Cancún failure: what future for the WTO?

Two days following the Cancún trade ministers’ gathering, trade experts are investigating the causes of failure and future prospects for the world trade body.

On the US side, the failure has been generally attributed to next year’s presidential election. The agricultural states gave big support to Bush’s 2000 election and agribusiness has been a significant campaign contributor to the Republican Party. The outcome of Cancún left US farm groups, as well as their EU counterparts, satisfied.

The European Union will equally experience important challenges in 2004 as it is to welcome 10 new members next May. The current Commission will change at the end of next year, and with it will leave some of the EU’s trade negotiators.

Following the failure at Cancún the US was quick to signal that it would move forward with bilateral negotiations. The EU has traditionally been a strong multilateralist but speaking on 16 September, EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said this policy should probably be reconsidered.

Even though developing countries rejoice over their success in finding a collective voice in the negotiations, analysts have said that the delay now caused in the Doha round of talks, would mainly cause the poorest small countries to suffer.

Concerns have emerged regarding the decision-making processes of the WTO after Pascal Lamy referred to it as a “medieval institution”.


EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamysaid that the Cancún collapse should make the EU and the world think about two main issues. Firstly, whether multilateralism, the current EU trade policy priority, should be maintained. This decision can only be made at the highest level and will also be dependent on what the other trading partners think about it. Secondly, world trade diplomats will need to think about the question of whether the current working method of the WTO should be kept as it is.

Unlike many of its NGO counterparts,WWFhas stood up for a rules-based trading system and recognised multilateralism as the best means to promoting "trade which contributes to sustainable development". WWF warns, in a commentary by Claude Martin published on 8 September, that the WTO should keep out of issues that it was not designed to tackle, including the relationship between trade rules and the Kyoto Protocol, use of "ecolabels", and launch of negotiations on the "Singapore issues".


The collapse of the WTO trade ministers meeting in Cancý10-14 September) has left many guessing as to what the possible causes of failure may have been and the future it signals for the multilateral trade body.


  • Negotiations will continue in Geneva.
  • The WTO General Council is scheduled to meet at senior officials level on 15 December.


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