It takes 164 to tango: the 11th WTO Ministerial Meeting in Buenos Aires

In a few days’ time, Trade Ministers from the 164 WTO member-countries will meet in Buenos Aires; New Zealand Minister of Trade and Economic Growth David Parker will serve as a Vice-Chair to the Conference. It looks like it will be a struggle to emerge with new rules to address the environmental harm of ‘fish subsidies’, trade-distorting agricultural support and e-commerce (although rabbits have been pulled out of the WTO hat before today), but the rules-based multilateral trading system remains critically important to global sustainable development and prosperity, as well as to New Zealand’s.  

WTO Ministers meet every two years. When the Doha Round was at its peak, these gatherings were important opportunities to resolve key inflection points in the negotiations: in 2015, for example, WTO Ministers made the historic decision to eliminate agriculture export subsidies, long a blight on the New Zealand dairy sector. This year, however, when Ministers come together from 10-13 December, prospects are looking shaky.

The most promising areas are fish subsidies, farm support and e-commerce. New Zealand has long played a leading role on the first of these – rules to prohibit the subsidies that contribute to fleet overcapacity and overfishing, especially illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. (New Zealand has not only been active in the WTO – where talks were given new impetus by the UN Sustainable Development Goals – but also helped secure ground-breaking legally-enforceable rules in the TPP and CPTPP agreements on fish subsidies.) Despite intense efforts over the last few weeks, however, it is not certain that we will get an outcome across the line.

Likewise New Zealand has been active in seeking to curb trade-distorting agricultural subsidies – the root cause of many of the problems in the global trading system affecting Kiwi farmers as well as those from developing countries. A solution there depends on securing buy-in from the biggest developed-country spenders (the US among others) as well as concessions from large subsidising developing countries. A number of developing countries are also pushing for new rules on public food stockholding, but so far the sweet spot between designing policies to help with food shortages while not inadvertently causing harmful distortions has yet to be found. Finally, the time has clearly come for a global rules framework for e-commerce, given the exponential expansion of the digital economy, but there again, the politics may derail progress.

We are – unfortunately – well past the heyday of the Doha Round. But the Buenos Aires meeting, and the WTO system itself, still matter.   After a period of dismal performance by global trade, the forecasts are looking considerably brighter; we are also seeing fewer new trade restrictions being introduced. The world is a long way from the Wild West of the pre-WTO era. But there is still a clear and present danger of a reversion to protectionism and mercantilism around the globe. The Trump Administration has made no secret of its antipathy towards the WTO (including making moves that may lead to the paralysis of the “jewel in the crown”, the WTO dispute settlement system, by refusing to appoint new judges to the Appellate Body).  An outcome in Buenos Aires – even a solid future work programme – would serve as a reminder of the broad and deep benefits for all from trade liberalisation. Certainly, efforts to date have not been perfect. More needs to be done to bring along civil society and to ensure that the benefits of trade reform can be more widely shared: we need both to tell the story better, and to have a better story to tell. But to make trade work for all, we need everyone to join the dance.

This blog was prepared by NZIBF Associate Director Stephanie Honey. 





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