WTO talks head into overtime with talks deadlocked

By Thomson Reuters Feb 29, 2024 | 10:04 AM

By Emma Farge, Alexander Cornwell and Rachna Uppal

ABU DHABI (Reuters) -Negotiations at the World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting in Abu Dhabi were set to go into overtime on Thursday, with the WTO announcing the closing session had been delayed, and no sign of a breakthrough in talks to set several new global commerce rules.

The biennial conference is seeking deals on ending fishing subsidies and extending a moratorium on digital trade tariffs – a move that India and South Africa oppose.

The scheduled announcement of a final agreement after four days of intergovernmental talks was pushed back four hours until midnight in the Gulf State (2000 GMT).

Some participants expressed scepticism that a deal would be reached by then, telling Reuters that serious differences remained on a range of issues meant to address global trade.

“Tense! Difficult,” said one delegate on condition of anonymity.

New Zealand’s trade minister Todd McClay said it was a good sign that delegates were still trying to thrash out issues and expected this to continue “late into the night”.

“There is a desire for an outcome but there are delegations on both sides of issues saying: the only way we can have an outcome is if our concerns are addressed,” he told Reuters. However, McClay, who is the facilitator on talks to extend a 25-year moratorium on digital tariffs, said there had been no movement yet on overcoming a deadlock.

India’s trade minister said he was “sad” some countries were still obstructing significant outcomes. He gave little sign New Delhi would drop its opposition to extending a waiver on digital tariffs.

“Of course we feel sad that some countries are still obstructing significant outcomes that could have helped less developed countries and developing countries gain confidence in the working of WTO,” Piyush Goyal told reporters on the final day of the talks.

Still, he voiced optimism that “significant outcomes” could be achieved in the negotiations.


A grouping of Pacific islands, including Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, were also opposing a draft deal on changes to fisheries subsidies, with Fiji’s deputy prime minister telling Reuters it did not go far enough.

“We would like the large subsidising countries to put a cap on the current level of subsidies,” Manoa Seru Kamikamica said.

A trade delegate from a developed country dismissed this prospect saying: “It’s never going to happen. It’s come too late”.

India’s Goyal did not name the countries that he said were blocking results at the talks. But he said his top priority was fixing the WTO’s dispute system, adding he had raised the lack of progress with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai in a Wednesday meeting.

“The first and highest priority is to get the Appellate Body of the dispute resolution mechanism in place because without that all the decisions we are taking cannot be adjudicated upon,” he said.

The WTO’s top appeals court has been hamstrung for four years due to U.S. opposition to judge appointments and remains out of service. Tai already ruled out an agreement on WTO dispute settlement appeals reform this week, but said negotiations were showing progress.

(Reporting by Emma Farge, Alexander Cornwell and Rachna Uppal; Editing by Alex Richardson, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, William Maclean)