Tom Miles Geneva
Negotiators at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) were forging ahead with work to seal a global trade deal worth hundreds of billions of dollars but time was running out before the December deadline, the new head of the organisation said on Friday.
Roberto Azevedo, who took the helm of the WTO at the start of this month, said that “the dynamic has changed profoundly” in the past week, marking a turnaround from increasingly despondent noises a few months earlier.
“Delegations are no longer talking past each other but are seriously engaged in finding compromises on the issues that divide them,” Azevedo said.
The race to reach a deal at a ministerial conference in Bali at the end of the year is not only an opportunity to slash the cost of shipping goods around the world, it also represents what many experts see as the last chance to restore confidence in the WTO’s ability to reform global trade rules.
Christopher Wenk, a senior director of international policy at the US Chamber of Commerce, said that the contours of an agreement were clear, but it remained to be seen if the WTO could deliver.
“There’s no doubt that there’s kind of a breath of fresh air with Azevedo taking over,” he said. “They’re actually negotiating which is just amazing. They haven’t really negotiated in quite some time around here, so you can really sense the uptick in activity.”
If there is no deal in Bali, the risk for the WTO is that major trading powers, which are spending much more energy on bilateral deals than on the push for a global agreement, would give up on an overarching trade regime for good.
Some experts say that could foster the growth of rival trading blocs and deepen divisions, the opposite of what the WTO was meant to achieve.
Azevedo will update the WTO’s 159 members on progress today. He stressed on Friday that there was still much to do. “Time is not our friend and we should not underestimate the challenges ahead with positions still far apart on a number of the key negotiating issues.”
The Bali deal is a small subset of the Doha round of talks that began 12 years ago and turned out to be too ambitious. The WTO finally agreed it had reached an “impasse” in 2011, at which point it started aiming for a much smaller package.
The largest part of the proposed Bali deal would be trade facilitation – standardising customs rules and procedures to speed up trade and slash costs. The other elements would be special treatment for the poorest economies and a limited reform of the rules on agricultural trade. – Reuters