Think Piece

The Relationship between Plurilateral Approaches and the Trade Round

December 2013
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The WTO’s failure to oversee any multilateral liberalisation or create new rules for governing a dynamic global trading system has raised concerns about the efficiency and efficacy of the organisation’s legislative function. Several critics argue that the WTO’s set-piece negotiations, namely consensus-based bargaining underpinned by the Single Undertaking, lead to an overly politicised and inefficient process.

One solution proffered is to revive plurilateral negotiations. Theoretically, such agreements could advance a more progressive and responsive WTO agenda, reduce the diversion of liberalisation initiatives to RTAs, provide more efficient differentiation in the levels of rights and obligations among a community of highly diverse economies, and provide a mechanism for promoting greater efficiency at lower cost in WTO negotiations. However, this is perhaps a narrow response to WTO’s negotiating deadlock. The reality is that developing countries today constitute the bulk of WTO’s membership. They have a political expectation to be represented and included at every stage of the negotiating process, especially to ensure that trade opportunities are made available to all Members on a more equitable basis, and trade rules do not subvert their development prospects.

Although plurilateral agreements are not prohibited by the WTO, they require consensus for their incorporation into the wider WTO architecture. The first priority should be to strengthen the consensus principle. The second is to ensure that future plurilateral agreements are designed, framed and implemented in ways that do not undermine the principles of inclusiveness, transparency and multilateralism.

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