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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