WTO closes in on landmark trade reform

Wed Nov 20, 2013 1:01pm EST
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By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Trade Organization is close to the first worldwide trade reform since it was formed 18 years ago, diplomats and trade officials said on Wednesday, as marathon negotiations defused some of the most complex disputes.

WTO chief Roberto Azevedo has told WTO envoys in Geneva he wants to seal the deal within days so that ministers can formally sign off on the package of trade reforms at their biennial meeting in Bali in the first week of December.

A major element, concerning "trade facilitation", remains to be settled, but if the momentum continues and the talks succeed, the agreement would give a boost to global commerce and revive confidence in the WTO as the custodian of global trade rules.

Its credibility has ebbed away over the past decade with the slow death of the Doha round of talks, which gave way to the more modest package of reforms now under discussion.

Azevedo effectively called a halt on Wednesday to months of haggling over agriculture, one of the deal's three main elements, telling WTO ambassadors the text they had drafted was the best they could hope for.

The talks have been dogged by mistrust, brinkmanship and haggling over grammar and semantics, as well as a handful of negotiating demands deliberately raised at a late stage, according to people who have attended the meetings.

"The patient flatlined a few times but we got the heartbeat going again," Azevedo said, according to participants at the meeting on agriculture.

One particularly thorny section of the agriculture text, on tariff rate quotas, ended up with a convoluted formula - a paragraph that will expire in 2019 but with provisions that will continue to apply unless member countries opt out.   Continued...

A delegate waits for the opening of a session of the Trade Negotiation Committee at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva July 22, 2013. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse