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WTO and Parliaments – Parliaments should be active in debating global trade developments

The BGIPU convened a roundtable discussion on 13 March to discuss multilateral trade with a specific focus on the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the role of Parliaments.  The meeting heard perspectives from Lord Harrison and Baroness Hooper who represented the BGIPU at the 2012 session of the Parliamentary Conference on the WTO in Geneva held 15-16 November 2012 which was jointly organized by the IPU and the European Parliament; you can read Lord Harrison’s report of the meeting here.

In particular, they discussed the UK Parliament’s engagement with international trade issues, with a focus on the important role parliaments can play in ensuring greater debate and accountability regarding multilateral trade issues.

The transparency of the WTO should be enhanced through closer cooperation with parliaments in its activities

Participants in the roundtable included UK parliamentarians, external analysts and NGO representatives. There was broad discussion around the state of play for the Doha Round noting is was “not dead but deadlocked”.  Nevertheless, participants acknowledged the role of the WTO in providing an essential framework for a rules-based system for international trade, noting that while bilateral and regionally-based trade arrangements played an important part in global trade, multilateral approaches provided the best scope for reaching universal agreement of the greatest and most equitable benefit to all nations.

In this regard, participants noted the importance of increasing accountability and openness in trade negotiations to ensure broad understanding among all players and the importance of building trust in the ability of the WTO to ensure a level playing field all in facilitating and advancing global trade arrangements.  A key complicating factor in this was a tendency in some countries to resort to protectionism, including barriers to trade and production subsidies, as a result of domestic economic pressures, decreased competitiveness or populist sentiment.  The importance of the European Union (EU) in global trade matters, both as a key player and major influence on global opinion, was highlighted including the important and differing roles played by EU member states and EU institutions, including the Commission and the European Parliament.

Looking closely at the key role which parliamentarians could play, including the important role the IPU plays in convening regular meetings on the WTO, it was noted that while parliamentarians do not have an executive decision-making role on such matters, they do have a clear role to ensure appropriate scrutiny and debate on the approaches governments and multilateral institutions take in advancing the normative rules for global trade.  In particular, parliamentarians were in influential positions to ask the difficult (and sometimes awkward) questions and encourage broader public debate, ensuring greater transparency and scrutiny of executive decisions and multilateral outcomes.

Overall, it was important for policy makers on trade issues to be exposed to views from a wide range of perspectives, including industry and business leaders, the non-government sector and at the broader community level.  Parliaments retained an important role in ensuring this happened through their ability to give voice to disparate views and place issues of concern or contention before governments as a part of the parliamentary process.  This perspective was entirely consistent with the conclusions of the November 2012 Parliamentary Conference on the WTO in Geneva which concluded that “the transparency of the WTO should be enhanced through closer cooperation with parliaments in its activities”.