Wheat, peach, patents: high-risk ministerial meeting at the WTO

One of the strong expectations of the reunion of the supreme decision-making body of the World Trade Organization is that it will contribute to finding a response to the risk of a serious food crisis that the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

European Commission Vice-President for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis accused Moscow of using “food and grain as a weapon of war“.

The war will be very present from the declarations of the ministers on Sunday and throughout the conference, the United States or the EU refusing to speak directly to the Russians.

This has not prevented negotiations so far, but “the risk is real that things will go off the rails next week“, according to a Geneva diplomatic source.

– Miraculous catch? –

Fishing remains the key issue of the meeting.

The WTO announced early on Saturday that the draft text to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies – which has occupied the organization for 20 years – is now in the hands of ministers and that it will be up to them to try to find common ground on the remaining points of contention.

Not all issues have been resolved and there are things in this project that the members disagree on or that I did not see specific common ground on.“, warned Santiago Wills, the Colombian ambassador who led the negotiations, while highlighting the progress made in recent months.

Since the WTO works by consensus, the 164 member countries must agree to conclude.

The fisheries agreement, which is part of the UN’s millennium goals, must remove subsidies that can encourage overfishing or illegal taking.

The ambassador noted progress, particularly on the thorny subject of “territoriality“, the text dismissing the idea that the quarrels of territorial belonging – numerous and ultra-sensitive – could be settled by a panel of the WTO.

Progress has also been made in defining the preferential treatment mechanism reserved for developing countries. Temporary exemptions are planned in particular for subsidies contributing to overcapacity and overfishing, but their duration is not unanimous, with India claiming 25 years.

25 years would be devastating for fish stocks“, reports to AFP Isabel Jarrett, of the NGO Pew Charitable Trusts. She pleads for an exemption of less than 10 years.

The success of the conference will be largely measured by the adoption or not of this text.

– Indian intransigence –

Indian intransigence, underlined by many diplomats, could derail other issues.

There is not a single subject that India does not block. It’s quite worrying“lamented an ambassador based in Geneva, citing in particular the reform of the WTO and agriculture, a file for which the ministers must draw up a work program.

We see that India wants to weigh more in international organizations, starting with the WTO. It is able to hold up the finalization of negotiations“, analyzes Elvire Fabry, researcher in charge of trade policy at the European Jacques Delors Institute.

We are even worried at this stage for the extension of the moratorium on e-commerce that India and South Africa are still blocking.“, she explains to AFP.

Ministers are also expected on the WTO’s response to the pandemic. They will discuss two texts.

One must facilitate the circulation of the ingredients necessary for the fight against the current and future pandemics, the other must allow a temporary lifting of patents for anti-Covid vaccines.

This last subject divides, the pharmaceutical industry seeing in it a weakening of intellectual property. For the NGOs, the text does not go far enough to be really effective.

The outcome remains uncertain.

It was a very difficult, really difficult process“acknowledged WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.”We did the best we could“.

China has promised not to use the facilities granted to developing countries by this draft agreement.

The WTO has lost relevance for lack of being able to conclude major agreements, the last major agreement dating back to 2013.

There is no guarantee of major results in Geneva despite the vigorous efforts of Ms. Okonjo-Iweala, who has been at the helm for just over a year.

Some hope that the final ministerial declaration will also mention the need for reform of the WTO, whose appeal body is blocked by Washington.


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