Last week, the 164 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) convened in Buenos Aires for their biannual ministerial conference. Although expectations before the conference were low, they were undercut by the actual outcomes.
Most countries had hoped for fresh negotiating mandates, for example on e-commerce. In the end, the only concrete outcomes of the conference were an agreement to continue negotiating on fishery subsidies; another agreement to extend the practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions for another two years; and yet another agreement to not initiate ‘non-violation’ complaints under an intellectual property rights treaty.
European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said that the Buenos Aires meeting was a missed opportunity, and that members should now use the time for “self-reflection”.
Global trade should benefit consumers. Yet the conference showed that the ‘consumer’ is not seen as the main beneficiary of trade. Our mission as a civil society organisation to push for inclusive trade is therefore as relevant as ever. And that is why we journeyed across the Atlantic to attend the meeting in the first place.
E-commerce is on the table
E-commerce was the topic in Buenos Aires. To name just a few (big) players: the EU, Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand all want to discuss it within the WTO. Although there is no mandate to start e-commerce negotiations within the WTO, a group of 70 countries agreed to commence ‘exploratory talks’ on the issue. This could lead to formal negotiations, perhaps in time for the next conference in two years.
So e-commerce is most certainly the topic of the future. But from a consumer point of view, there are risks to making it an item under the WTO. For one, because all that business people seemed to talk about was the need for legal provisions to ensure the flow of data. (Less controversial issues such as rules on e-certificates, electronic contracts, and lowering tariffs on electronic goods – all mentioned as useful for e-commerce traders – clearly slipped to the second row.) Provisions on data flows risk touching on how people’s personal data are being handled. This is not the role for a trade agreement.
The ‘exploratory’ talks will start in the first months of 2018. It will be interesting to see how the EU positions itself in view of the data flow controversy. The European Parliament has advised that a ‘data privacy safeguard’ must be included in any articles on data flows. We believe that this is the correct starting point, and have written to Commissioner Malmström to follow up on this Parliament resolution.
Trade is a business-only party
Ministerial conferences are playgrounds for business lobbyists. NGO experts also attend, but they make up a minority.
Now, to be fair, the European Commission brought a very balanced group of civil society experts to Buenos Aires as part of its delegation. We were briefed daily, and had unprecedented access to the Commission’s negotiations.
But business issues still dominated. One of the key side events was a business forum, where Alibaba’s Jack Ma was rolled out a red carpet, organised by the WTO and the Argentinian government. All of the panels consisted of government officials and businesses from across the world. A three-day-long sustainable trade conference, organised by the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, was highly interesting. But its panels consisted of business people, government representatives, experts from international institutions, and trade academics. Civil society representatives and experts in consumer affairs were absent.
There were only four consumer advocates among this frenzy of business interests. This meant that we were limited to simply issuing reminders that consumers should not come last when trade agreements are being discussed.
The Argentinian government created a dangerous precedent
A few days before the start of the conference, around 60 people from 20 civil society organisations were informed that the Argentinian government had revoked their visas. All of them were accredited via the WTO to attend the conference.
Civil society organisations protested, trade Commissioner Malmström wrote to the Argentinian government, and the foreign ministries of the people concerned intervened. Some issues were resolved but quite a few people decided not to travel, were delayed, or sent back at the border.
The reason? Apparently the social media activity of the visitors indicated that they would stage violent protests. Or at least this was the reasoning provided by the Argentinian government. Among these ‘dangerous’ individuals were numerous trade experts who frequently attend meetings and briefings with the European Commission.
As previously mentioned, trade is a highly business-dominated area and NGO experts are by default outnumbered. If the host states of WTO gatherings follow the Argentinian example, the balance will tilt even more towards business. This is not how an inclusive and balanced trade policy will come about.
Look beyond the WTO
One of the learnings of this ministerial conference should be that the WTO and its supporters must think more about the direct beneficiaries of trade: people as consumers. To do so, they must engage more with consumer representatives. (The ‘exploratory’ e-commerce talks would be a good starting point for that.) And more weight must be given to those international organisations whose objective is not only to break down barriers to trade. Many international bodies such as UNCTAD, the standardisation body ISO, and the OECD do useful work in the area of consumers.