A deal to boost global trade has been approved by the World Trade Organization’s 159 member economies for the first time in nearly two decades, keeping alive the possibility that a broader agreement to create a level playing field for rich and poor countries can be reached in the future.
WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo shed tears during the summit’s closing ceremony Saturday, as he thanked host nation Indonesia, WTO member countries and his wife.
“We have put the ‘world’ back into the World Trade Organization,” he said. “For the first time in our history, the WTO has truly delivered.”
Trade ministers had come to the four-day WTO meeting on the resort island of Bali with little hope that an agreement would be reached after years of inertia in trade negotiations.
The talks were threatened at the eleventh hour when Cuba objected to removal of a reference to the decades-long U.S. trade embargo that Cuba wants lifted.
India had also been an obstacle because of its vociferous objections to provisions that might endanger grain subsidies aimed at ensuring its poor get enough to eat. WTO members gave developing nations a temporary dispensation from subsidy limits, shelving the issue for negotiations at a later time.
“This week has been about high-level diplomacy, long nights and considerable drama,” said Indonesian Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, who chaired the meeting. “But it has also been about ensuring that the gains of the multilateral trading system reach our small businesses and our most vulnerable economies.”
The centerpiece of the agreement reached in Bali was measures to ease barriers to trade by simplifying customs procedures and making them more transparent.
The deal could boost global trade by $1 trillion over time, and it keeps alive the WTO’s broader Doha Round of trade negotiations, sometimes known as the development round because of sweeping changes in regulations, taxes and subsidies that would benefit low-income countries.
Azevedo said the WTO will spend the next year developing a fresh approach for moving forward with the Doha negotiations.
“The WTO has re-established its credibility as an indispensable forum for trade negotiations. Nor is this a paper victory: Streamlining the passage of goods across borders by cutting red tape and bureaucracy could boost the world economy,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a statement.
The idea behind the WTO is that if all countries play by the same trade rules, then all countries, rich and poor, would benefit.
But some critics say WTO rules may hinder countries from setting their own priorities in environmental protection, worker rights, food security and other areas. And they say sudden reductions in import tariffs can wipe out industries, causing job losses in rich and poor countries.
Oxfam welcomed the breathing space on food subsidies given to poor countries, but said the agreement, and the move to simplify customs in particular, was “no game changer” overall.
“Its gains have been grossly overestimated, while the costs of implementation for poorer countries were completely ignored,” the aid and development group said in a statement.
The WTO was formed in January 1995 after the Uruguay Round trade negotiations spanning 1986-1994 were completed. Apart from being a forum for world trade talks, the organization arbitrates trade disputes between member countries.