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WTO Looks to Reach Trade Deals

WTO Looks to Reach Trade Deals

Saturday, 11 June, 2022 - 08:15
FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured on the headquarters of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland, June 2, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibous

The World Trade Organization is facing one of its most dire moments, the culmination of years of slide toward oblivion and ineffectiveness. Now may be a chance to turn the tide and reemerge as a champion of free and fair trade — or face a future further in doubt.


For the first time in 4 1/2 years, after a pandemic pause, government ministers from WTO countries will gather for four days starting Sunday to tackle issues like overfishing of the seas, COVID-19 vaccines for the developing world and food security at a time when Russia’s war in Ukraine has blocked the export of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain to developing nations.


Facing a key test of her diplomatic skill since taking the job 15 months ago, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in recent days expressed “cautious optimism” that progress could be made on at least one of four issues expected to dominate the meeting: fisheries subsidies, agriculture, the pandemic response and reform of the organization, spokesman Fernando Puchol said.


Diplomats and trade teams have been working “flat out — long, long hours” to serve up at least one “clean text” for a possible agreement — that ministers can simply rubber-stamp and not have to negotiate — on one of those issues, Puchol told reporters Friday.


“It's difficult to predict a result right now,” The Associated Press quoted him as saying.


The Geneva-based body, barely a quarter-century old, brings together 164 countries to help ensure smooth and fair international trade and settle trade disputes. Some outside experts expect few accomplishments out of the meeting, saying the main one may simply be getting the ministers to the table.


“The multilateral trading system is in a bad way. The Ukraine situation is not helping,” said Clemens Boonekamp, an independent trade policy analyst and former head of WTO’s agricultural division. “But the mere fact that they are coming together is a sign of a respect for the system.”


Alan Wolff, a former WTO deputy director-general, sounded optimistic that members could make at least some headway.


They might reach an agreement, he said, to help relieve a looming global food crisis arising from the war in Ukraine by ensuring the UN World Food Program receives a waiver from food export bans imposed by WTO countries eager to feed their own people.


Wolff, now senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, expressed confidence in Okonjo-Iweala, saying, “I’m not willing to sell her short.’’


He said members “seem to be making progress’’ on an agreement to scale back subsidies that encourage overfishing — something they have been trying to do for more than two decades.


“Do they wrap it up this time?’’ Wolff asked. “Unclear. It’s been a drama.’’


One problem — among many — is that the WTO operates by consensus, so any one of its 164 member countries could gum up the works.


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