Annual Session of the Parliamentary Conference on the WTO
In December 2013 I had shared with other IPU delegates, the elation of seeing a WTO trade deal being reached in Bali. However in July 2014, India had threatened to block the Bali Trade Facilitation Agreement, unless an agreement was struck on the issue of its food security programmes.
Once again media reports of the possible demise of WTO surfaced and despondency threatened to set in. However in November 2014, just before the G20 summit in Australia, the US and India reached agreement over trade facilitation. To cut a long story short, there will now be no challenge to Indian food subsidies until new rules are negotiated (whenever that may be!).
With that background, I would surmise that the mood amongst delegates arriving in Geneva, for the Annual Session of the Parliamentary Conference of the WTO, was much more positive than the frustration I had experienced amongst delegates before Bali.
This time there was not only a done deal, but also a general feeling that we should complete ratification and implementation of Bali as soon as possible and also move on immediately to finalising the more substantive Doha Round.
A meeting of the Steering Committee on the first day was instructive, with India leading the way on amendments to the draft Outcome Document. India wished to ensure that the WTO continues to operate on a consensual basis and that environmental concerns should not be used to discriminate against member countries. Japan was generally opposed, South Africa supportive of India and China mediated; as did I, on one amendment. However, the mood of debate was very positive and surprisingly the Outcome Document was agreed in half the time provided.
The conference itself was opened and I found myself sitting next to Ukrainian MPs, who clearly had wider conflict issues on their minds. A debate ensued on the question of trade as an enabler of peace and better living conditions. The Austrian MEP, Paul Rübig quoted the French economist, Frédéric Bastiat: “ if goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will”. I nodded sagely to the Ukrainian MP.
Further points were made concerning trade alleviating poverty and trade being the key to sustainable growth, job creation and better living standards worldwide. Protectionism on the other hand can lead to a position of no-one winning.
An important issue was raised by British MEP Emma McClarkin in her contribution. How do we sell what is going on in the WTO to the public and especially younger people? How do we make people aware as to how vital these negotiations are for our trade, jobs and welfare? The problem is that the WTO is not highly understood or cared for in the UK – or elsewhere. The WTO is seen as being run by bureaucrats and its language and communication is very much versed in international civil service speak. Meaning, effectively, that few understand the huge importance of what is going on here. There is an issue here for national parliamentarians, but also for the WTO itself to explain in real terms, the potential benefits of freer trade. At the moment it’s all too technical and complicated.
I backed up Emma’s point in my own contribution from the floor, suggesting that simpler terms are used for media and that more case studies are used to show how beneficial to trade, companies, jobs and welfare trade deals can be.
The address by the WTO Director General, Mr. Roberto Azevêdo was well received. He made a good case for the need to maintain momentum and to agree a clearly defined work plan by July 2015; before the ministerial meeting in Nairobi should finalise the Doha Round. He emphasised that all discussions were being conducted on the most transparent basis, with all members represented by ambassadors at key meetings. A further speech by Ms. Sheri Rosenow, of the WTO secretariat, explained the steps for implementation of the Bali Trade Facilitation Agreement and how developing countries will be supported through assistance and grants for implementation.
Clearly some thought has also been given to entrenching the democratic status of the WTO and the Parliamentary conferences, such as this one, are aimed at being part of that. The issues being debated involve huge sums of money and employment and welfare issues for member states. It is right that we Parliamentarians are involved in the process, to review decisions of our Executives and, where necessary, give them a prod to aid delivery.
Now that the post Bali stalemate had been broken, the crux of the Conference was, whether WTO members could seize the opportunity and implement all elements of the Doha Round package. Is the 160 member state WTO community up for this challenge – I think yes from the mood of the Conference – but we shall have to see.