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WTO holds ministerial meeting in Abu Dhabi to call for consensus amid geopolitical tensions

On Monday (February 26), the World Trade Organization (WTO) convened a high-level ministerial meeting in Abu Dhabi, urging its members to find common ground as the world faces geopolitical conflicts and the upcoming US election that could jeopardize the prospects of a major breakthrough at the meeting.

The 13th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC13) took place in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, for the first time in two years.

The WTO aimed to advance on key issues such as fisheries, agriculture, and e-commerce. However, a comprehensive deal was unlikely as the WTO’s rules demand unanimous agreement among all 164 members, a daunting challenge in the current situation.

The situation in Gaza and the related attacks by Yemeni rebels on Red Sea vessels, which have affected global maritime trade, also added more difficulties for those who attended the conference in the United Arab Emirates.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala opened the Abu Dhabi meeting and appealed to trade ministers to “reach consensus on the MC13 decision” this week.

“Uncertainty and instability are everywhere when you look around,” Okonjo-Iweala said, noting that the world was in a “worse position” than when trade ministers met at the WTO two years ago.

WTO General Council Chair Athaliah Lesiba Molokomme said the work of trade ministers at MC13 was “more critical than ever” given the global challenges.

“We need to work together to ensure that the WTO can respond to today’s challenges amid rising economic uncertainty and geopolitical tensions,” she said.

The WTO announced on Sunday that more than 120 WTO members had finalized an agreement that aimed to boost investment in developing countries by enhancing transparency and reducing bureaucratic hurdles. Currently, 75% of WTO members have signed the “Investment Facilitation and Development (IFD)” agreement. According to WTO rules, it needs unanimous approval before it can be officially adopted.

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Despite the wide support, some members may still resist its incorporation into the WTO, including India. India usually opposes agreements that do not include all countries. The agreement was posted on the WTO’s website hours before its 13th Ministerial Conference.

The previous ministerial meeting of the WTO was held at its Geneva headquarters in June 2022. Trade ministers reached a historic agreement to prohibit fishery subsidies that harm marine life and agreed to temporary patent waivers for the COVID-19 vaccine.

They also committed to restoring the dispute settlement mechanism after it was paralyzed in 2019 when Washington prevented the appointment of new judges to the WTO appeals court for years.

EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said this month: “It will be extremely difficult to repeat the success and miracles of MC12 in 2022.” He added: “Negotiations on important items such as fisheries, agriculture, and the e-commerce moratorium will continue until the final stages of the meeting.”

He said, “Negotiations on some aspects of the reform of the dispute settlement mechanism and a possible outcome document will also be tough.”

Meanwhile, many people think that the meeting in Abu Dhabi is the “last opportunity” to reform the organization before former US President Donald Trump is likely to win the election again in November. During his four years in power, Trump threatened to pull the US out of the WTO.

Earlier this month, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai stressed Washington’s “commitment to reforming the WTO and building a more resilient multilateral trading system.”

But Marcelo Olarreaga, an economics professor at the University of Geneva, said other WTO members “cannot expect big concessions from the administration of US President Joe Biden in an election year.”

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