WTO MC13 - Interview with PSI & FES

At World Trade Organisation's Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi, repression and detention of civil society experts is undermining claims of inclusivity and further damaging the WTO's battered reputation.

As the conference got underway, PSI General Secretary Daniel Bertossa spoke with Friedrich Ebert Stiftung about key ares of concerns for unions and public services.

Do you feel the MC13 process is inclusive for smaller developing countries and/or your organsiation?  Why or why not?

 It looks like once again decisions will be made by a few powerful players behind closed doors, then presented to the conference as a fait accompli. Doha Round commitments made over 20 years ago to move forward with a development agenda and the core principles of special and differential treatment for developing countries remain sidelined. The scheduled discussion to extend the already-diluted relaxations on rules surrounding vaccines, diagnostics and treatments looks unlikely to even be held, despite receiving overwhelming support from developing countries, unions and civil society. Instead, high income countries are pushing further trade liberalisation for the benefit of foreign investors through Joint Statement Initiatives (JSI) which are effectively plurilateral agreements in a multilateral forum. The recent withdrawals from the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) reveal this approach as a dead end.

How can the process be made more inclusive for smaller developing countries, non-member participants and non-state stakeholders?

The WTO must prioritize the promised development agenda, drop rules which promote privatisation and hinder actions to address the climate crisis and inequality. The African Group’s proposal following the last Ministerial for a Working Group to drive essential reforms has been largely ignored. Instead, new issues brought in through JSIs, such as e-commerce and domestic services regulation, introduce complexities that require significant resources to analyse and reduce vital regulatory space. Contrary to how these issues are often presented, they have little to do with global trade and more to do with promoting and protecting the rights and interests of the largest multinational corporations. The WTO should review how existing rules increase inequalities, promote privatisation, and restrict access to quality public services and the medicines, technologies, data and other resources workers need. To restore the WTO’s reputation and ensure its continued existence, it’s time for leadership to take a stand against the powerful interests who see democratic decision making as an impediment to their goals.

What do you think are the main issues that MC13 is aiming to address?  Are these important/relevant from your perspective?

The JSI on investment facilitation could allow investors to water down or block vital regulation which they see as impeding on their interests. These measures are extremely broad, covering any action related to foreign investment such as laws, environmental impact assessments and technical standards at all levels of government. This could further limit governments’ ability to make foreign investors contribute to the green transition through licensing fees, royalties and higher standards. 

Meanwhile proposals on data and digital trade mirror big tech demands, allowing firms to deepen their control over sensitive datasets generated by workers and public services. The WTO should drop its reductive approach to such regulation and support measures to keep big-tech in check. That’s why PSI and FES’ “Our Digital Future” project is training unions to push Governnments to pursue digital policies that instead prioritize the public interest.

Do you think that MC13 will be a success?  Why or why not?

We must move away from the relentless pressure for MCs to “deliver” or be regarded as failures. Governments should not proceed with bad deals such as the JSIs, particularly on investment facilitation, domestic services and e-commerce. The JSI on Investment Facilitation is progressing at an alarming pace and unions must raise concerns with governments. If it proceeds, it will further undermine multilateralism and the principle of consensus and damage the WTO’s reputation

What will be the impact globally/on the multilateral trading system if MC13 fails? 

The impact on multilateralism will be devastating if MC13 agrees another deal that ignores developing country interests, promotes corporate power and undermines Quality Public Services and struggles to fight inequality. We have significant concerns with the WTO, but other trade deals are often less transparent and worse for workers and public services. The proposed Trade in Services Agreement, written up by corporate lobbyists, went far further than existing WTO measures. Yet by mobilizing unions across the world, we were able to stop a bad deal. The lesson is that by educating workers, building coalitions and articulating powerful alternatives, we can stand up to vested interests and push our governments to build a fairer multilateral trade system.

PSI has developed a template letter to help affiliates reach out to governments to oppose the Investment Facilitation proposals and other dangerous measures.