WTO accession: a necessary (too) painful process? – Views from acceding countries
High-level meeting of acceding countries representatives - 30 November 2009
1. Discussion on the accession process
Overall assessment of the accession process
The accession process provides an opportunity to implement a country's needed reform, in particular in former centralized economy. It helps convince the internal constituency of the necessity to implement such economic and trade reforms which in turn attracts foreign investors. All countries stressed the importance of assuring that the internal reform process is in line with the external reform requests and that the accession process is used as an instrument to implement reforms with which the country is in full agreement and for which it has the necessary internal political support.
Acceding countries were unanimous in stating that the multilateral process – although difficult and demanding – was a useful tool to accompany and strengthen their internal reform process. They also accepted the bilateral process as a useful and necessary process for the liberalization of their countries’ economy.
Concerns therefore did not address the process itself, but the way the process was applied by some member countries. Reforms proposed are therefore related to measures to avoid abuses of the process rather than the process itself:
- Some rules should exist to address unreasonable demands by individual countries and in particular concerning the introduction of non-trade demands;
- Some multilateral monitoring should exist to address blockages which might retard unreasonably the accession process;
- Some guidelines should exist to avoid that accession becomes an unpredictable, moving target due to changes of demands in each accession process and the fielding of new demands during the final stage of the process;
- The need for a dedicated, neutral facilitator who can intervene and mediate in situation of blockages;
- The need to strengthen the cooperative aspect of the accession process and a better match between assistance and reform and institutional needs.
Issues identified during the discussions
1. Inexistence of rules, procedures or guidelines for the process: moving target
There are no rules, procedures or guidelines outlining the accessions process. This can sometimes lead to an abuse by some members. Contrary to the usual WTO negotiating practice of standstill demands from members, requests can in some cases grow at each round of negotiations. This leads to a moving target situation in which acceding countries are not sure what they are negotiating, where the process is leading to and how long it could take.
2. Difficult Finishing line
It seems that the end of the accession process is more demanding than the first parts. It looks like it gets more and more difficult to complete it as the time goes by. This in turn has an internal price.
3. Internal pressure
The accession process is rather long and complex. After a while, negotiators face internal questions on their negotiating skills and their capacity to conclude the negotiations. This is especially the case at the end of the process when acceding countries think that they are almost reaching the finishing line but that the last stretch is extended for reasons difficult to explain.
Some sectors are very sensitive and have to be protected. They can't be bargained in the negotiations because of their importance.
4. Lack of capacity and knowledge
Even more "advanced" acceding countries face a lack of capacity and knowledge in the accession process despite the fact that they receive support from consultants and developed countries. Also, with high number of laws and rules adopted (committed), there is a need to adapt / build institutions to implement them.
For LDCs, this issue is even more difficult to overcome. They have a clear lack of human resources to face all needs required by the process.
5. Limitation to criticize the system
As a demander to join a club, it is difficult to criticize the process (or individual WTO members) or call it unfair. Given that few complaints or proposals for change come from acceding candidates members might think that the process works well. A solution should be found to circumvent this impasse providing thereby the opportunity for acceding countries to voice their legitimate concerns with regard to the process.
6. Perceived unfairness in requests
The scope of the requests by some members is not based on WTO rules but go beyond them sometimes to the point that they require commitments not taken by actual members. Often, some members open negotiations on all tariff lines and call for full liberalization, even though a real trade interest lies in only a portion of the tariff schedule. Requests are not based on the situation of the country and don't leave policy space to countries that might need some, at least in transition periods, to adapt their economy or parts of it. Also, there is pressure to subscribe to sectoral initiatives or plurilateral agreements even though they are not compulsory, and are respected by only a fraction of original WTO members.
Several members with little trade relations with acceding countries often request high level of concession (more than with countries with whom they trade more) and refuse negotiations on Free Trade Agreements.
Several countries complained that their to-be commitments do not correspond to their development status. They are being treated as developed members, while they are not at that stage of development yet. In that sense, their future commitment work against their development objectives.
In bilateral negotiations, some members negotiate on principles instead on trade interests. This approach is understandable in multilateral negotiations because it is systemic but in bilaterals, negotiations should be based on trade interest. This opens the door to never-ending requests.
Sometimes, requests (in terms of wording) in services negotiations from different members can be contradictory and make it impossible to find a solution that will please all of them.
7. Perceived loneliness / lack of support along the process
Acceding countries feel very lonely in the accession process. Although they receive support from several members, the chair and the secretariat, they nevertheless feel left alone rather than part of a cooperative effort. Other members are simply not aware of the situation.
