wto abu dhabi
Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, President of Comoros Azali Assoumani, and UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi chat after signing the agreement for the Comoros accession to the WTO during the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi of February 26. Image Credit: AFP

Abu Dhabi: The World Trade Organization’s ministerial meeting in Abu Dhabi reached its final scheduled day with key issues ranging from e-commerce tariffs to fishing subsidies still under negotiation and mixed results as the likeliest outcome.

Get exclusive content with Gulf News WhatsApp channel

The biennial gathering of countries from more than 160 WTO members this week is aiming to reinvigorate the trade arbiter and negotiating forum at a time of growing geopolitical fragmentation and as armed conflicts weigh on global economic activity.

While numerous delegations entered the week expressing optimism, many of the contentious details are still being worked out in closed-door discussions. India has often found itself at the center of the conversation on issues like duties on digital trade and agricultural subsidies.

In a sign of the difficulties to narrow the differences, delegates were considering various options on the eve of the final day, including concluding the ministerial meeting without a final joint statement of unanimity or a watered-down version with a chair’s declaration on some unresolved topics, people familiar with the matter said.

In the end, they decided to keep negotiating with the possibility to extend into an unscheduled extra day on Friday, the people added, on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private.

“Some things are proceeding I think in a good way “- others I’m not so sure,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said at an early briefing on Thursday. “Each of these makes an impact on the ground.”

E-commerce moratorium

The week began with a renewal of the prohibition on tariffs in place over the past 25 years as the top prize for global companies and business associations. India, Indonesia and South Africa were the known likely opponents.

In a closed-door session this morning, members discussed the way forward “” making it permanent, letting it lapse or a compromise of extending it for another two years. On one side of the debate are developing nations that want the ability to put tariffs on digital trade “- or at least are threatening to do so as a negotiating tactic. On the other side is the majority of economies that want to keep the global Internet free of import duties.

Final text

As of early Thursday, WTO members have agreed on 17 paragraphs in the declaration. There are contentious positions on trade and sustainability, investment facilitation development, sustainable agriculture, the cost of remittances, technology transfer and e-commerce which are being aggressively debated.

While the EU is pushing for inclusion of sustainable agriculture in the text, countries including Indonesia, Malaysia and India along with several African nations oppose it on the grounds that it will impact their policy space and economic development, according to people familiar with the private discussions. Similarly, a paper submitted by India on lowering the cost of remittances is also being opposed by a group of nations.

An original fisheries deal and a deal on vaccines at the ministerial meeting two years ago “demonstrated that the WTO still has life left in it,” said Bill Reinsch, a former Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Let’s see what they can produce this week before drawing too negative a conclusion.”