WTO prepares for fights over fisheries agriculture in UAE talks

WTO prepares for fights over fisheries, agriculture in UAE talks

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

The closed talks will take place on the second day of the World Trade Organization's 13th Ministerial Conference, which is scheduled to last until Thursday but could be extended due to disagreements.

There is little hope for major breakthroughs on WTO rules, which require full consensus from all 164 member states.

However, progress could be made on a new global agreement on fisheries subsidies.

Following a 2022 deal that bans subsidies that contribute to illegal, undeclared and unregulated fishing, the WTO hopes to conclude a second package focused on subsidies that encourage overcapacity and overfishing.

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“We are close. It is definitely doable,” said a diplomatic source.

“The final push requires a little compromise, a little political will,” the source told AFP on condition of anonymity, calling a possible agreement a “very good outcome.”

The 2022 agreement has not yet entered into force because not enough countries have ratified it.

But it was seen as a major success because it was only the second agreement reached by the WTO's full members since the World Trade Organization was founded in 1995, and the first to focus on environmental protection.

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The negotiations over the last few months at the WTO headquarters in Geneva have resulted in a draft text for a second fisheries agreement being presented.

The draft provides for a ban on subsidies that promote overfishing and overcapacity, unless they fall within the framework of a fisheries resources management mechanism based on sustainability criteria.

The text would essentially divide member countries into three groups, with the largest subsidizers subject to greater scrutiny.

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It offers flexibility and advantages for developing countries.

But some – particularly India – are demanding concessions, including transition periods, that others say are too long.

“We have some sensitive issues and some discussions to have, especially with India and certain countries, but we are relatively confident that we can finally conclude this agreement,” a French diplomatic source said.

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Some NGOs, meanwhile, fear that too much leniency could jeopardize the outcome.

A “clear ban with fewer exceptions would probably be the best approach,” said Ernesto Fernandez Monge of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nongovernmental organization that works to improve public policy.

But “we believe that it is more important to have an agreement than no agreement,” he told AFP.

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Unlike other WTO agreements that aim to reduce trade barriers or counteract trade distortions, the draft text – like the 2022 agreement – is part of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

“It would be good if we could complete this second package,” a WTO trade delegate told AFP on condition of anonymity.

But the long transition periods required by some states such as India are a major sticking point, said the delegate.

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

Many member states want to take action against trade-distorting domestic measures.

Discussions revolve around issues such as market access, export competition and restrictions.

Food security will be back on the agenda, with deep divisions over India and other countries' calls for a permanent solution to public food stocks rather than temporary measures.

“Given the centrality of the issue this week, I implore you to deliver an agricultural outcome at MC13, even as it sets the platform for more robust work later in the future,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said on Monday.

Edwini Kessie, WTO director of agriculture and raw materials, admitted there was no “convergence” on an agricultural agreement.

“The most difficult issue is clearly public equity ownership,” he said.

“It is not easy.”