Monday, April 26, 2021

What next for the negotiating agenda?

The future of the WTO's role in the present trade and investment norm setting has often been a subkect of intense debate amongst trade law aficionados. Will it be relevant n the context of 21st century business realities? Can it match up to the pace of change in global value chains and technology? Can the 160-odd members strike a consensus at all. Will there be more multilateral trade deals in this era of nationalist, populist policies? What would come out of the Appellate Body impasse and the politicozation of the crown jewel of the WTO?

Petros C. Mavroidis seeks to answer some of these challenging questions in an interesting article in the The Journal of World Investment and Trade titled "Who's Minding the Store?" referring to the collapse of the decision making function of the WTO and what needs to be done.

On the need to revitalise the negotiating function in the WTO to ensure rule-making is brought back to track, he states:

One thing is clear: unless the legislative function of the WTO has been revitalized, any improvements in the judiciary risk being of marginal value. We risk rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic, doing nothing to divert the ship from its course and the consequential direct collision with the iceberg.

What is striking is perhaps, there is no longer "two to tango" in the context of the US and EU setting the agenda at the WTO. In a multipolar world, emerging economies have begun seeking a voice tempered by domestic pressures and constituencies.Rule takers are seeking to be rule shapers if not rule makers.

Up to the Uruguay round, the old two-step would do: as long as the European Union and the United States shared a worldview, and were dancing in the same direction, the world trading community would follow. It is not the case anymore. We have now moved to a multi-polar world. Voices are multiplying, and worse diversifying. We are experiencing a cacophony when a single tune is required. This is no cakewalk, but one key piece of the jigsaw puzzle seems to be abandoning its previous centrifugal tendency and moving towards the orbit in a centripetal manner this time...

So what should the agenda for reform at the WTO be? Low-hanging fruit to set negotiations rolling or deep, festering issues that require closure? Who sets the agenda to be taken forward? What coalitions will emerge and what power play will set the agenda? How do members see the WTO in terms of their national interest as well as the global community.

The question is not whether WTO requires a negotiating agenda and rule making back on track - the question rather is what that agenda would be and who would be the one's pushing for it. 

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