The Politics of Free Trade Agreements

Seeking to address the liberalization concerns of WTO’s less-developed members, the Doha Development Round was supposed to culminate in 2005 with a new trade agreement.

Read also: WTO TRADE FACILITATION AGREEMENT GUIDE

The envisioned deal concerned the reduction of trade barriers in commodities and services, as well as a new international framework for intellectual property rights. But soon after negotiations began, governments from developing countries — India, Brazil, China, and South Africa — and NGOs (non-governmental organization) began to worry that international negotiations were an obstacle to the governmental protection of developing sectors and regulation of financial services. After the failure of the Cancún proceedings in 2004, trade scholars worried that Doha might not be completed by its original deadline, but kept the hope that negotiations would continue. However, trade talks came to a deadlock in 2006, 2009, and 2011, mainly due to differences in agricultural policies. The US and the EU even backed out of previous agreements to reduce export support and agricultural subsidies, arguing that they did not want to weaken their bargaining positions too early in the Round.

Read also: ITC publishes business guide on new WTO trade facilitation agreement by ITC Communications

Attempts to reconcile disagreements among countries since then have been largely in vain. But in December 2013, new tailwinds seemed to push the Doha Round to more favorable shores. The Bali Ministerial Conference, which concluded with the signing of a package deal on trade customs collection and a post-Bali development agenda, was touted to have “achieved what many believed was impossible”: bringing together the 160 WTO members for the first time in twelve years. But even though the Bali package does not have much to do with free trade — it facilitates the collection, but not the reduction, of custom duties — the agreement still wasn’t signed by all members in July 2014. This time, India vetoed the ratification to gain more bargaining power for Prime Minister Modi’s program of domestic food subsidies. Reuters reported that “trade diplomats in Geneva have said they are ‘flabbergasted,’ ‘astonished,’ and ‘dismayed,’ and described India’s position as ‘hostage-taking’ and ‘suicidal’.”

Perhaps commentators would have been less surprised if they had identified the negotiation deadlock as only the symptom of a more pervasive underlying cause: the national — read: political — interest of all countries at the negotiations table. The bread and butter of WTO member states is the extent to which they can encroach upon private enterprise, and control both product and financial markets. Under these circumstances, committing to open one’s borders to international trade is simply idle talk. Free exchange and competition would undermine the leverage of domestic interest groups, and cut through the structure of government intervention.

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46 thoughts on “The Politics of Free Trade Agreements

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