WTO’s major ministerial meeting is coming up. What’s on the agenda?

In two weeks, trade ministers will gather in Geneva and online for the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) major biennial meeting with the aim of reaching an agreement on a raft of issues, from ending harmful fisheries subsidies to ensuring access to essential medical goods during a pandemic.

The trade body’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) will take place from 30 November to 3 December after being postponed last year, and moved from Kazakhstan’s capital Nur-Sultan to Geneva, due to the pandemic.

There’s a lot at stake for the multilateral organisation that has come under pressure to stay relevant and show that it can produce real outcomes in response to today’s global health, trade and economic challenges.

In the days leading up to the meeting, negotiators will intensify efforts to finalise statements and draft treaties to present to ministers to decide.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting of trade ministers at the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council on Friday, Slovenian minister Zdravko Počivalšek and chair of the council said: “The success of the WTO MC12 will be crucial in determining the WTO’s role in multilateral trading system.”

The four-day conference will end with a ministerial declaration. The question will be which issues ministers from the 164 countries will be able to come together and agree on. Here are some of the items that could feature in the declaration:

Fisheries subsidies deal – in the net?

A deal to end billions of dollars of harmful fisheries subsidies would be a major win for the WTO if agreed on at MC12 and would come after more than 20 years of talks by member states.

Ambassador Santiago Wills, chair of the negotiators, expressed cautious optimism last week about being able to finalise most parts of the deal in time for MC12 after presenting member states with the latest version of the draft treaty.

Read also: WTO fisheries subsidies talks edge closer towards ministerial conference

Negotiators have been working on intensive line-by-line discussions over the last week in order to present ministers with a draft that is as near as complete with the hope that they will give it their seal of approval.

Alice Tipping, lead on sustainable trade and fisheries subsidies at the IISD, told Geneva Solutions:  "The negotiations have made real progress in the last few weeks. The gaps that remain are small but important. Now it's really about the overall balance of rights and obligations and exemptions."

Health, trade, and waiving vaccines intellectual property rights

One of the most contentious issues on the agenda, a proposal led by South Africa and India to temporarily waive intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines and therapies continues to divide members.

More than 100 countries backing the waiver say it will help ensure equitable access to vaccines as poorer countries struggle to obtain enough vaccine doses. However, many countries including the UK, EU and Switzerland remain opposed to the current proposal.

Intense discussions have continued in Geneva over the last few weeks. Despite there still being no major breakthroughs, countries have shown signs of finding some common areas of understanding, Ambassador Dagfinn Sørli of Norway said following the most recent meeting of the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) on 5 November, according to a trade official.

Beyond a TRIPS waiver agreement, there are hopes of ministers agreeing to a broader political declaration on trade and health at MC12. The proposed text, being led by New Zealand ambassador David Walker, calls for concrete actions to facilitate trade in essential medical goods and better prepare the trading system to deal with a public health emergency.

Reform of the WTO

One of the major issues due to be discussed is the reform of the 26 year-old organisation, with many including the US and the European Union calling for the global trade rules that the WTO oversees to be urgently updated.

WTO observers say that an agreement among member states at MC12 that there needs to be a structured discussion on reforming the organisation would be a positive outcome.

This was echoed by European Commission executive vice president Valdis Dombrovskis, who told journalists after the  EU’s Foreign Affairs Council last Friday that the bloc would be pushing for the launch of a WTO reform process – with a view to delivering substantive results by the following ministerial meeting in two years time.

Trade and sustainability

Plurilateral talks on trade and environmental sustainability added two new member states last week – the US and China – who joined as co-sponsors of the discussions. The 56 participants hope to adopt a draft statement ahead of MC12, that would set out future work for the initiative in areas such as trade and climate change as well as fix a road map for advancing discussions in 2022.

Moratorium on electronic transmissions

A WTO e-commerce moratorium, which bans countries from imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions, is due to expire at the end of this year unless renewed by member states.

The moratorium, which frees digitalised products such as films, music, and even 3D printing files, of import duties, dates back to 1998 and since then it has been renewed at every ministerial conference. Some members, including the G7 countries are calling for the moratorium to be made permanent, arguing that efforts to enforce customs could give rise to digital protectionism.

Even if one wanted to impose duties, it would be very difficult to do so in a digital sphere where borders do not exist, one trade analyst told Geneva Solutions.

However, not all countries are happy with the arrangement. In a communication last year, India and South Africa said the moratorium was “equivalent to developing countries giving the digitally advanced countries duty-free access to [their] markets”, and came at the cost of jobs and economic growth.

An UNCTAD research paper published in 2019 estimated that the potential tariff revenue loss to developing countries due to the moratorium was $10 billion in 2017. The topic is likely to fuel debate at the WTO conference.