WTO (Negotiations, Regular Work, Leadership)

South and Southeast Asia Forum: An update on WTO Reform

During this informal meeting for South and Southeast Asian trade negotiators, CUTS International Geneva presented the key elements and findings of a recent research study exploring the state of the WTO Reform debate. The study provides a snapshot of the current debate on WTO reform, and the main issues discussed therein. In particular, it analyses the key elements found in proposals by developed and developing members respectively, and suggests possible ways forward for the latter.

CUTS International, Geneva is implementing the project “Keeping Pace with Trade Development 2020”. The project aims to enable LDC and Smaller Developing Country WTO delegates to better take advantage of international trade for their development. It particularly supports their informed participation in WTO negotiations in the run-up to the 12th ministerial conference, including regarding joint statements on e-commerce and gender, while strengthening the links of Geneva missions with their capitals and private sector on the ground.

Rashid S. Kaukab, Executive Director, CUTS International, Geneva welcomed all participants, and was delighted to see a “full house”, with representatives from 6 different countries present to this virtual meeting.

The main outcomes from a recent research study on “WTO Reform: Context, Main Issues and Possible Way Forward for Developing Countries” were presented. The current debate on WTO reform could be considered to have been set in motion by developed countries in 2018. However, calls by developing countries to reform the functioning of the WTO in an effort to address asymmetries and bring balance to the WTO rules, as well as to create more policy space for themselves to pursue development, are almost as old as the organisation itself.

While developed-country WTO Members’ calls for reform seemingly targeted developing countries for perceived non-compliance with their notification and transparency obligations and to differentiate between developing countries, developing countries’ response has been to frame their proposals wider so as to bring into the reform purview issues of particular interest to them, and shine a light on the multilateral trading system inequities and asymmetries developing countries argue are aligned in favour of developed countries.

The following six areas form the contours of the emerging reform agenda, based on proposals so far tabled: resolving crucial and urgent issues threatening the existence of the WTO; strengthening the deliberative, negotiating and rule-making function of the WTO; strengthening the WTO’s monitoring and transparency function; reforming WTO council and committee procedures; increasing the WTO’s relevance in global economic governance, and principles to guide the reform.

In the proposals so far on the table WTO Members seem to congregate for possible reform of the WTO’s notification and transparency procedures, as well as the procedures of WTO councils and committees. No other area of the proposed reform seems to lend itself to the possibility of agreement amongst Members.

The reform discussions are already underway, but all over the place in the WTO councils and committees. Going towards MC12, it would be beneficial to the reform process for WTO Members to agree on a structured dialogue, including the scope, objectives and principles of the reform.

It is critical that members discussed why there is a lack of compliance with monitoring & transparency function, especially concerning the notifications’ obligations; as well as why councils and committees have not worked sufficiently. This could be explained by the lack of capacities of many developing countries and LDCs to be able to fully comply.

Floor was then opened for discussion among the participants. It was recognized that proposal for WTO reform are quite technical, hence CUTS paper is very useful as it offers a comprehensive view of what is currently on the table. Many questions concerned the possible approach to be taken for this reform, with developed countries favouring a “package approach” comprising many items, including the plurilaterals. LDCs and developing countries should make sure some issues that have been put in the backburner are considered in the reform process or in parallel negotiating tracks such as DDA issues including agriculture, etc.

Talking about the institutional reform processes, there are difference between what developing and developed countries want at institutional level. There also are different points of view within the developing countries, depending on their level of development. However, they should become demanders of certain issues, such as basic principles on which countries should negotiate institutional reform, and clearly state what they want from this reform agenda. For instance, Africa Group is already requesting for more policy space, including new disciplines on subsidies. A space has been created for more development narrative, there should be a more balanced negotiating agenda.

While concluding the meeting, Rashid and Leslie Sajous, Programme Officer CUTS International thanked the participating delegates for their insightful comments and questions. They also indicated that the issue of institutional reform could be on the agenda of another forum meeting, closer to MC12, to discuss again the proposals on the table, the issues at stake for developing countries and LDCs, and how their interests can be best safeguarded.