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It’s the most wonderful time of the year again. No, I’m not talking about Christmas, I’m talking about the Eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference (MC11). Every other year thousands of people travel around the world to take part in the most important event in the global trade calendar. This time the conference will be held in Buenos Aires between 10-13 December.
In general, hopes are not high. Trade negotiations are always difficult but the past two years since MC10 in Nairobi have been tough even by trade standards. Some economists argue that trade policy is cyclical. Ideas and trends never die, instead they return in cycles. The downside of this is that the bad trends also return. Protectionist ideas that have been frequently tested and tried in the past, invariably with poor results, are suddenly in vogue again.
Therefore some of the negotiations in Geneva have been like re-reading the textbooks on trade from the early 70s. Didn’t work then, won’t work now. We have also seen a major shift in the trade policy of the US. When such a key player in the global trading system starts to move then all others will have to adjust to that. I think it’s safe to say that the tectonic plates haven’t settled yet.
We still go to Buenos Aires with a few issues on the table that might yield results. We hope for a first step towards abolishing harmful fisheries subsidies. If it happens it will be a small step but important nonetheless. There is also a slim chance for deliveries on some issues related to agriculture such as domestic support and public stockholding. Other topics like trade and development, e-commerce and services will also be discussed but most likely only in a more general way.
Some people in Geneva argue that the best that could happen is that MC11 becomes a non-event. A ministerial conference where ministers meet to discuss important trade policy issues. Not more, not less. The worst case scenario would be a conference that ends in acrimony displaying vast differences of opinion among WTO members.
Others, like me, tend to look for silver linings. There are always plenty of side events at the WTO conferences and this year many of them are ambitious. Many events will have participation from ministers and several declarations are expected.
There will be a presentation of a declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment that more than 80 countries have signed up for. This is an issue that Sweden has worked on for decades and I can personally testify that it was pretty lonely work in the beginning. There will also be high level events on issues such as trade and the sustainable development goals, investment facilitation, Micro, Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (MSMES), elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and of course a host of issues related to trade and digitalisation. These are just a few examples.
If some confused student of economy or political science would ever feel compelled to go back and study MC11 sometimes in the future, I think she/he would draw the conclusion that important things actually happened in Buenos Aires. Things that pointed towards the future. Issues that since have become an integral part of the discussions about trade policy, hopefully within the framework of the WTO. But that progress happened in the margins of the main event.
Our challenge will be to make sure that progress is not lost.