WTO Ministerial: The night before the deal

The negotiators at the World Trade Organization (WTO) had a long and anxious night on Wednesday as they participated in multiple “green room” deliberations and off-record sessions to finalise a deal before receiving a message marked in red capital letters that the heads of delegation (HoD) meeting scheduled for 10.30 PM got cancelled.

Instead WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called for a meeting of a smaller group comprising 10 countries including India, ET has learnt.

That closed-door session did not yield any tangible results, following which a series of informal deliberation continued into the wee hours of Thursday morning.

As commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal and seven other officers including secretary BVR Subrahmanyam and ambassador Brajendra Navnit did not have time to get out of the WTO building, embassy officials delivered packed fried rice and pasta at the venue itself, an officer added.

Barring Afghanistan and Myanmar, all other 162 member nations participated in the ministerial that kicked off in Geneva on Sunday.

Its extension by a day, till Thursday, brought some hopes that members could still find a way to stitch together a deal.

After being postponed twice because of the Covid pandemic, this ministerial at the WTO headquarters was held after a long gap of about five years.

On the intervening night of June 15 and 16, the members did attempt to bridge the gap in the agreements, which were still replete with brackets and blanks on a range of issues such as WTO’s response to the pandemic and a waiver of the intellectual property rights for vaccines, fisheries subsidies, food security and agriculture. Most nations decided that they would favour inking of an outcome document and also a watered down deal on fisheries subsidies.

During the night, no consensus could be found on issues related to agriculture.

In fact, the cancellation of the heads of delegation meeting scheduled for Wednesday night was the first sign of things getting out of hand.

It was cancelled at the last moment as the delegates received a message, marked as urgent.

The word “cancelled” was written in red letters, the sources said. The message, however, added one sentence — “Further information will be communicated in due course”, the same source said.

Informal meetings resumed at 9.15 on Thursday morning.

All critical deliberation took place at the WTO headquarters located by the side of Lake Geneva.

(The writer is in Geneva at the invitation of commerce and industry ministry)

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William Murphy

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