The WTO matters more than ever - here's what you need to know about its summit
Por Nick Dearden, Global Justice Now -
Saturday, Dec. 09, 2017 at 2:20 PM
9 december 2017 | Is a neoliberal dream being reborn in Latin America? It’s not got off to the best of starts…
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‘Latin America returns to the global economy’. That’s the
message that Argentina’s right-wing President Macri wants world leaders to take
away from the World Trade Organisation’s 11th Ministerial Summit in Buenos
Aires, which starts tomorrow (Sunday).
Macri dreams of becoming the neoliberal star of Liberal
America. Along with interim President Temer of Brazil, who came to power
in a legislative coup, Macri wants to erase the work of the ‘Pink
Tide’ governments who undertook strongly redistributive policies to control
corporations, increase welfare and reduce poverty. Hosting both the WTO and the
G20 next year, Macri hopes to get international publicity and make friends
among the leaders of the rich world.
He’s not got off to the best start. For the last week
Argentina’s press – as well as the Financial
Times, Reuters and more around
the world – has been filled with stories about Macri’s draconian action to deny
of civil society campaigners and trade experts access to the country for
the WTO. I am among those blacklisted on the ludicrous basis that we want to
spread violence and chaos. Civil society campaigners are already being sent
back home from the airport, and we expect heavy policing over the next few
days. The sort of extreme free market policies Macri is pursuing have always
been accompanied by a crackdown on civil liberties, somewhat at odds with the
‘freedom’ such policies supposedly promote.
Inside the summit, meanwhile, tense discussions, arm-twisting
and outright bullying will prevail as delegates try to hammer out that most
elusive of endpoints: a WTO deal.
The WTO has been written off as a ‘dead man walking’ for the
last 10 years. But it’s still an incredibly powerful body which polices global
trade rules for nearly every country on earth. Too often these rules have been
written in the interests of the most powerful corporations, based in the
richest countries in the world. So the WTO matters, more so in the wake of the
collapse of the gigantic trade deals that were supposed to eclipse its
TPP, CETA and TISA.
What’s on the agenda?
Will the WTO reach a deal? Here are the top 5 issues that
delegates need to agree on:
1. Food – This is a
WTO perennial because global rules on agriculture are pretty much the
definition of double standards. In one corner is India, whose 2013 National
Food Security Act guarantees cheap rice and wheat to two-thirds of its
population by buying from farmers at a guaranteed price. While the scheme has
its problems, studies suggest tens of millions of people have been brought out of poverty by the law. In the other corner, the
US and EU believe the scheme is ‘trade distorting’ and must be scrapped.
It’s bad enough to demand the end of a life-saving food
policy, but it’s even worse when you bear in mind that the US and EU protect
their own agricultural sectors to the tune of billions of dollars a year. This
protection doesn’t count as ‘trade distorting’ however because… well, because those
countries wrote the rules which say it isn’t. India will be portrayed as the
villain at the WTO. Don’t believe a word of it.
2. E-commerce – the
latest thing in trade talks is rules to protect the power of the giant tech
companies like Amazon and Google. These companies profit from data, the ‘new
oil’ of the global economy, and they want rules to ensure they can use and
abuse this data as they wish. The corporations argue that they should be allowed
to move your data around the world to benefit from lower regulations elsewhere.
Corporations should not be required to have a presence in the countries they
operate in (making it hard to tax and regulate them), nor should they have to
benefit those countries by recruiting local people, using local products or
helping skill up the local economies. So the e-commerce agenda is bad for us as
citizens and bad for developing counties who want to build up a competitive
tech sector. Developing countries will put up a powerful fight against this
3. Fisheries – Overfishing
is a massive, global problem, and the WTO is promising to solve the problem by
reducing subsidies and introducing new rules on fishing. The problem is that
this is likely to reduce support for small, artisanal fisherfolk, who are not
the problem at all, while continuing to allow industrial scale scouring of the
ocean floors. Just as with food subsidies, it could result in one rule for the
rich, and another for the poor.
4. Development – Agreement at the WTO
broke down over 15 years ago because rich countries and their big business
friends passed everything they wanted and ignored the demands and needs of
developing countries. Many developing countries are still waiting for rules
which would help them, often rules which allow them to protect parts of their
economy in the same way as all rich countries used to when they were poorer. Expect
a fight over whether the phrase ‘development round’ is still mentioned in the
final deal. Developing countries broadly want to keep the agenda open. Rich
countries want to end it and get on with new issues.
5. New issues – Instead of the
development agenda, rich countries have been trying for years to put a whole
host of new issues on the WTO agenda. These issues, like investment and
competition rules, and restrictions on how countries can use regulation, are
all attempts to broaden what is meant by ‘trade’. Trade policy, through the
WTO, is very enforceable – it has ‘teeth’ – because countries can be punished
for not following the rules if another country complains. So if you want
enforceable rules, try to claim it’s all about trade. That’s how trade rules today
increasingly affect ‘non-trade’ things like public services, food standards, and
government procurement. There’s not necessarily a problem with international
cooperation on these issues, but when that ‘cooperation’ is based on rules set
by the richest and most powerful in the world at the expense of everyone else,
you end up with a global economy which fuels inequality, climate change and
corporate rule. Often, these ‘trade rules’ simply give big businesses more
power to do whatever they want in order to make profits.
The joker in the pack
The big unknown at this WTO Summit is Donald Trump. While
the US has traditionally led the rich country bloc in its push for rules
demanding liberalisation and deregulation, Trump is different. He is a bully
like multilateral rules at all, believing the US could get its own way more
often by ripping them up, and signing more bilateral deals where US power is truly
That’s why Trump is currently blocking a new arbitrator to
the WTO’s disputes panel, rendering the whole dispute system increasingly
inoperable. That threatens the WTO’s enforcement power in a big way.
The question is whether the uncertainty which Trump creates
might force other countries to begin thinking about a fairer system of global
rules which, rather than benefitting big business, places the right to protect
citizens and the environment at the heart of the global economy.
Such a fundamental reform of global rules is vital and the
stakes couldn’t be higher. If we want a more peaceful, climate-friendly and
fair world for everyone, we have to find a different way forward than either
Trump’s ultra-nationalist bullying, or the hard core corporate power agenda of
the WTO which gave rise to him.