievements as well, including (1) extending until the next ministerial conference a moratorium on initiating non-violation and situation complaints under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, (2) approving the accession of least-developed countries Comoros and Timor-Leste, and (3) agreeing to support the capacity of WTO members graduating from least-developed country status to effectively utilize the WTO agreements on technical barriers to trade and sanitary and phytosanitary measures. European Union trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis added that work was advanced on tackling plastics pollution, phasing out fossil fuels, promoting the circular economy, and special and differential treatment for developing countries on standards for market access.

On the other hand, Tai indicated that there are disagreements on “priorities for taking the work of the WTO forward.” Specifically, she said, discussions at the ministerial “highlighted that, as the WTO evolves to keep pace with the modern global economy, important debates are emerging among developing economies, large and small, over what rules and policies best serve their interests, particularly on issues such as inclusivity, sustainable development, industrial development, and the need for our trade policies to be flexible to allow Members to manage current global challenges.”

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