Ministers end WTO meet without single agreement

Trade ministers are set to wrap up their biennial World Trade Organization meeting without having reached a single agreement yesterday

China’s Vice Minister of Commerce Wang Shouwen (left) speaks next to European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmstrom and Japan’s Vice Minister for International Affairs Tadao Yanase at the 11th World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference in Buenos Aires on Tuesday. 

Trade ministers are set to wrap up their biennial World Trade Organization meeting without having reached a single agreement yesterday, still reeling from criticism brought by the United States, once the WTO’s driving force.

The ministers gathered in Buenos Aires were never expected to agree great reforms, with relatively minor and unrelated proposals on the table, including discussions on fishing subsidies and e-commerce.

But a discordant intervention by US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on the first morning effectively left the conference adrift, since the WTO requires consensus — unanimity among all 164 members — to reach any agreement.

Even the perfunctory joint ministerial statement looked uncertain.

Driven by President Donald Trump’s “America First” strategy and a preference for bilateral deals, the United States had already blocked ambassadors from drafting a text in Geneva, rejecting references to the WTO’s central role in the global trading system and to trade as a driver of development.

WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said the chairwoman of the conference, Argentina’s former foreign minister Susana Malcorra, was still hoping to get ministers to agree on one text later yesterday.

“There still seems to be significant gaps. Whether they can find wording that can bridge those gaps I don’t know,” Rockwell said.

The failure to reach any major deals means that negotiations on the same topics will continue into 2018, with no deadline and no heavyweight ministerial momentum to get agreement.

“It’s very appropriate to stay at this stage that we are in a forward-looking mode,” Rockwell said.

“The focus of most of the work here is on work programs, and while there is disappointment that we couldn’t get a little further in terms of concrete outcomes, being able to nail down an effective work program is very important.”

Lighthizer told the WTO ministers on Monday that it was impossible to negotiate new rules while many of the current rules were not being followed, and that the WTO was losing its focus and becoming too litigation-focused.

He said the WTO should make markets more efficient, reducing overcapacity and the influence of state-owned enterprises.

Many trade experts disagree with parts of his analysis and are dismayed that the US is vetoing new judicial appointments at the WTO, which has plunged the settlement of trade disputes into crisis.

Special Reports