The WTO’s marathon exercise in staying alive

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Five years since the last summit, six days of increasingly intense negotiations on the shores of Lake Geneva, and around dawn this morning a deal emerged from the exhausted horde of assembled ministers at the World Trade Organization.

Let’s be honest: it’s not a great historical pivot point in global governance. The package of deals addresses massive issues — the intellectual property behind Covid vaccines, cutting fishing subsidies to stop the oceans being emptied of life, helping to prevent a global food crisis — but doesn’t do much about them.

Its main achievement is actually to show that the institution’s negotiating function is just about intact. Given the disruption from Covid and the political divisiveness of the Ukraine war, this is not trivial. But building on it will require far more effort from governments themselves.

The main two deals, creating flexibilities in the WTO’s “Trips” agreement on IP and restricting fishing subsidies, were progressively weakened over the course of the talks.

The Trips provisions have been watered down to almost homeopathic levels from the original proposal of a broad waiver of all IP covering all Covid treatments made in 2020 by South Africa and India. What has emerged isn’t really a waiver at all: it’s a clarification of existing flexibilities for overriding vaccine patents in case of a health emergency, with some extra bureaucracy added.

You can make a perfectly respectable argument, as the EU has, that large-scale suspension of IP isn’t the real issue with Covid vaccines and other treatments. But if, as the US did, you’re going to claim that IP is a big deal and a waiver is important, you should do something serious about it.

The fisheries deal has more substance. It addresses specific categories of subsidies to illegal and unreported fishing, the exploitation of overfished stocks and activities on the unregulated “high seas” beyond national territorial waters. It’s a long way short of a comprehensive deal to address global fishing overcapacity, though it has put down a marker for broader coverage in future talks.

The role of the WTO’s own leadership in this is simultaneously impressive and dispiriting, the quality of management input far outshining the substance of the resulting deal. In Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian former finance minister who took over last year, the WTO has one of the most politically connected directors-general in its history. She has spent months reminding governments of the importance of compromise and keeping the system alive. The fisheries talks have been presided over by one of the most respected and hardest-working chairs of negotiation anyone can remember, the Colombian ambassador Santiago Wills.

The modest results must now surely have exhausted the idea that the management of the WTO and the conduct of the talks is the problem. As long as big members such as the US and India are unconstructive, you could install any diplomatic genius you choose from history as director-general — Talleyrand, Metternich, Benjamin Franklin, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Kublai Khan, whoever — and it wouldn’t fix the issue.

The US remains heavily under-engaged at the WTO. It got a lot of domestic credit for supporting the Trips waiver but then sat back and let other governments make the running. It has similarly made lots of vague noises about reforming the WTO, whose dispute settlement system continues to be frozen because of Washington’s refusal to appoint new judges, but come up with no practical proposals. Today’s ministerial statement talks about having the dispute settlement system fully functioning by 2024: that’s going to require a marked change in commitment from Washington.

India, as is now traditional at ministerials, made a series of disruptive (and on this occasion increasingly baroque) interventions to posture as a leader of the developing world. The highlight was an aria by commerce minister Piyush Goyal on fishing subsidies, in which he lectured baffled delegates about the role of fish in Indian mythology, religion and culture and mused that “the traditional fishers’ life in India has intertwined with the oceans and seas since times immemorial”. The prose was lyrical but the logic was faulty: India argued for a longer phaseout period for subsidies to commercial fishing operations which are destroying small-scale fishers by depleting stocks.

India, with some other developing country allies, even threatened to end a 24-year WTO moratorium on putting tariffs on digital trade (a bizarre suggestion from a global software giant, but there you have it) until it continued to get leeway to use production-distorting agricultural subsidies to build public stocks of food. This was one of the few mentions of agriculture at the meeting despite the global food crisis. But for that grubby little deal, this might have been perhaps the first WTO ministerial ever that actually raised tariff ceilings.

So that’s it for now. The next ministerial meeting is due in around eighteen months. This one wasn’t a disaster, and it’s laid some foundations that might be built on. But it remains true, as it has for a long time, that the WTO’s biggest achievement is keeping itself alive.

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