It’s not something that you want to try at home. The process of negotiating among 146 member countries is, for reasons you can guess, messy. But in case you wondered how any agreement is eventually reached at these festivals here’s a 6-step recipe. Warning: it’s not guaranteed to work every time and it might not work this time. Right now we’re at about step 3, here in Cancún. Here’s how it works # Member countries begin by identifying their own national objectives and creating a negotiating demand that is designed to achieve their objectives. In devising their negotiating strategy they have to take into account the degree to which their objectives may conflict with the objectives of other countries and they have to think about the concessions they may have to make to get what they want.
# More and more, governments work in coalitions in the WTO with like-minded governments to create a joint proposal. Although this usually demands some compromise on national objectives, a coalition commands a greater share of attention and support than any but the largest countries can command on their own.
# One of the first processes in a Ministerial meeting is that a senior ambassador—a facilitator—is apppointed by the meeting Chairman (normallly the Minister for trade of the host country) to consult separately with the Ministers of the various key countries and coalitions and to report to him on their willingness to come together on the main issues. He may then suggest ammendments to the draft Chairman’s text which he believes will attract the broadest possible support based on what was learned by his facilitators in the consultations. This is why it’s important to have some initial certainty[⇒ related story] about the text which forms the basis for the consultations and first part of the negotiations.
# The negotiations—the actual ‘horsetrading’—now begins in earnest and in detail on that text, eventually ending up with a series of small meetings now infamously known as the ‘green room’ process in which the Chairman tries to get the principals (Ministers) of each of the key players to make progress towards a single agreed text by laboriously eliminating or avoiding or, at worst, restating the remaining areas of disagreement.
# Once the Chariman’s has obtained agreement on each subject of the negotiations (e.g. agriculture, services, market access for non-agricultural goods etc.) a single document containing the text of each of those partial agreements and representing the draft decision of the whole membership of WTO is presented to a final ‘plenary’ meeting of the delegations. It’s an ‘up or down’ decision at that stage for each individual delegation: they are asked to accept the agreement as a whole, as part of a broad ‘consensus’.
# There is normally no ‘vote’: every effort is taken in the process of consultations to come up with a ‘consensus’ text. It’s important to understand that this is not necessarily a text with which every country agrees in every detail. That almost certainly never happens. Each member country, from the smallest to the most powerful, has the choice of silently joining a consensus and going along with the proposed agreement as a whole or, alternately, stating their objection and refusing to allow the declaration of an agreement ‘by consensus’. In the event that there is some disagreement that is sufficiently strong to prompt at least once country to state an objection at the last moment, the Chairman will call for further consultations to arrive at a compromise that does attract consensus support. Naturally, at the end of a long week of laborious consultation and negotiation, there is a lot of pressure on individual countries to ‘swallow their objections’ on all but the most crucial problems and join a consensus. But it’s not at all unknown for there to be some last-minute hold-outs (e.g. India at the Doha Ministerial Meeting).
Peter Gallagher is student of piano and photography. He was formerly a senior trade official of the Australian government. For some years after leaving government, he consulted to international organizations, governments and business groups on trade and public policy.
He teaches graduate classes at the University of Adelaide on trade research methods and the role of firms in trade and growth and tweets trade (and other) stuff from @pwgallagher