What if WTO forgot about the rules?

We could­n’t agree on who would open which mar­kets by how much, when and for how long. We tried to paper over the dis­agree­ment with a bewil­der­ing, com­plex, Heath-Robin­son plan made, main­ly, from loop­holes. But we ran out of, um… loops. So let’s for­get about all that. Let’s just say we had a good talk and go ahead now and do… some­thing or other.” 

Sure’, you reply, ‘but do what? And, has­n’t WTO tried this before? Did­n’t the last round of nego­ti­a­tions, the Uruguay Round from the ear­ly-1990s also fin­ish with­out for­mal­ly agreed rules on who should do what in agri­cul­ture, for exam­ple? Did­n’t the WTO take five years to sort out the con­fu­sion in the so-called ‘imple­men­ta­tion’ debates? Did­n’t it lead to lots of cre­ative back­slid­ing on the gen­er­al­ly under­stood pro­ce­dures, such as the ‘dirty tar­if­fi­ca­tion’ of agri­cul­tur­al bar­ri­ers and cheat­ing by the EC and the USA on their export sub­si­dies cuts?’

The new approach could allow devel­oped coun­tries to exploit unre­solved issues in the nego­ti­a­tions and give less ground than they oth­er­wise would, one [devel­op­ing coun­try] del­e­gate said. But… the new approach could accel­er­ate the process of imple­ment­ing the cuts to tar­iffs and sub­si­dies that would be embod­ied in a world trade deal. Sec­ond­ly, export­ing coun­tries could quick­ly deter­mine how prod­ucts of con­cern to them would be treat­ed.” Extract from Bridges newslet­ter

One of the real advances agreed in the agree­ment that launched the Doha Round was that the rules for reform, the so-called modal­i­ties would be sub­ject, this time around, to review by dis­putes pan­els. If a mem­ber gov­ern­ment did not imple­ment its oblig­a­tions then it would be pos­si­ble to have the prob­lem inves­ti­gat­ed and adju­di­cat­ed. This do-some­thing-at-any-cost approach would throw that advance away for the ben­e­fit of…what?

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