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WTO braces for battles on fisheries, agriculture

AFP . Abu Dhabi
27 Feb 2024 17:31:39 | Update: 27 Feb 2024 17:32:03
WTO braces for battles on fisheries, agriculture
Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala addresses delegates during a session on fisheries subsidies during the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi of February 26, 2024 — AFP Photo

The world's trade ministers were locked in tough negotiations on Tuesday at a WTO meeting in Abu Dhabi, with fisheries and agriculture taking centre stage.

Many eyes were trained on India -- which is often described as an obstructionist element in trade talks -- but it's Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal has yet to arrive in Abu Dhabi.

The closed-door negotiations are taking place on the second day of the World Trade Organization's 13th ministerial conference which is scheduled to run until Thursday but could go into over-time amid divisions.

With WTO rules requiring full consensus between all member states, there is little hope for major breakthroughs, apart from a new global agreement on fisheries subsidies.

After a 2022 deal which banned subsidies contributing to illegal, undeclared and unregulated fishing, the WTO hopes to conclude a second package focusing on subsidies which fuel overcapacity and overfishing.

"We're close. It's doable for sure," said a diplomatic source.

"The final push needs a little bit of compromise, a little bit of political will," the source told AFP on condition of anonymity, calling a potential agreement a "very good outcome".

The 2022 agreement has yet to take effect as not enough countries have ratified it.

But it was seen as a major achievement, marking just the second accord concluded by the WTO's full membership since the global trade body was created in 1995, and the first focused on environmental protection.

'Sensitive issues'

Negotiations in recent months at the WTO headquarters in Geneva have enabled a draft text to be brought forward for a second fisheries deal.

It essentially divides member countries into three groups, with the largest subsidy providers subject to greater scrutiny. It provides flexibilities and advantages for developing countries.

But some -- notably India -- are demanding concessions, including transition periods that others consider too long.

EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said he was "open" to discuss flexibilities as long as the "transitions don’t become so long and the exceptions so broad that they defy environmental objectives."

A French diplomatic source said he was "confident in our abilities to finally seal this agreement," despite existing sticking points.

While the delayed arrival of India's commerce minister has sparked some concern, WTO director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and the Emirati chair of the conference both assured Monday that he was due to arrive before the end of the talks.

Some NGOs, meanwhile, are concerned that too much leniency on a fisheries deal could compromise the outcome.

A "clear prohibition with fewer exemptions probably would be the best" approach, said Ernesto Fernandez Monge of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nongovernment organisation that seeks to improve public policy.

But "we believe that it's more important to have an agreement than no agreement," he told AFP.


Unlike other WTO agreements which aim to lift trade barriers or counter trade distortions, the draft text -- just like the 2022 agreement -- forms part of the United Nations' sustainable development goals.

"It would be good if we can conclude that second" package, a WTO trade delegate told AFP.

But one sticking point is what constitutes small-scale, or artisanal fishing which benefits from certain exceptions, the delegate said.

Other friction points include the banning of fuel subsidies for fisheries which Dombrovskis said is not a key part of current negotiations.

While a fisheries deal is largely seen as the only viable outcome of the full WTO conference (MC13), agriculture will also be a hot topic of debate.

“I implore you to deliver an agriculture outcome at MC13, even if it is setting the platform to do later a more solid work going forward," Okonjo-Iweala said on Monday.

Food security will top the agenda, with deep disagreement over a demand from India and others for a permanent solution for public stockholding of food instead of temporary measures.

Edwini Kessie, WTO's director of agriculture and commodities, acknowledged that there is no "convergence" on such an agreement. "Clearly the most difficult issue is public stockholding," he said.