The 11th biennial ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization in Buenos Aires, Argentina failed to deliver any concrete results. As EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström bluntly stated, “[W]e failed to achieve all our objectives, and did not achieve any multilateral outcome.”
The main areas of contention were agriculture and fisheries, involving the failure to agree on modalities to protect developing countries’ ability to ensure their populations’ food security through public purchase and stockpiling of foodstuffs and the failure to agree to ban subsidies for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, respectively.
Trying to put a positive spin on the outcome of the meeting, certain officials, including WTO Director-General Roberto Acevedo, sought to emphasize newer areas in which discussions may progress in the year ahead. Foremost among these is e-commerce, with respect to which more than sixty WTO members including the U.S. and EU have launched a new working group to determine to what extent current trade rules can be applied and to establish a foundation for any future negotiations in this context. Other areas in which discussions may progress include the harmonization of services regulation, and assistance to micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises.
In terms of challenges ahead for the WTO, the U.S.’ persistence in pursuing unilateral trade remedies and bilateral negotiations based on a narrowly domestic outlook, as well as its continued blocking of appointments to the WTO Appellate Body, could have a long-lasting negative impact. In addition, India will reportedly host in 2018 a mini-ministerial meeting of approximately forty like-minded countries resisting pressure to negotiate new trade issues like e-commerce or perceived non-trade issues like environmental and labor standards until such time as their concerns as developing countries, especially with respect to agriculture, are addressed.
On a more constructive note, Commissioner Malmström sought to emphasize the nature of the WTO as a global public good to which the EU attaches enormous value and to reiterate the EU’s commitment to “do what is necessary to support it if it comes under further pressure.” This statement echoed the Declaration in Support of the Multilateral Trading System circulated by 46 like-minded developed and developing WTO members at the beginning of the ministerial conference.