2018 Wrap-Up Newsletter: Through Exploration Towards Action

As far as negotiations at the WTO are concerned, 2018 would be remembered as a year of transition, getting back on track through explorations.

This brief note is aimed at taking stock of the process and progress made in selected substantive areas: Agriculture/ Cotton and Fisheries subsidies (the “old” issues, covered by the Doha mandate as reinforced / clarified by the decisions made at the latter Ministerials) and e-commerce, the ‘new’ issue. It also attempts to project the future, to the extent the work programmes for the first months of 2019 allow.

The work in all the three directions has resumed in spring 2018 after the post – 11th WTO Ministerial Conference (the “MC 11”) period of reflection and blues. All the groups re-launched their work under the new leadership-new chairs of the Committee on Agriculture, Special Session (the “CoA SS”) and the Negotiating Group on Rules (the “RNG”), co-conveners of the brand new Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce Initiative. The efforts undertaken were mostly exploratory, even if a delicate balance had to be sought between technical and factual engagements and desire to revert to the negotiations mode. The chairs have demonstrated creativity in the design of the working sessions (especially in the RNG). While such efforts were aimed at brainstorming and a departure from restating of existent positions, backlashes, which prevented the MC11 success, reoccurred. For more details, see Table 1: WTO negotiations on Agriculture / Cotton and Fisheries Subsidies disciplines, as well as exploratory discussions on Electronic Commerce in 2018 (a recap).

In 2019, the work is expected to move to a different phase, albeit, at different paces as far as each of the subjects is concerned. Reaching outcomes at least in some of the ongoing initiatives may well be essential to save the multilateral trading system (the “MTS”).

As was the case in 2018, most of the activity is to be anticipated in the fisheries subsidies negotiations. The work programme for January – July 2019, even though it is less ambitious than originally suggested by the Chair (the first circulated draft, inter alia, included 2-weeks-long clusters), is quite charged. It foresees discussions on all substantive issues during each of the monthly clusters (unlike one-issue-per-cluster mode adopted in 2018) in a new (for the RNG fisheries group) and yet not clearly defined “open-ended [facilitated] consultations” and “other Member organized meetings” formats (along with plenary and bilateral activities). The work is to start as early as 14 January 2019. The deadline is set for December 2019.

In a creative attempt to relaunch agricultural negotiations CoASS  will add to the agenda seven member-led and coordinated working groups, each discussing one of the topics in negotiations, thereby supplementing monthly plenary sessions, based on members’ submissions and presentations (starting in February 2019). While no clear objectives for the MC 12 are yet set, Members and groups seem to be aware that at least some incremental progress is indispensable.

The co-conveners of the Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce Initiative have decided to prolong consultations with interested delegations, postponing a decision on the work programme until early March 2019. As reported in early December and also reflected in the [second] Snapshot document circulated by the co-conveners, some of the consulted Members insisted on a move towards more active, negotiations mode (which, considering the status quo, would mean a resort to plurilateral negotiations). An important step in this direction could be made during the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019.

As the work intensifies, it is important for the Members, including LIDCs, to stay engaged, both individually and through groups. An experience with the incubator group process in fisheries subsidies re-confirmed that only Members actively participating in the negotiations could benefit from membership in the four incubator groups. The scheduling solutions for the early 2019 seem to allow opportunities to LIDCs to engage actively and profit from discussions. Meanwhile, participation in all the negotiating efforts later in the year may require resources not available to small developing and LDC delegations. It is therefore important that LIDCs organize themselves in a way that would allow their concerns to be represented in all sessions. The theme-based structure of substantive work proposed in the respective work programmes (so far – in the agriculture/ cotton and fisheries subsidies) should provide an opportunity for a division of labor. In addition, it should be noted that developed Members manifested appreciation in respect of development concerns communicated so far and have explicitly called for more participation from the developing countries during the consultations with the co-conveners of the E-commerce initiative (such participation is possible without formally joining the 72-Member- group). Requests for more [factual] information justifying particular development interests were routinely made also in agriculture and fisheries subsidies negotiations. Reworking of the existent draft proposals (in fisheries) or making new ones showcasing development concerns and suggesting development – friendly rules instead of exemptions may be envisaged as a way forward. To ensure the latter, active exchanges between LIDCs and other Members, showing flexibility in search for consensus, should continue.

Effective negotiations in Geneva, given that highly technical and data-specific issues are at stake, require solid preparation in the capitals as well as an ongoing dialogue and coordination of efforts between the capital-based experts / officials and Geneva delegates. While certain developing countries have already managed to establish well-working coordination mechanisms with their capitals, most of LIDCs are lagging behind. This clearly undermines efficiency of their efforts and is not helping them making sound arguments in the negotiations. We thought about some suggestions that could help address this important problem:

  • responsiveness to the Secretariat’s calls for experts for participation in technical sessions (as recently done by Senegal, having presented the expert for the technical session on small scale and artisanal fishing during the latest, December 2018, negotiations cluster);
  • showing initiative in setting regional capacity building activities by the WTO Secretariat and other providers;
  • preparing to embrace alternative, for instance, telecommunications-based solutions, which might be offered by the WTO Secretariat in 2019 to allow capital-based professional to follow and engage in the negotiations (extent to be clarified);
  • Initiate systematization of pertinent data available nationally and regionally in order to reinforce positions in negotiations.

IDEAS Centre is ready to assist LIDCs in their initiatives related to the three domains, with the aim of creating development-friendly, sustainable and enforceable trade disciplines in the New Year.

