WTO chief's advice relevant for us, too

Last week, the trade ministers of 164 member- countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO) met at Buenos Aires, Argentina. With no serious intention to move forward the negotiations on making global rules for trading any simpler.

As expected, they paid lip service to the spirit of multilateralism and expressed various commitments. Such as to secure a deal on fishery subsidies, to improve the reporting of existing fishery subsidy programmes and extending the practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions for another two years. 

Also, to continue negotiations in all areas. Three proponent groups announced initiatives to advance the talks on issues of electronic commerce, investment facilitation and on micro, small and medium size enterprises (MSMEs). These could, at best, lead to plurilateral agreements over the next few years.

In his closing remarks at the end of this 11th Ministerial Conference, Roberto Azevedo, the body’s director-general, said, ‘In the plenary hall, we heard repeated, clear, strong support for the system. What’s disappointing is that this did not translate into action. If we really all support the WTO, if we really do, we have to bear in mind that multilateralism doesn’t mean we get what we want. It means we get what is possible. It’s not compatible to expect multilateralism to work and, at the same time, to expect to walk out with everything you wanted. This is a recipe for failure. If we prize the system, we have to come knowing that we’ll need to make compromises. Sometimes, painful compromises. This element can be improved at the WTO. On that point, we were lacking.”

In a statement issued after the meet, the Government of India said it had the support of over 100 member-countries on all agricultural issues. Including its proposal to set the direction by first eliminating the most trade-distorting form of subsidies, used mainly by countries. It claimed the support of the 53-member African Group, as well as a large number of developing countries, in opposing rules on e-commerce and bringing in new issues such as investment facilitation and MSMEs into the agenda.

Without naming America, the Indian statement blamed a major country for not agreeing to any permanent solution on the agri public stockholding issue. And, accused it of reneging on a commitment made two years before to deliver a solution of critical importance for addressing hunger in some of the poorest countries.

WTO rules require all decisions by consensus. It requires a lot of hard work to convince all the stakeholders to agree on anything. When the United States (US) and European Union were dominant, they could goad the others to fall in line. Now, the US is not interested. Nor are other countries keen on working hard to manage a consensus on any issue.

Our commerce ministry should realise it is easy enough to convince like-minded trade ministers of other developing countries and least developed countries. The real challenge is in getting on board those who differ. That requires a lot of persuasion, perseverance and willingness to compromise on some matters of interest to them. It should start working from now to get the consensus before the next WTO ministerial conference.  

  E-mail: tncrajagopalan@gmail.com

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