Trade in agriculture and agricultural products is back in the political spotlight as the WTO’s 2013 Trade Facilitation Agreement, the first multilateral trade agreement of this century, enters into force,, writes Jonathan Peel.
Jonathan Peel is a member of the European Economic and Social Committee (UK), Employers Group.
Once again trade in agriculture is expected to dominate the agenda and the EU must play a key role. The EU was a leading player in obtaining, against the odds, a significant outcome at the previous WTO Ministerial meeting in Nairobi, when WTO members agreed to the effective elimination of agricultural export subsidies. WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo described this as “the WTO’s most significant outcome on agriculture” in 20 years.
There is a growing interest among WTO members in making next December’s Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires as significant as the previous two, and agriculture will be high on the agenda.
However, trade in agriculture must now also play a central role in implementing many of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed by the United Nations in autumn 2015. The SDGs will have a direct and profound effect on trade in agriculture. Agriculture, in turn, will have a key role in achieving more than half of the SDGs. All countries share responsibility in these efforts. The SDGs identify many of the tools needed to ensure a successful outcome – and trade is specifically mentioned in nine of them, compared with just one in the case of the Millennium Development Goals that preceded the SDGs. At least 13 SDGs also refer to climate change: the two areas are deeply interwoven. Agriculture plays a critical role here too, as both a cause and a victim of climate change.
The EU must again take the lead
On 23 February the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), an advisory body of the EU institutions, adopted its opinion on Trade in Agriculture in the run-up to the next WTO Ministerial. Its core message is that we must get trade in agriculture right, but we must also get the Sustainable Development Goals right: we look to the EU to lead the way here.
The EU is well positioned to lead this process. It is the largest exporter and importer of agricultural products, it has a proven interest in trade and sustainable development, and it has the credibility to play an effective bridging role between developed and developing countries, far more so than either the United States or China.
The EU is able to build on several recent reforms of the CAP. It already showed at the Nairobi WTO Ministerial Conference that it has the ability to produce fresh and balanced thinking, which was crucial when so few there were expecting a positive outcome. The EU can once again place itself a step ahead of its trading partners.
However, the EU also needs to build a clear picture of what impact these commitments will have. The EESC is urging the Commission to undertake a prior impact assessment of the possible effects on EU agriculture and trade policy of implementing the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, and of the impact of recent EU trade agreements and global trade developments.
Reinvigorate the spirit of Doha – a call for global progress
The EU played a leading role at Nairobi. The decision there to effectively eliminate all agricultural export subsidies already meets one of the key targets set for SDG 2, namely to end hunger. That decision also showed that the WTO remains a viable, effective forum for multilateral trade negotiations. Judging also by recent WTO meetings, there is now a widespread will to reinvigorate the Doha agenda, especially with respect to agriculture. Although the Doha Round as such may have run its course, many key elements from it can be taken forward, and the EESC argues that the “spirit of Doha” – as a concept for trade dialogue between developed and developing countries – must be refreshed and enhanced. Regional and bilateral negotiations are also important, provided of course that these avoid overlapping or even conflicting rules.
The Sustainable Development Goals are a global challenge and can only be achieved through a joint effort. Future generations will not thank us if we fail in this need to achieve fairer and more sustainable development of agriculture and trade in agricultural products.