Even as the world’s major economic powers abandon the global rules-based system in ongoing trade feuds, an international think tank’s advisor has urged officials here and in the region not to give up on the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
But the advocate found his stance at the opposite end of the debate spectrum as the senior trade representatives of Barbados and CARICOM countered with their depiction of a world trading system that marginalizes small and developing countries.
And Hannes Schloemann, representative of the Trade and Investment Advocacy Fund (TAF2) and Director of World Trade Institute (WTI) Advisors, has called on CARICOM officials to become “rule makers and not just rule takers”.
He was addressing the opening of a CARICOM workshop on WTO Issues at the Savannah Hotel on Wednesday.
But Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Senator Dr Jerome Walcott argued that the multilateral system had begun to undergo “seismic shift”, adding that if allowed to continue, this would be to the detriment of small island states with limited negotiating power.
A system, which delivers for all, regardless of size. A system that is fair, balanced, and rules-based is vital for us,” Walcott said.
Representatives from CARICOM member states are gathered here to discuss a range of trade issues in order to come up with recommendations to the Community’s trade Ministers in time for the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference to be held in Kazakhstan in June.
During the three-day workshop, the delegates are expected to deepen their understanding of the issues currently being discussed and negotiated at WTO headquarters in Geneva that are likely to be considered in Kazahstan.
WTO reform is expected to top the agenda, along with fisheries subsidies, agriculture, trade and services, investment facilitation, electronic commerce and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs).
Senator Walcott told the delegates: “It is clear to all of us that the World Trade Organisation has been at a major crossroad for some time now.
“Despite the numerous meetings taking place almost daily in Geneva and in other places, it appears to many, that there is a lack of political will to advance the mandates agreed at Ministerial conferences.
“Admittedly and collectively, members have failed to deliver on the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) in a meaningful manner and yet have embarked on new, albeit exciting areas of discussion.
“This is a concern for small states like Barbados, as many implementation issues remain unresolved.”
Senator Walcott also called for climate change to be a priority for discussion among WTO members, arguing that the effects of hurricanes and other climatic events affects the region’s infrastructure, agriculture and tourism industries, and its ability to carry out trade.
Ambassador Gail Mathurin, Director General in the Office of Trade Negotiation at the CARICOM Secretariat, also expressed concern that there were “unprecedented challenges to the multilateral arrangements that have governed international relations in the last decades”.
She said: “Nevertheless, small countries such as ours in CARICOM, continue to place great value on multilateralism in order to ensure stability and predictability, necessary requirements for growth and development.”
But Schloemann gave the assurance that the WTO was “filled with promise” despite its challenges.
He said: “They say the WTO is in crisis. Maybe, but it is also full of promise, let me assure you.
“Where is the promise? The system itself is obviously a promise and we should not forget that. Partly, it is a promise that is already kept and partly a promise that remains to be developed.
“The rules-based multilateral trading system does not eliminate power in this region.
“[You] can sing a song of that, no doubt.”
He added: “at the same time, it does provide a thick layer of protection. It does not make the small ones big, but it does benefit the small ones more than the big ones.
“So there are problems, but those who declare the WTO to be dead or dying couldn’t be more wrong.”
A representative of Britain’s foreign aid agency declared that the UK did not underestimate the scale of trade-related challenges small states were facing.
Stephen Kossoff, Head of the Department for International Development (DfID) in the Caribbean, said: “We are acutely aware that small states are often without the long list of bilateral free-trade agreements provided by other bigger countries with market access and stability in the absence of multilateral rules.
“The UK firmly believes that rules-based free trade system, with the WTO at its heart, is an inherently positive force in the world’s economy, creating jobs and prosperity at home and abroad for developing and developed countries.”
Kossoff added: “Strengthening and improving the WTO, making it fit for purpose for the 21st century is an all-hands-on-deck task.
“WTO reform cannot and should not be the preserve of a small handful of large countries with resources to dominate discussions by inside and outside the WTO.”
The DfID head said the UK was committed to levelling the playing field for free trade.