To no one’s surprise, the Ministerial Conference of WTO Ministers concluded on Saturday, December 17th without any breakthroughs on any of the contentious issues facing the organization (see Day One Highlight). Instead, the meeting concluded with a Chair’s Summary composed of: (1) “Elements for Political Guidance” statement previously-prepared by the WTO General Council (which functions as the highest decision-making body in between Ministerial meetings); and (2) the Chair’s factual summary of the proceedings.

The Elements for Political Guidance is a consensus statement which indicates those areas on which members were able to reach agreement at the WTO General Council meeting held in November, 2011.

On the future of the WTO:
• Highlighted the role of the WTO in ensuring that members do not revert to protectionism as a means of avoiding the worst effects of the global economic crisis

• Discussed the continued role of the WTO in overseeing the existing Agreements, dispute avoidance and settlement, monitoring and promoting transparency of the multilateral trade system, and as a forum for discussion on relevant trade issues

• Pointed to the continued growth of the organization through accession of new members, including at this Ministerial of Russia, the world’s largest economy yet to be included within the WTO framework

On trade and development:
• Reaffirmed that development is a core element of the WTO’s work

• Reaffirmed that there is a positive link between trade and development

• Reaffirmed previous statements and provisions aimed at addressing the development needs of relevant members and in particular that the needs of the least developed countries (LDCs) are given due priority in the WTO’s work, pointing to those decisions that were to be taken during the Ministerial to support LDCs (see below)

• Made a strong statement of support for reaching agreement on implementing duty-free/quota-free entry for all LDC goods and for removal of trade-distorting subsidies on cotton that harm LDC cotton-exporters, but clearly anticipated not being able to make any decisions on these two key issues

The author notes that in this area, the challenge before the WTO is that the term “development” carries differing sets of expectations among the developed and developing members.

On concluding the Doha Round:
• Acknowledged the existence of significantly different perspectives on what could be accomplished within the single undertaking approach to negotiations, i.e. the requirement that all WTO members sign on to all agreements, and that the negotiations are at an impasse which is unlikely to be broken in the near future

• Expressed continued commitment to nevertheless continuing to seek a successful conclusion to the Round, including exploring ways to overcome the areas of deadlock and continuing work on those areas in which progress has already been made

• To facilitate swifter progress, recognized the need to be open to exploring different negotiating approaches, including focusing on those elements of the Doha agenda that allow Members to reach provisional or definitive agreements based on consensus earlier than the full conclusion of the single undertaking.

In sum, on the six questions that this blog in an earlier post identified as the key ones facing the organization at the start of the Ministerial, the Ministers agreed to disagree. Notably, the Elements of Political Guidance statement leaves open the possibility of either reaching plurilateral agreements among those members willing to do so in specific sectors, e.g. services, or of fast-tracking issues where all members were able to agree, e.g. on LDCs. It is worth noting that on this issue the United States appears to have a contradictory position. On the one hand, it is pushing strongly for the use of plurilateral agreement in those areas of primary importance to its business interests, but has been unwilling to fast-track issues to assist the LDCs.

The Ministers also took the following actions on Day Three:
• Approved accession to the WTO by Montenengro and Samoa (having previously approved Russia’s accession on Day Two)

• Adopted without discussion or dissention the seven (7) matters referred by the General Council for approval:

1. Extended agreement that Members will not initiate a TRIPS complaint in the absence of a clear breach of the agreement;
2. Maintained the current practice of not imposing customs duties on e-commerce transactions;
3. Continued the Work Programme on Small Economies to develop recommendations to address the special trading circumstances of small economies particularly vulnerable to external shocks;
4. Extended the transition period for implementation by LDCs of the TRIPS agreement;
5. Directed the sub-committee on LDCs to develop recommendations to further strengthen, streamline and operationalize the guidelines to facilitate WTO accession by LDC members;
6. Adopted an LDC Services Waiver to permit preferential treatment in services by developed and developing countries for LDCs for 15 years. The waiver means a country can unilaterally give to the LDCs some concession or treatment that it does not then have to give to other WTO members, as would otherwise be required by the WTO’s Most-Favored Nation (MFN) principle; and
7. Adopted recommended changes to the Trade Policy Review Mechanism which periodically reviews members’ trade policies.

The Ministerial closed with remarks from Pascal Lamy, the outgoing WTO Director-General, who began and ended by directing toward the members a Russian proverbial warning: “Do not chop off the branch on which you are sitting.” This warning he meant to be applied both to the need to avoid protectionism and to find the political will to start working constructively to address the issues facing the WTO.