Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the head of the World Trade Organization, voiced cautious confidence on Sunday that the more than 100 trade ministers meeting in Geneva this week will reach one or two global agreements, but warned that the road ahead would be difficult and rocky. Nigeria’s director-general stated that the world has changed in the nearly five years since the WTO’s last ministerial session. “I wish I could say something positive. The COVID-19 epidemic, the war in Ukraine, and huge food and energy crises are all parts of a “polycrisis,” she said at a news conference before the June 12-15 meeting “.
Speaking to ministers at the opening, the WTO chief urged them to “show the world that the WTO can step up to the plate” and achieve agreements on subjects such as reducing fishing subsidies, boosting access to COVID-19 vaccines, addressing food security and setting a course for reform of the WTO itself. “What remains to be decided requires political will – and I know you have it – to get us over the finish line,” she said. However, she warned that it would be challenging.
As a sign of divisions among the WTO’s 164 members, some 30-40 nations walked out when the Russian economic development minister Maxim Reshetnikov took to the floor. Earlier, trade ministers from the European Union and 29 other WTO members met with Ukraine to express their solidarity and support and wish to alleviate food supply problems.
“Let me be clear, even landing one or two will not be an easy road. The road will be bumpy and rocky. There may be a landmine along the way,” Okonjo-Iweala said, adding she was “cautiously optimistic” that the meeting would conclude with one or two deals. She also cautioned ministers to recognise that compromises are never perfect. The WTO’s 164 members take decisions by consensus, meaning a single member can block progress, and negotiations often last years.
In a sign of the global difficulties, Sunday’s opening session meeting was dedicated to “challenges facing the multilateral trading system”. Campaign groups gathered near the body’s lakeside headquarters over the weekend, some denouncing capitalism and others calling for an end to “vaccine apartheid”. They were all barred from entering the WTO headquarters on Sunday on security grounds.
The 27-year-old WTO is itself in trouble. Former U.S. President Donald Trump crippled the WTO’s Appellate Body that rules on disputes over two years ago, and WTO members have only ever agreed one global deal, the red-tape cutting Trade Facilitation Agreement, in 2013.
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