Ten observations about the WTO’s first decade

As of Saturday 16, there was little consensus inside the Hong Kong Conference Center as you can read from the press coverage, except that the European Community’s negotiating position is unacceptable to everyone else. The atmosphere is poisonous and the discussions, even in the smallest and most senior informal groups (the ‘green room’ meetings organized by Director General Lamy) are can best be described as ‘pissing matches’, according to my informants. I am attending a marginal meeting on the WTO legal system: notes for my talk (“Observations on the first decade of WTO”) are over the fold …

Ten observations: Some, possibly provocative, ideas that were not included in WTO: the First Ten Years . It’s the ‘market access’ agenda … for now

  • The single undertaking keeps WTO from spinning apart
  • There is no ‘development agenda’
  • WTO is more open than its critics allow
  • The system would be more transparent if the Members were more open
  • WTO technical assistance is effective, but
  • Accession price-inflation is a significant problem
  • Dispute settlement works well: effective and not legislative
  • The biggest challenges for trading businesses lie beyond WTO’s remit
  • The system needs regional trade agreements

1. The WTO had a lot of weight in its saddlebags as soon as it jumped from the gate. It was weighed down with continuing negotiations on the most difficult parts of the GATS negotiations: on financial services, telecommunications and a proposal for a global zero tariff regime on high-tech products. Right from the outset many of the developing country members of new organization began to question the balance, relevance or even the purpose of the obligations in the agreements in the interminable debate on ‘implementation issues’ . The industrialized countries, were headed in the opposite direction, seeking to extend the reach of the treaties to cover competition policy and investment. Although the Members quickly dropped proposals for negotiations on environment and labour standards, by the time of the first WTO Ministerial Conference in Singapore (1996), the weight of the ‘high policy agenda’ of some industrialized countries was slowing progress; to a spectacular halt at Seattle and again at Cancun. By the end of 2003, it was finally clear that WTO had to ditch these ambitions and ‘stick to its knitting’; the ‘market access agenda’ as then-USTR Zoellick called it in a letter to trade ministers. The Doha round is now struggling, once more, with something like the ‘classic’ objectives of trade barriers and subsidies. There are prospects of only modest success and

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