WTO chief urges countries to keep up momentum on talks after ministerial cancelled

The head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) urged members not to lose the momentum of recent weeks and to continue negotiations after the outbreak of a new coronavirus variant prompted the organisation to postpone its major ministerial meeting at the last minute on Friday. 

Due to start on Tuesday, the four-day gathering was meant to be a critical moment in trying to seal negotiations on issues such as fisheries subsidies, which have dragged on for 20 years and for resolving deadlocked talks over waiving intellectual property protections on coronavirus vaccines and supplies.

The meeting was also perceived as a critical point for the WTO to prove its relevance to the global economy.

However, the 12 Ministerial Conference was postponed “indefinitely” on Friday evening just hours after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Omicron variant “of concern” and Switzerland as well as other countries tightened their travel restrictions.

“My priority is the health and safety of all MC12 participants – ministers, delegates and civil society. It is better to err on the side of caution,” director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said, urging countries to continue talks.

“This does not mean that negotiations should stop. On the contrary, delegations in Geneva should be fully empowered to close as many gaps as possible. This new variant reminds us once again of the urgency of the work we are charged with,” she added.

The WTO’s ministerial conference, its highest decision-making body, is held every two years but was already postponed because of the pandemic last year, when it was due to be hosted by Kazakhstan.

More than 100 ministers, plus 4,000 trade officials as well as NGO representatives were expected to travel to Geneva.

However, even before the change of plans, outcomes for the conference were not looking hopeful, with many discussions still far from being wrapped up. The organisation, which needs all 164 members to reach consensus on decisions, has only concluded two multilateral agreements in its 26-year history – one on trade facilitation and one on the elimination of export subsidies in agriculture.

Difficulties in reaching consensus between 164 members has prompted countries to pursue more plurilateral initiatives, among them, an initiative to cut red tape on domestic regulation procedures for trade in services, which has been led by 60 countries accounting for 90 per cent of global services trade.

Speaking to journalists last week, Switzerland’s ambassador to the WTO, Didier Chambovey, said reaching consensus on multilateral agreements was proving increasingly difficult.

“Certainly, one of the reasons is that we have a multipolar world. There are divergences between members and it's more difficult in these circumstances to find a common denominator. However, that does not mean we should give up. To the contrary, efforts have been undertaken to make progress and to reach agreements in all areas.”

He continued: “There is a resolve or determination by members to do more and to show that the multilateral trading system and the WTO is up to the task to taking on current challenges and deliver expected responses.”