Main negotiations at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference

Reaching an agreement to curb harmful subsidies to fisheries stands out among the main negotiations at the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference.

Trade ministers from around the world will meet in Geneva next week at a Ministerial Conference originally scheduled for June 2020 in Nursultan, captain of Kazakhstan, but postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Previously, the 11th Ministerial Conference was held in Buenos Aire in December 2017.

Overall, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has identified the main issues where members have the possibility to reach concrete agreements:

  • An agreement to curb harmful subsidies to fisheries (a negotiation mandated by the United Nations that lasts more than 20 years).
  • A framework for expanding global trade in vaccines and other medical products needed to combat the pandemic.
  • The commitment to reduce agricultural policies that distort trade.

The 12th Ministerial Conference, which will take place from November 30 to December 3, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Main negotiations

These are broad multilateral issues where WTO members have said they want to move forward, but where there has not yet been a final agreement.

So the final negotiation between the ministers in Geneva will be key to achieving results.

The WTO is a multilateral organization based on consensus and any decision will have to have the support of the entire membership.

On the other hand, there is a separate path from the so-called plurilateral trade agreements (also known as Buenos Aires initiatives, since they were born in the 11th Ministerial Conference) that are negotiated between like-minded members and that are advancing faster than multilateral agreements because they avoid the WTO consensus requirement.

These are initiatives open to all members (they are also among the main negotiations) and have broad and transversal support from members, both geographically and in terms of development.

The current set of plurilateral discussions includes:
  • National regulation of services.
  • Investment facilitation.
  • Electronic commerce
  • Micro, small and medium enterprises.
  • Training of women.
  • Environment.

These initiatives have significant support from the private sector and civil society, as it is seen that they could quickly help ease the burden of cross-border trade for some of the world’s most dynamic industries.

Inflection point

Another important element on the table is the reform of the WTO. Its dispute resolution system is paralyzed, its negotiation function is compromised, and its control function is questioned by many members.

Although all WTO members agree that something must be done, so far they have not agreed to do something about it.

At a critical time for the world economy and to paraphrase the former deputy director general of the WTO, Alan Wolff, the Ministerial Conference is seen as a “turning point, towards greater multilateral cooperation or towards greater fragmentation”.


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