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Thursday, November 30, 2023
In this column, Roberto Azevêdo, Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), notes that regional trade agreements have proliferated in recent years and become more complex. However, he argues that while economies become more interconnected across borders and regions, such agreements do not – and probably cannot ¬– fully address the gains from trade that can be obtained through global value chains.
GENEVA, Oct 15 2014 (IPS) - Regional trade agreements have grown very rapidly in recent years, and today the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been notified that 253 are in force.
Clearly RTAs are not a new phenomenon.
In fact they pre-date the multilateral system because, in a sense, they were the seeds which grew into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Created in 1947, GATT was replaced in 1994 by the WTO.
GATT was effectively a multilateralisation of the network of reciprocal trade agreements that countries had been pursuing for some years previously, so the system as we know it today has its roots in these agreements.
But of course things have changed in recent years. These agreements are not only more numerous, they are becoming increasingly complex.
While over 80 percent of RTAs notified are bilateral agreements, we are seeing more and more large regional agreements.
And we are seeing more agreements between countries in different regions, rather than between neighbours. This is very different from the pattern we saw during the GATT years.
In addition we see many more developing countries negotiating RTAs today.
This proliferation of agreements, each with their own sets of rules, has been dubbed a “spaghetti bowl” and I would certainly agree that we are seeing a significant increase in the level of complexity inside the agreements and in their relations with each other.
Most RTAs today make deeper and more extensive commitments, and have moved beyond commitments only in the sphere of market access for goods.
A question which requires further consideration is how RTA provisions can be complementary to the multilateral trading system.
For some issues such as market access for goods and services, most RTAs grant their partners a higher level of market access than that available through the WTO.
For other issues, the picture is less straightforward.
Take, for example, RTA provisions on anti-dumping rules. In general, RTAs do not appear to have gone much further beyond where we are in the WTO today. Meanwhile, for issues such as investment, which is touched on by some RTAs, there are no WTO rules.
Another trend that has been noted in the past few years is negotiations that could potentially bring together a number of existing RTAs in so-called “mega-regional” negotiations.
While the trend to negotiate new RTAs continues, liberalising trade bilaterally or regionally is only a part of the picture.
As I have said many times, these initiatives are important for the multilateral trading system but they cannot substitute it.
To start with, there are many big issues which can only be tackled in an efficient manner in the multilateral context through the WTO.
Trade facilitation was negotiated successfully in the WTO because it makes no economic sense to cut red tape or simplify trade procedures at the border for one or two countries. If you do it for
one country, in practical terms you do it for everyone.
Financial or telecommunication regulations cannot be efficiently liberalised for just one trade partner so it is best to negotiate services trade-offs globally in the WTO. Nor can farming or fisheries subsides be tackled in bilateral deals.
Disciplines on trade remedies, such as the application of anti-dumping or countervailing duties, cannot significantly go beyond WTO rules.
The simple fact is that very few of the big challenges facing world trade today can be solved outside the global system. They are global problems demanding global solutions.
Another important aspect, leaving aside the content of the agreements, is their geographical scope. RTAs tend to exclude the smallest and most vulnerable countries. That is a major source of concern.
And, as our economies become more interconnected across borders and regions, RTAs do not – and probably cannot – fully address the gains from trade that can be obtained through global value chains.
Indeed, the strict, product-specific rules of origin that often accompany RTAs may actually be detrimental to value chains and therefore exclusionary for some. The smaller the country, the smaller the company, the smaller the trader, the bigger the likelihood that it will be excluded.
There is also concern that by creating different sets of rules and regulations, RTAs may be burdensome for traders and business. This is the point of complexity that is a concern for many.
Finally, although these initiatives show that WTO members continue to liberalise trade, fragmentation of the trading system cannot be a substitute for the benefits of negotiating one set of rules for all.
Ideally, this is where we should be putting our focus.
But in order to ensure this, one thing we clearly need to do is to deliver on what we agreed during the WTO word trade negotiations in Bali in December last year.
We are now halfway through an intensive consultation period to resolve the current impasse on this but, as things stand today, at this point in time we do not have a solution.
While this situation persists, I think the risk of disengagement increases exponentially. And this point is underlined by the proliferation of these other approaches.
For the sake of the multilateral system, and all those who stand to benefit from it, I think we have to find a solution to our current problems and put our work here at the WTO back on track. And we have to do it quickly. Time is not on our side. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)
(Edited by Phil Harris)
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