WTO: Will a Meeting in Marrakech Produce a Consensus for Buenos Aires?

11 October 2017 Benjamin Walsh , Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crisis Research Programme

Background

On 14 November 2001, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) launched the Doha Round of trade negotiations. The aim of the Doha Round is to lower trade barriers and make it easier for developing countries to access overseas markets. Though the round was scheduled to conclude no later than 1 January 2005, the developing and developed countries failed to agree on market access for agricultural goods, among other issues, resulting in a diplomatic stalemate that continues to plague the organisation to this day. Codifying a consensus remains the most immediate goal of the attending members. Ministers, after the Tenth Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, believed that there was not enough time to be able to discuss the necessary topics and reach a consensus simultaneously. In the run up to this December’s Ministerial Meeting in Buenos Aires, members met in Marrakech from 9-10 October to prepare and discuss the relevant topics.

Comment

December 2015 saw representatives from member states arrive in Nairobi with high hopes for the WTO’s Tenth Ministerial Conference. Given 2015 had witnessed the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran Deal as its popularly known, member states were expected to expend all efforts to resolve the 16-year old Doha Round. On top of wanting to keep this multilateral spirit alive, parties were also anxious to conclude the Doha Development Round in Kenya, the first time an African country had hosted a WTO Ministerial Conference. Though there were some positive outcomes, such as the termination of all farm export subsidies, ‘a lack of an unambiguous reaffirmation of the Doha Agenda’ deprived the round of a consensus and set the stage for Marrakech.

Both during and after Nairobi, developing countries feared that the Doha Round was losing sight of its original mission. Those fears were certainly realised when developed members, such as the United States and European Union, arrived in Nairobi wanting to break free from the strictures that Doha originally stood for and instead tackle “new issues,” such as e-commerce, the environment and global value chains. A lot of developing countries saw this as an attempt by impatient developed countries to water down the Doha Round and cover issues that developing countries saw as new tariff barriers that would hamper exports.

To maintain the Doha Agenda after the Nairobi Round, developing countries felt it necessary to be better prepared for Buenos Aires. While developed countries came to Nairobi ready and able to defend the introduction of new trade issues in a round traditionally reserved for development efforts, developing countries failed to negotiate on a more clear-cut basis.

India, for example, came away from Nairobi with the Special Safeguard Mechanism for Developing Countries (SSM) on agricultural imports but only a declaration to maintain negotiations. Though the SSM allows developing countries to temporarily raise tariffs in the event of an import surge or decline in prices, they were left without the means by which they could invoke it at Nairobi. More time to prepare for Nairobi, according to developing countries, may have granted them the chance to push harder and further during negotiations. At Buenos Aires developing countries might have the opportunity to complete negotiations that would allow them to invoke the SSM.

The fragility of these previous diplomatic wins, and the efforts of the developed countries to impose new issues to discuss, inspired this month’s mini-ministerial meeting. Without a resolution on the Doha Development Round, developed countries will use the opportunity to place issues they want to resolve on the agenda.

Marrakech is an attempt by developing countries to save the development round. It is difficult to ascertain whether or not Nairobi could have been the resounding round of the Doha Agenda if countries had simply been given more time. Nonetheless, assuming developing countries learn from past missteps, progress in ongoing negotiations can be expected. It is far from certain that the mini-meeting in Marrakech will prepare developing countries enough, however, to halt industrialised countries from altering the Doha Agenda to focus on more contemporary trade issues.

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