10th WTO Tenth Ministerial Conference

by JB Cronjé, tralac Researcher, comments on recent developments ahead of the 10th WTO Ministerial Conference to be held in Nairobi in December

ADDRESSING an informal meeting of African Union Trade Ministers in Brussels recently, Kenyan Cabinet Secretary Ambassador Amina Mohammed said a successful outcome to the World Trade Organisation Tenth Ministerial Conference (MC10) to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, must include a work programme that is “realistic, balanced and that also modernizes the WTO negotiating agenda”. She also said “the work programme would need to include agriculture, comprising an outcome on cotton; an understanding on food security; services; NAMA; trade and environment; fisheries subsidies; an expanded information technology agreement and a package for LDCs”. Apparently, but not surprisingly, these priorities correspond broadly with those of the WTO’s Least Developed Country (LDC) Group as outlined in a recent draft submission to the WTO for internal deliberation. Most African countries are classified as least developed countries. Some of the main areas of interest to LDCs include duty-free quota-free market access; the operationalisation of the services waiver; simplified rules of origin; and, cotton.

Some of these issues are remnants from the previous WTO Ministerial Conference, held in Bali, Indonesia in 2013 that were not fully addressed. Much of the focus at the Bali Conference was on public stockholding programmes for food security purposes in developing countries. Unfortunately, no progress has been made on achieving a permanent solution to this issue. However, since the Bali Ministerial Conference, 50 Members have ratified the Agreement of Trade Facilitation that was adopted at the Conference. This is still about 50 short of the two-thirds of Membership required for its entry into force.

The main concern is that there has been no progress on the core issues of domestic support and market access on agriculture, non-agriculture market access and services since the launch of the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) round of multilateral negotiations in 2001. It is therefore unrealistic to expect a significant outcome on the DDA negotiations in December. This does not mean the Nairobi Conference will be a complete failure. There are indications that Members could find agreement on certain elements. The main elements of such a potential ‘package’ could include development issues of interest to LDCs; some agreement on export competition in agriculture; and measures to increase transparency in areas such as antidumping, fisheries subsidies and domestic regulation on trade in services.
Even if a respectable deal could be clinched at the MC10, the elephant in the room will be the future of the DDA round and of the WTO. What will the future hold for the DDA round and the multilateral trading system after Nairobi? Members must consider how the multilateral trading system could be improved in light of the proliferation of preferential trade agreements. Preferential trade agreements are increasingly expanding their scope to cover issues such as investment, competition, labour, environment, and electronic commerce. Different approaches to negotiations are considered, but the risk is that the trading system could become fragmented. Members could ignore this question and decide to continue work under the DDA and to explore new negotiating approaches. This will not address the underlying negotiating challenges associated with the DDA.

It will be important to monitor in the coming weeks whether Members can agree to the conclusion of the DDA round, in whatever shape or form, and whether the will to commence discussions on the challenges facing trade in the 21st century could emerge.