Key WTO Fisheries Negotiation Risks Collapse, Okonjo-Iweala Says

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Global talks aimed at protecting fish stocks are stumbling, threatening to end in a failure that would undermine the credibility of the World Trade Organization as a forum for addressing shared economic challenges.

The head of the WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, acknowledged in an opinion piece Wednesday that persistent divisions among the WTO’s 164 members could sink prospects to secure a final fisheries accord this year -- a goal she set when she took office on March 1.

“As matters stand, we are in danger of failing to conclude a deal before the WTO’s year-end ministerial conference,” Okonjo-Iweala wrote, referring to a key WTO gathering taking place from Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in Geneva.

That marks a shift in tone for Okonjo-Iweala -- coming just days after she said WTO members were “on the cusp” of reaching a multilateral fisheries agreement.

Risk of Collapse

For the past 20 years the WTO has sought and failed to reach an agreement to eliminate an estimated $14-$54 billion worth of annual government subsides that threaten the sustainability of the world’s fishing grounds.

Such a deal would help prevent the exploitation of the marine ecosystem and stave off economic ruin for coastal communities which depend on fishing for their livelihoods.

The negotiations are also viewed as a litmus test for the WTO, which hasn’t reached a multilateral accord since 2015 and lost its ability to fully resolve trade disputes in 2019.

This year, WTO members selected Okonjo-Iweala, a former World Bank managing director, to lead the organization. The 67-year-old developmental economist from Nigeria pledged to modernize the 25-year-old trade body by using her political skills to bring together nations in pursuit of common causes.

A key step for Okonjo-Iweala’s agenda is to conclude small but meaningful multilateral trade agreements, like the fisheries deal, to restore trust and relevance at the Geneva-based trade body.

Systemic Disagreements

However, deep divisions among the world’s largest economies have weighed on Okonjo-Iweala’s agenda and are jeopardizing prospects for an accord that many consider to be among the WTO’s lowest-hanging fruit.

One of the toughest challenges in the WTO fisheries talks is getting members to agree to offer special and differential treatment for developing countries in the form of delayed implementation timelines and other flexibilities.

“Many of these countries rely on small-scale artisanal fishing, and they are seeking more policy space to develop their industrial fishing capabilities,” Okonjo-Iweala wrote in her op-ed.

Developed economies like the U.S. and the European Union argue that the world’s largest fishing nations should agree to eliminate the most pernicious subsidies, regardless of their developmental status.

But large developing nations like India disagree. On Wednesday the Indian government threw a spanner into the works when it said it would oppose any immediate move to scrap subsidies for fishermen in developing nations.

Ministerial Meeting

Though Okonjo-Iweala initially said she hoped the final text of a fisheries agreement could be agreed upon in July, she has since shifted the target date to the WTO’s ministerial meeting later this year.

Even that deadline could prove unrealistic because of new surges of Covid-19 and the delta variant, which may complicate the ability for trade ministers to travel for face-to-face negotiations in coming months.

A key moment in the talks will come on Thursday when WTO ministers will dial into a virtual WTO meeting to discuss the prospects for concluding a fisheries agreement.

While a final deal will not be reached tomorrow, ministers will have another opportunity to push the agenda forward and clarify their views on the unresolved issues.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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