WTO reaches initial deal as India’s defiance tempered

World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (R), is congratulated by Indian Minister of Commerce Piyush Goyal, after the closing session of the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference at the WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, early 17 June 2022. The WTO concluded deals on tackling food insecurity, curbing harmful fishing subsidies, and temporarily waiving Covid-19 vaccine patents, after days of round-the-clock talks. [EPA-EFE/Fabrice Coffrini / POOL]

Major members of the World Trade Organization reached an initial deal on Thursday (16 June), winning over India which said it was confident more global accords could be achieved as negotiations on fishing, vaccines and food security entered their final hours.

Ministers from more than 100 countries convened at the global trade watchdog’s headquarters in Geneva this week for the first time in more than four years to agree new trade rules, a feat many thought unlikely in an era of high geopolitical tensions.

The body’s 164 members must all agree for new rules to pass, meaning that one member alone can block deals.

During the 12-15 June meeting, extended into the evening of a fifth day on Thursday, that member has been India.

However, a provisional agreement to extend a moratorium on applying duties to electronic transmissions until at least 2023 was reached despite earlier opposition from New Delhi.

Indian Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, who had struck a defiant stance on a range of topics earlier in the week, told journalists he expected more “solid decisions” to come.

New Delhi, which has a history of blocking multilateral negotiations, has previously stuck to long-held demands to maintain subsidies for fisheries and agriculture and pushed for extra reforms, trade sources said.

EU-India clash over push on free trade of food

The Indian government has lambasted a push from the EU and other World Trade Organisation (WTO) members to keep global trade on foodstuffs open to cope with the fallout of the Ukraine war, backing countries’ right to stockpile to feed their citizens.

India maintains it is fighting to protect livelihoods in developing nations.

Delegates were more upbeat on Thursday about a package of deals with trade-offs possible, without specifying what the compromises would be. EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis tweeted that members were “getting closer”. WTO deputy director-general Anabel Gonzalez said she was “hopeful”.

Negotiators were in intense talks in the so-called ‘Green Room’ of the WTO for most of the night. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao were no longer in Geneva, trade sources said.

Negotiations resumed around 0700 GMT Thursday and were expected to conclude in the evening, they added.

One of the possible outcomes of the talks is a pared-back version of a deal designed to curb fishing subsidies that cause over-fishing, a document seen by Reuters showed.

Another is a partial waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines designed to allow developing countries to produce them and pledges to ease the food security crisis although tussles over the precise wording continued, sources said.

WTO officials have maintained throughout the meetings a belief that deals can be reached, saying talks often look hopeless until a final bargain is reached.

‘Unprecedented package’

The WTO chief presented countries with a series of draft trade agreements early on Friday that included pledges on health, reform and food security and urged that they be accepted as a major meeting stretched into its second day of overtime.

The package, which director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala described as “unprecedented”, did not include two of the most important deals under consideration: fisheries and a partial waiver for intellectual property rights for COVID-19 drugs.

However, delegates said they may be added later, with negotiations ongoing at the WTO’s Geneva headquarters ahead of a final meeting scheduled for 0100 GMT on Friday.

This week’s meeting with over 100 trade ministers is the body’s first such conference in over four years and is seen as a crucial test of its ability to strike multilateral trade deals amid high geopolitical tensions. It has already landed one, on maintaining a moratorium on e-commerce tariffs.

In the letter presenting the documents, signed by Okonjo-Iweala and two WTO chairs, she asked members to consider the “delicate balance” achieved over five days of nearly round-the-clock talks that have been at times been charged with anger and frustration.

“The nature of compromise is that noone gets all of what they want,” the letter said. “Let us complete our work tonight so we can honor those out there waiting for the WTO to deliver.”

Under WTO practices, its 164 members all have to agree by consensus and a blockage on one topic can derail other negotiations.

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