We wish you a joyful holiday season,

Your IDEAS Centre team  

Table 1: WTO negotiations on Agriculture/ Cotton and Fisheries Subsidies disciplines, as well as exploratory discussions on Electronic Commerce in 2018 (a recap)


Agriculture (Special Session) and Sub-Committee on Cotton

Fisheries Subsidies

Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce (exploratory discussions)

Chair / Convener (s)

Ambassador John Deep FORD (Guyana)

Ambassador Roberto ZAPATA BARRADAS (Mexico)

Ambassador Frances LISSON (Australia); Ambassador Junichi IHARA (Japan) and Ambassador TAN Yee Woan (Singapore).

Assisting Division of the WTO Secretariat

Agriculture and Commodities



WTO Mandate / basis of work

AoA Art. 20; Doha Ministerial Declaration 2001, paras 13 and 14 (as clarified in General Council’s decision on the Doha Agenda work programme (the “July package”), agreed on 1 August 2004, Annex A); Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration 2005, para 10; Bali Ministerial Declaration 2013; Nairobi Ministerial Declaration 2015.

Doha Declaration 2001, paras 28 and 31; Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration, paras 28, 30-32, para 9 of the Annex D; Ministerial Decision on Fisheries Subsidies taken in Buenos Aires (WT/MIN(17)/64 WT/L/1031).

Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce, MC 11 (WT/MIN(17)/60)


WTO Members

WTO Members

72 WTO Members (71 signatories + Thailand). Meanwhile, according to co-conveners, 141 delegations attended one or more meetings


to establish a fair and market-oriented trading system through a programme of fundamental reform encompassing strengthened rules and specific commitments on support and protection in order to correct and prevent restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets” (AoA (preamble), DD, para 13)

adopting, by the Ministerial Conference in 2019, an agreement on comprehensive and effective disciplines that prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU-fishing recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing country Members and least developed country Members should be an integral part of these negotiations” (MC 11 Decision on FS)

to advance electronic commerce work in the WTO in order to better harness opportunities it creates for inclusive trade and development” (JS on Electronic Commerce)

Other [outside of the WTO] mandates

SDG 1, 2, 17

SDG 14.6

N/A [SDG 8, 9.C, etc.]

Stock Taking for 2018

JOB/AG/140; JOB/AG/142; JOB/AG/146; JOB/AG/152; JOB/TNC/72; WT/GC/M/174 etc.

JOB/TNC/72; WT/GC/M/174

Snapshot documents (tracing progress made until July 2018 and July – September 2018 (+ annexes A and B to the latter). All the agendas, formal papers circulated by Members, background papers, room documents, presentations and meeting summaries and the instruments drafted by the co-conveners are available at the dedicted web page accessible to the Members only: www.wto.org/ecommercejointstatement.

Frequence and format of meetings in 2018

Seven (five one-day long and two two-days-long) thematic meetings of CoA SS and tree one-day-long meetings of the DD on Cotton.

Three four-day-long and three five-day-long clusters; three series of incubator group meetings (4 incubator groups). Clusters combined varied types of activities, including: technical sessions; thematic discussions; text-based discussions; streamlining; discussions of the outcomes of the incubator groups, as well as time for bilateral and other types of interactions between Members.

Nine meetings (including one organizational, one stocktaking  meetings and seven meetings devoted to exploratory thematic work (2 phases, intensification after July 2018)


Domestic support; Public stockholding for food security purposes (PFS); Market Access; Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM); Export Competition; Export Restrictions and Cotton (on a separate track).

IUU fishing; overfished stocks; overcapacity and overfishing; cross-cutting issues (SDT; dispute settlement; institutional arrangements; notifications and transparency)

Enabling digital trade and e-commerce (including: Customs, digital trade facilitation and logistics; Facilitating electronic transactions; and Customs dities on electronic transmissions); Opennes and Digital Trade / E-commerce (including: Market access; Flow of Information; and Access and non-discrimination); Trust and Digital Trade / E-commerce (including: Business trust; Consumer trust; and Intellectual property); and Cross-cutting issues, including development, transparency and cooperation (including: Transparency; Infrastructure gaps/ Digital divide; and Cooperation).  See Attachment A to the July-Septmber 2018 Snapshot document for more details.

Substantive outcomes [including work in progress]


Document containing results of the text-based discussions (RD/TNRL/72)


Programme for 2019 / particular period within

01-04.2019 (review and adjustments for May-July 2019)






Snapshot document for July-September 2018

Frequence of meetings

Three two-day-long meetings, starting on 14 February 2019

Five five-day-long clusters, starting on 14 January 2018

To be decided during the meeting of 6 March 2009


Monthly [plenary] CoA SS sessions based on Members’ submissions and presentations; 7 Member-led co-coordinated (by delegates of Members with diverging views) or neutrally coordinated working groups open to all interested Members, supervised by the Chair (with cotton addressed on a separate track).

Plenary sessions; open-ended facilitated thematic consultations; bilateral meeting; meetings on Members in other formats; meetings on ambassador level.


Domestic support; Public stockholding for food security purposes (PFS); Cotton; Market Access; Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM); Export Competition; Export Restrictions.

IUU fishing; overfished stocks; overcapacity and overfishing; cross-cutting issues (SDT; dispute settlement; institutional arrangements; notifications and transparency)

Plans for GC [end] 2019 / MC 12

Incrimental Progress

Establishment of the disciplines by the end of 2019


IDEAS Centre is dedicated to facilitating the integration of developing countries into the world economy and has over the last sixteenth years assembled substantial experience on this issue. Its mission is to support policy-makers around the world working to develop approaches to ensure that globalization can be harnessed for development and to fight poverty both within their countries and in a more inclusive and fairer world trading system.

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