By Emma Farge and Philip Blenkinsop
GENEVA/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The World Trade Organization will this month host ministers from around the world in a bid to strike deals on fish and vaccines, testing the world’s ability to set trade rules at a time growing tensions.
Global trade discord, COVID-19 and the paralysis of its dispute settlement mechanism had already weakened the Geneva-based body, which was twice forced to cancel the ministerial conference due to the pandemic.
The normally biennial meeting, last held more than four years ago, will now take place after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered commodity price hikes and bans of food exports and that China’s zero-COVID policy has exacerbated global supply chain challenges.
Global trade is expected to slow this year, with the war in Ukraine adding to the uncertainty.
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Against this backdrop, ministers will seek to wrap up 20 years of negotiations to cut fisheries subsidies, strike a deal on fairer sharing of COVID-19 vaccines, push forward agricultural trade reform and pave the way for food reform. ‘WTO.
Dmitry Grozoubinski, director of the Geneva Trade Platform, said there was a feeling the meeting, dubbed MC12, was “a bit cursed”.
“It was always going to be a ministerial meeting with modest results at best. The invasion made things harder, but things weren’t easy before,” he said.
Several members said they would not negotiate with Russia, while Moscow should block any attempt by Ukraine’s allies to formulate a ministerial statement on the crisis, such as its impact on food.
“In the background is the possible total disruption of the war in Ukraine,” said Peter Van den Bossche, director of studies at the World Trade Institute. “I have no doubt that Russia will demonstrate that without it no progress can be made.”
DIFFICULT VACCINES, FISH SUBSIDY NEGOTIATIONS
Ministers will ideally sign a statement on the role of trade in current and future pandemics at the meeting, but a dispute over how to address vaccine inequality has dominated discussions even as the coronavirus crisis has unfolded. attenuated.
Developing countries have been asking since 2020 to waive intellectual property (IP) rights for vaccines and other treatments against COVID-19.
It is not yet clear whether a compromise on vaccines forged by India, South Africa, the EU and the United States will turn into a full agreement.
At the same time, members are negotiating a deal to end subsidies to fishing fleets, a historic deal with the potential to reverse a dramatic decline in fish stocks.
One of the unresolved issues is the transition period for developing countries. Many say it should be five to seven years, but some suggest up to 25 years.
Based on past experience, the outlook is not bright. The WTO has managed only one update to its global rules in its 27 years of existence, the Trade Facilitation Agreement, which cuts red tape.
Some observers say the WTO itself needs an agreement to save fish stocks as much as the fish, to show that it is still relevant.
The constant challenge of the WTO is to find a consensus. Only one of its 164 members can block a decision.
Opinions vary on the prospects for a successful MC12.
Roberto Azevedo, Brazil’s WTO president from 2013 to 2020, said it was “impossible” to reach consensus today.
“Even when you have issues where you can discern the consensus, or discern the area where members can converge, even then it’s impossible to achieve consensus,” he said.
By contrast, John WH Denton, secretary general of the International Chamber of Commerce, said he was optimistic the WTO could strike a deal on fisheries.
The administration of US President Joe Biden will arrive in Geneva with a more conciliatory tone than that of his predecessor. However, there is no question of reviving the WTO appeals chamber that Donald Trump has dismantled and says that the Geneva-based body needs reform.
Washington says the WTO has failed to hold China accountable for unfair practices and wants the June WTO meeting to kick off a discussion on reforming global trade rules.
He also argues that it is time for China to give up its status as a developing country, given that it has become the world’s second largest economy after occupying sixth place when it joined the WTO in 2001. Developing countries have privileges at the WTO, such as more time to implement agreements.
Pascal Lamy, head of the WTO from 2005 to 2013, said WTO rules lag behind in terms of addressing current barriers to trade.
“WTO rules today reflect the world where barriers to trade were what they were 30 or 40 years ago – tariffs, subsidies, quantitative restrictions, etc. These classic barriers to trade are less and less relevant,” he said.
Yet global trade hit a record $28.5 trillion in 2021, 13% above pre-pandemic levels, much of it based on existing WTO rules.
“In this sense, the WTO remains relevant, but it needs to be more so, with new rules,” said Van den Bossche of the World Trade Institute.
(Reporting by Emma Farge and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Toby Chopra)
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