By Luc Cohen
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Trade ministers looked set to wrap up their biennial World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting on Wednesday without any new agreements after criticism of the agency by the United States, once the WTO’s driving force.
Ministers gathered in Buenos Aires were never expected to agree on major trade reforms, but even relatively minor proposals on e-commerce and fishing subsidy curbs ran aground.
“Members cannot even agree to stop subsidizing illegal fishing. Horrendous,” European Union Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
“Destructive behavior by several large countries made results impossible,” Malmstrom added without naming them.
Instead, ministers were focusing on the WTO’s post-conference work programs, such as efforts to improve market efficiency and curb excess industrial capacity, WTO spokesman Ken Rockwell told reporters.
“While there is disappointment that we couldn’t get a little further in terms of concrete outcomes, being able to nail down an effective work program is very important,” Rockwell told reporters.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer set an acrimonious tone at the start of the conference with sharp criticisms of the WTO. The 23-year-old trade body requires unanimity among all 164 WTO member countries to reach any agreement.
Lighthizer told WTO ministers on Monday that it was impossible to negotiate new rules while many of the current rules were not being followed, and that the WTO was losing its focus and becoming too litigation-focused.
Even the perfunctory joint ministerial statement looked in doubt at the conference, known as MC11.
Driven by President Donald Trump’s “America First” strategy and a preference for bilateral deals, the United States had already blocked ambassadors from drafting a ministerial text in Geneva that included references to the centrality of the global trading system and to trade as a driver of development.
USTR spokeswoman Emily Davis denied that the United States was the problem in the lack of negotiated outcomes, saying the Obama administration had raised similar WTO grievances.
“The United States has remained engaged throughout MC11 to achieve progress where possible,” Davis said in an emailed statement. “Under these circumstances, it’s nonsense for anyone to think that MC11 could be adrift over Ambassador Lighthizer’s honest remarks on issues the United States has been raising for years.”
Lighthizer left Buenos Aires for Washington on Tuesday night, missing the final day of the conference.
The failure to reach any major deals meant that negotiations on the same topics will continue into 2018, with no deadline and no heavyweight ministerial momentum to get agreement.
Many trade experts disagree with the U.S. view toward the WTO and are dismayed that the United States is vetoing new judicial appointments at the WTO, which is threatening to halt the settlement of trade disputes.
Ministers who followed Lighthizer onto the podium offered widespread support for the global trading system, with the WTO at its heart.
But on Tuesday, the European Union and Japan joined the United States in vowing to combat market-distorting policies, such as those pervasive in China that have fueled excess industrial capacity, including subsidies for state-owned enterprises and technology transfer requirements.
An EU source familiar with negotiations over the statement said it was instigated by Japan, partly as a means to coax Washington into working multilaterally to solve such problems rather than resorting to unilateral trade restrictions.