Having attended two-thirds of the WTO’s ministerial conferences, I have been reflecting on why they have failed. In most cases it comes down to an abuse of process and bullying by more powerful Members, sometimes with collusion from the chair and the secretariat, leaving developing countries with two choices: capitulation or denial of consensus.
The global trade system is not neutral. Constructed during the second half of the 20th century, trade rules tend to support the interests of the major trading nations and corporations of that era, while the priorities of the South and the global 99% have routinely been sidelined. Today, while the system can impact us all, affecting our climate, jobs, work conditions, public services and the supply and prices of essential goods, the systematic exclusion of Southern countries from the top-table of trade decision-making has caused Southern perspectives and interests to be sidelined. In this panel we invite eminent speakers from three continents to reflect on these challenges, presenting their perspectives on the trade system, and sharing their priorities for change.
WTO Members have discussed WTO reform since the collapse of the WTO Appellate Body (AB) in 2019, which was caused mainly by the US opposition to appointing new AB members. The US attacked the AB for its performance and its interpretation of WTO rules. The US has also consistently criticized the WTO’s incapability to reach agreements and reform itself. Nonetheless, this Western discomfort towards the organisation and the AB began at the Third Ministerial Meeting in Seattle (1999) when developing countries opposed the Global North’s attempt to open new trade negotiations. This push continued during the Fourth Ministerial Conference in Doha(2001), where the membership loosely agreed on a mandate for “Global and Sustainable Development”, albeit one without clear expectations to cut a deal in line with such a mandate of achieving a fair balance between trade and development at the multilateral trading system. One ministerial conference after the other, there was a failure to agree on Western driven “Development Agenda” until the Members agreed on the Trade Facilitation Agreement and the agricultural subsidies exports prohibition in Bali (2013) and Nairobi (2015), respectively. However, and even after the collapse of the AB, a criticised agreement on fishery subsidies (2022) was reached with a sunset clause of 5 years, making it in turn a chimera because of the short term.