Written by Gisela Gieger.

A key function of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is to serve for its members as a forum for the negotiation of global trade rules. However, since the WTO’s foundation in 1995, WTO members have largely failed to meet their self-defined negotiating objectives as set out in the comprehensive 2001 Doha Development Agenda (DDA). By the time of the 2024 Abu Dhabi Ministerial Conference, WTO members had settled on merely two multilateral agreements in almost 30 years: a 2013 agreement on trade facilitation and a partial agreement on fisheries subsidies, concluded in 2022.

As some of the DDA’s trade liberalisation items were dropped and negotiations on other items have stalled, sub-sets of WTO members have found other ways to craft new trade rules outside the WTO: either through bilateral or regional preferential trade agreements or through plurilateral trade negotiations, leading to the fragmentation of rules and questioning of the WTO’s legitimacy. Modelled on the successful conclusion in 1997 of the first WTO plurilateral agreement eliminating tariffs on information technology, groups of WTO members led by developed countries set up two separate tracks of plurilateral talks on liberalising trade in services and in environmental goods in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Both stalled in 2016 and virtually ended market access-enhancing efforts within the WTO. In 2017, a group of members launched three initiatives – on domestic services regulation, investment facilitation and e-commerce – to re-invigorate the WTO’s negotiating function. The initiatives marked a shift from a new market access-seeking approach to an approach prioritising trade and investment facilitation with a strong development dimension. Albeit more successful, their incorporation into the WTO legal architecture has been challenging given opposition from some members. If opposition were overcome, plurilaterals could be a means of multilateralising new trade rules, as was the case for the ‘codes of conduct’ under the pre-WTO GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) regime by 1995.

To retain legitimacy and relevance, experts suggest that the WTO could do more to leverage its role as a forum for deliberating emerging issues, such as plastics pollution, trade and gender, green and fossil fuel subsidies, trade and industrial policies, carbon border mechanisms and regulatory action, for sustainable trade towards concrete negotiated outcomes.

Read the complete briefing on ‘The WTO’s negotiating function: Towards plurilaterals and new trade challenges‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.