Negotiators are poised to seal the first global trade deal for more than a decade, in a rare victory for the World Trade Organisation, whose struggle to secure an international pact has increasingly threatened its relevance.
The US and powerful developing-nation players, including China and India, have overcome differences in agriculture. This leaves negotiators in Geneva to put the final touches to a deal that will impose binding requirements to reduce red tape and ease the path for goods at borders around the world.
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It could add about $1tn to annual global trade worth more than $18tn, some analysts have said.
Roberto Azevêdo, the recently appointed head of the WTO, is expected to present a finished draft of the agreement to the body’s highest organ, the general council, in a meeting as soon as Sunday or Monday.
Barring any unforeseen problems – and negotiators gave warning on Thursday that they could still emerge – the agreement would be signed by trade ministers from the WTO’s 159 member countries in Bali next month. “They have crossed over the threshold,” said a senior trade official in Geneva.
Sealed, the deal would be a victory for Mr Azevêdo, who warned that the WTO risked irrelevancy if it did not deliver something substantive in Bali when took over in September.
The deal’s three broad pillars – tackling bureaucratic barriers at borders, a series of agriculture issues, and several development-related subjects – were plucked from the wider Doha agenda two years ago as watered-down but “deliverable” elements of a deal.
But they have still been the subject of difficult negotiations and officials and observers of the process insist the deal at hand is important in both substance and what it says about the state of the WTO as a forum for trade negotiations.
“We can do negotiations on a multilateral basis and deliver. That’s the big lesson,” one senior ambassador to the WTO said.
Mr Azevêdo, a former Brazilian diplomat, and others want to use the deal to re-energise the now 12-year-old Doha Round of trade negotiations which for years has been stalled due to differences between the US and developing world countries over agriculture.
The biggest element of the Bali deal is the chapter on “trade facilitation”, WTO jargon for removing bureaucratic barriers at borders. It will set binding standards for WTO members on matters such as how long goods should take to clear borders, how customs officials can charge tariffs and penalties and what paperwork can be required at borders.
Some details of the facilitation deal need to be finalised, such as how poor countries should be required to meet the obligations. Mr Azevêdo is due to present a potential wording on that issue to negotiators on Friday and officials in Geneva expect negotiations through the weekend.
But the most prickly issues in Geneva have been related to agriculture and involved India, China, and Argentina.
After months of haggling, negotiators earlier this week settled on a four-year “peace clause” that will give India and other countries latitude to buy staples from farmers and operate food programmes for the poor.
The US and China have also agreed to set aside a dispute over certain agricultural tariffs, while Argentina appeared set to allow compromise language linked to eliminating subsidies for agricultural exports, a long-standing bone of contention in the developing world.