Think Piece

Plurilaterals and the Multilateral Trading System

By Peter Draper, Memory Dube, 
December 2013
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The multilateral trading system was shaped by plurilateral agreements. Given the size of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) membership and the diversity of interests in play, it is possible that the single undertaking has run its course. The ongoing Doha Round impasse means that key WTO rules are not being updated, while trade liberalisation has moved to other forums, principally regional.

Plurilaterals could, in principle, be used to pioneer new rules or market openings in an otherwise clogged system, thus keeping the WTO at the centre of the global trading system. The single undertaking principle does not legally prevent the addition or adoption of new agreements to the WTO, be they multilateral or plurilateral, even if a multilateral trade negotiation round has failed. Rather, it is a negotiating device adopted by choice, and can be done away with.

Yet the absence of the single undertaking could fundamentally alter the balance of issues and interests under negotiation. Plurilaterals could conceivably revolve around the export interests of the major trading powers. There is also apprehension about the negotiation of non-Doha issues and the impact of this on the multilateral trading system. For these reasons and more, many developing countries, including some large trading powers such as BRICS, in principle, seem to be opposed to plurilaterals.

Plurilaterals could ultimately be the right way to proceed, but the main challenge is to kick-start the process. First, the notion of negotiating a code of conduct to govern subsequent negotiation of plurilaterals should be introduced into formal WTO processes. Second, efforts to launch the “sustainable” and global value chain plurilaterals should be accelerated, and accompanied by including as many member states and relevant stakeholders in transparent discussions about the putative merits of these two potential plurilaterals.

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