Last-minute save for World Trade Organization

By the onslaught of news releases and hopeful stories in almost every media one might assume that a new day of salvation has arrived

By the onslaught of news releases and hopeful stories in almost every media one might assume that a new day of salvation has arrived for global trade. The World Trade Organization (WTO) at its recent meeting in Bali, Indonesia, seems to be saying just that to anyone who will listen.

Whether true or not, such a perceived brave new trade world is probably most important to the WTO itself. That’s because the organization has not managed to put together any sort of trade agreement since it was re-created in 1995.

Sure, there were lots of conferences over the years, usually in exotic locales around the world, but nothing was actually agreed to except a minor one in Doha, which essentially was an agreement to have more discussions.

One can be cynical and observe that trade negotiations by themselves are a large business involving countless thousands of diplomats, politicians, organizers and bureaucrats around the world.

All those folks need jobs so they have a vested interest in keeping the talkfests going on indefinitely. I expect completed and signed trade agreements would not be the best outcome for people who have made careers out of trade conferences.

It would even be bad for all the lobby and protest groups who are usually hangers-on at these conferences. Those folks also number in the thousands and busy themselves trying to lobby trade negotiators or are carrying out protests on the streets where the conferences are held. These folks all need each other and above all they don’t need actual trade agreement that might see an end to any trade conferences. It’s all big business involving many millions in salaries, travelling and conference expenses.

Headlines proclaimed that the WTO had reached an historic deal between its 159 members and that it had justified itself as an organization dedicated to liberalizing world trade.

But, as they say, “the devil is always in the details” and the devil was already busy twisting this so-called deal into a business as usual agreement.

That business would be yes even more trade discussions. The WTO historic deal is somewhat of a non-deal being it agrees to establish a work-plan on how to deal with the outstanding issues and requires the members to follow-up on their commitments.

This sounds suspiciously like another sure-fire recipe for years of more trade discussions. The innocent may be misled by the word “deal” as it has different connotations in the byzantine world of trade negotiations. No doubt this last gasp make work deal came as a real sense of relief to all those who make their living from the trade discussion business.

Lobby groups like the Canadian AgriFood Trade Alliance, who attend these events all over the world thanks to producer contributions, fell over itself pronouncing as to how important this deal was to agriculture and how it was going to resolve trade barriers to our exports. Golly, I sure hope they are right but then they are in the business of spinning trade talks being it’s their business.

The reality facing the WTO and its members was that after 18 years of existence and dozens of failed conferences and trade discussion deadlocks they were in real danger of collapsing into irrelevancy.

Participating governments were even considering ending any further WTO discussions and conferences — that probably shocked the participants into doing something being their cozy jobs and exotic travel might be at stake.

The other factor that was pushing the WTO to do something was that it was being outflanked by other trade groups and bilateral negotiations and deals between countries. Canada has gone out on its own and has been striking free trade agreements with dozens of countries. The latest was the Canada/EU deal, such a similar deal is now being pursued by the USA.

Groups like the Transpacific Trade Partnership are also busily doing what the WTO was expected to do. Many of those bilateral agreements are actual free trade deals that are in place and functioning right now.

You can see that as those deals proliferated around the world, any WTO deal was becoming increasingly irrelevant. The WTO seeing the writing on the wall, seems with its “historic deal” to be trying to delay the inevitable, but that will require more conferences, of course.

— Ahead of the Heard

 


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