Home Economy ‘Not in dreamland’: WTO aims for modest outcomes at Abu Dhabi meeting

‘Not in dreamland’: WTO aims for modest outcomes at Abu Dhabi meeting

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REUTERS

ABU DHABI – Trade ministers from nearly every country in the world gather in Abu Dhabi on Monday for a World Trade Organization meeting that aims to set new global commerce rules, but even its ambitious chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has sought to curb expectations.

The almost 30-year-old global watchdog, whose rules underpin 75% of global commerce, tries to strike deals by consensus, but such efforts are becoming more and more difficult as signs grow that the global economy is fragmenting into separate blocs.

“Politically it’s quite a tough time,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told reporters before the meeting, referring to wars, tensions and upcoming elections. “(But) I’m hopeful we will still be able to pull out some of the deliverables.”

While a deal among some 160 ministers on getting important internal reforms is plagued with obstacles, negotiators are still hoping for an agreement that could buoy global fish stocks and protect fishermen by banning government subsidies.

“We are not in dreamland here. International cooperation is in bad shape. Real success would be fish, plus two or three things,” one trade delegate told Reuters.

Other outcomes from the four-day meeting that are either definite or achievable are the accession of two new members – Comoros and East Timor – and a deal among some 120 countries to remove development-hampering investment barriers.

Tougher areas are extending a 25-year moratorium on applying tariffs on digital trade, which South Africa and India oppose, and an agreement on agriculture trade rules that has eluded negotiators for decades.

FUTURE RELEVANCE

Thani Al Zeyoudi, UAE trade minister and conference chair, said that trade and sustainability would be on the agenda as part of an effort to ensure the body’s future relevance.

“The next generation will not have the same trade ecosystem that we have nowadays and we don’t want the organisation to be outdated when the next generation is running the trade dossier,” he told Reuters.

One factor that could help is the determination of Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister, whose insistence on all-night meetings helped deliver a package of deals in Geneva in 2022.

“What makes me a bit more optimistic than others at this point is that the director-general is a very proactive person and is prepared to push ministers. Also, the UAE trade minister is very results-orientated,” said Alan Yanovich, partner at law firm Akin Gump Strauss.

John Denton, International Chamber of Commerce Secretary General, said even a modest outcome such as a forward-looking ministerial statement that showed common purpose among governments would be worth taking.

“The WTO is a public good ultimately, and our view is that there is a major cost to the real economy from any erosion of that system,” he said. — Reuters

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