Thursday, 23 January 2014

The international trade regime at a crossroads? From liberalisation to global regulation

By Carlos Fortin

Dirk Willenbockel’s thoughtfully balanced blog assessing the import of the outcome of the WTO Bali Ministerial Conference summed it up by reference to Jagdish Bhagwati’s characteristically clever dictum: ‘Doha Lite and Decaffeinated’.

The deal in effect fell well short of the original expectations in terms of advancing the trade liberalisation agenda; perhaps even more seriously from the viewpoint of developed countries and transnational corporations, it did not begin to address the harmonisation agenda, the effort at introducing global regulatory uniformity based on the rules and regulations of developed economies. This is arguably the first priority for the US and the EU in the international economic field today: to move in the direction of creating a unified global economic space with common rules of the game that would facilitate the expansion and penetration of transnational capital.

The impression is growing among analysts that developed countries have come to the conclusion that such an objective is simply unattainable in the WTO - the dynamics of the organisation are such that they allow the opposition of developing countries to become effectively a veto. Confronted with that reality, so the analysis goes, the US and the EU have shifted their efforts towards the bilateral, regional and plurilateral levels, where their chances are better.

A current controversy surrounding the negotiation of the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership seems to lend credibility to this analysis. This is a trade agreement being negotiated by 12 countries (Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam) which covers all areas already included in the WTO and several additional others, notably investment, environment, labour conditions and financial flows. While the negotiations are being conducted in secrecy, documents obtained and published by Wikileaks suggest than in a number of areas the proposals being discussed go considerably beyond existing commitments in the WTO and could entail a significant loss in the ability of national governments to formulate and implement development policy.

Two sets of proposals in particular have been singled out for criticism on this score. In the field of intellectual property, Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz in an open letter addressed to the negotiators described the current TPP proposals as an attempt ‘to freeze into a binding trade agreement many of the worst features of the worst laws in the TPP countries, making needed reforms extremely difficult if not impossible.’

Also worrying in this connection is the US proposal in the investment area to introduce the ISDS regime (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) which entitles private foreign investors to seek compensation in international tribunals for any law, regulation or policy which can be construed as an unfair change in the rules of the game and detrimental to their profitability.

The leaked documents suggest that so far the participating developing countries have been opposing these proposals; but the unmistakable feeling is that the pressure to reduce the policy space available to them is intensifying and it might in the end be difficult if not impossible to resist.

Carlos Fortin is an IDS Research Associate currently working on the relationship between the emerging international trade regime and human rights.

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