Home Headline ‘Difficult discussions’ as WTO talks extended for third time

‘Difficult discussions’ as WTO talks extended for third time

The world's trade ministers entered a last stretch of talks on Friday following overnight negotiations as a major World Trade Organization conference postponed its closing session for a third time.

AFP

he WTO’s 13th ministerial conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi was initially scheduled to wrap up on Thursday

But it was extended beyond its scheduled deadline three times amid rifts between the body’s 164 members who must reach unanimous consensus to chalk up any deal as per WTO rules.

A closing conference previously scheduled for 1000 GMT on Friday was pushed back by three hours, as trade ministers negotiated agreements on fisheries and agriculture with new draft texts on the table after all-night talks.

“Ministers continue to be engaged in intensive and difficult discussions on a package of agreements for adoption at MC13,” WTO spokesman Ismaila Dieng said in a statement.

“In order to give more time for negotiations, the formal closing Session of MC13 has now been postponed.”

The WTO — the only international body dealing with the rules of trade between nations — is under pressure to secure some wins at MC13 to prove its relevance.

Its 12th ministerial conference in Geneva in 2022 was hailed as a landmark success following deals on fisheries and a commitment by members to restore a now-defunct dispute settlement body before the end of this year.

“Our challenge this week is to demonstrate that MC12 wasn’t a one-off miracle,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said on Monday.

‘Open-ended’

With farmer protests sweeping Europe and India, agriculture agreements have emerged as a particularly sensitive topic of debate.

Member states are trying to negotiate a text listing the subjects that merit further discussion.

A key sticking point is a demand by India and other member states for permanent rules governing public stockholding of food reserves to replace temporary measures adopted by the WTO.

One proposal on the table suggests taking a step in that direction, but a timetable and other details still need to be defined.

Hours away from the deadline, ministers sat for an “open ended meeting on agriculture with the revised text,” the European Union’s Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski said on X, formerly Twitter.

“Agriculture is again the topic that makes or breaks a ministerial conference. Outcomes are uncertain until the last hours,” he said.

A source close to the discussions said progress on agriculture is still blocked.

Deadlock

Trade ministers are also deadlocked over a new deal on fisheries subsidies.

After a 2022 deal which banned subsidies contributing to illegal, undeclared and unregulated fishing, the WTO hopes to conclude a second package focusing on subsidies which result in overcapacity and overfishing.

Negotiations in recent months at the WTO headquarters in Geneva have enabled a draft text to be brought forward for a second fisheries deal.

It provides flexibility and advantages for developing countries.

But some — notably India — are demanding further concessions, including transition periods that others consider to be too long.

After all-night negotiations, a new draft fisheries agreement was brought forward early Friday.

But there is little consensus yet on transition periods and what constitutes small-scale artisanal fishing that would benefit from specific exemptions.

Also at stake at MC13 is the fate of an e-commerce customs moratorium.

Since 1998, WTO members have agreed not to impose customs duties on electronic transactions.

The moratorium has been extended at most ministerial meetings since then, but objections by India and other member states are now throwing it into jeopardy.

On Thursday, India, along with Brazil, once again threatened to block the moratorium’s extension, according to several sources close to the talks.

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