In case of conflict or even clear unhelpful behaviour, acceding countries receive little or no help / support from other members or the secretariat. Even if the secretariat is willing to help or mediate, it is not possible because there are no rules or procedures on such a support or on a meditation role.
There are no rules on the selection of chairman. This can lead to conflict on the choice of the person.
Furthermore, there are no Terms of References for this role which means that the chairmanship can differ widely from one Chairperson to the other, even if it regards the same accession process. If the Chairperson does not invest his personal and institutional capacity and skills as a mediator in the process, the obstacles are much more difficult to overcome. This means that the quality of chairmanship and the role of the chairman in the process depend entirely on the individual skills and involvement of the chairperson and not at all on the system.
2. Presentation of the GTDF accession initiative
The Geneva Trade & Development Forum (GTDF) has launched an initiative to identify a comprehensive and adequate response to the problems identified in the accession process. In this framework, a group of delegates from developed, emerging and developing member countries, in their personal capacity, called the Friends of Accession (FOA), has been constituted to address this issue.
The FOA have underlined that there is sympathy for the accession issue within Members and the secretariat. Raising issues related to the process should however not be an excuse to avoid commitments and reforms necessary for development.
The FOA strongly suggested using the 7th WTO Ministerial Conference which addressed the functioning of the WTO to provide messages about what works and does not work in the accession process.
The FOA also mentioned that acceding countries are not giving consistent message to members. Most acceding countries expressed satisfaction with the process of accession to member countries as it is not appropriate for a candidate to a club to criticize its members. To formulate a general position of acceding countries on reform proposals to make the accession process as useful as possible for the countries’ reform process might be useful to have a consolidated and more anonymous position of the acceding countries as a group.
The purpose of this meeting was to get feedbacks from acceding countries on the way they perceive the process and, how it can be improved and made more sustainable.
3. Objectives of the informal ministerial meeting of acceding countries
The objectives of the meeting were twofold:
a. Draw the attention of the Ministers on the opportunity to use the Ministerial Conference and its agenda item on the discussion of the functioning of WTO to include statements on the accession process in their speeches. For that purpose, elements for such a statement have been proposed to the Ministers and have served as inputs for their interventions;
b. To give acceding countries the opportunity to express in an informal, non-negotiatory setting their appreciation of the benefits and difficulties of the accession process and to identify possible elements of a reform.
4. Presentation of initiatives related to acceding LDC by Ambassador Jean Feyder
Accession of LDC and the concerns related to the process have been discussed in several sessions of the Sub-Committee on LDC. A substantive report has been issued by the secretariat in March 2009 on this subject. It focuses, among others, on the complexities of WTO, difficulties faced by acceding countries to familiarize with the rules, reforms at home and human resources.
The WTO Director in charge of accession took the initiative last May to launch a "Dialogue with Acceding LDCs", another contribution to better understand the issue and the countries. A report on this dialogue has been released by the secretariat. In the meantime, there have been other calls for further dialogue on this topic in the LDC Declaration of Dar es Salaam and the Roundtable statement on the LDCs' accessions that took place in Cambodia this year.
In terms of the process, it is not satisfactory that only 3 LDC have acceded to the WTO in the last 14 years. But if LDCs WTO accession is an issue in itself it is also part of broader issue on how the process of accession to WTO is working i.e. a systemic issue.
5. Proposals to make the accession process more development-friendly
On the route to try to make the accession process more-development friendly, it is essential to bear in mind the fear of members that their rights could be diminished. Also, it is important to distinguish issues that are difficult for acceding countries but necessary (reforms) from issues that are unfair (requests that go beyond WTO agreements). These two elements are key to make proposals that stand a chance to be pursued for discussion. The proposals are meant to avoid the arbitrariness within the process not the process itself. It is not in the members' interest to support an accession process that frustrates candidates who, once they have entered the club, could have irrational and counter-productive behaviour.
Participants in the meeting outlined several actions or proposals that could be undertaken to ease their coordination and launch a process to endeavour to make accession more development-friendly:
1. There is a need to agree on rules, procedures or at least a framework on what should be the criteria of the accession process to limit the room for arbitrary requests. It was pointed out that this framework would need to address both the procedures and the content. In terms of strategy, it is necessary to underline why rules are needed because of systemic issue and not because of political reasons.
2. An Ombudsman or a similar instrument could help to mediate in case of conflicts or problems in bilateral negotiations.
3. There could be a regular (yearly or bi-annual) sessions at the WTO dedicated to the issue of accession which would have as its purpose to discuss issues faced by acceding countries which have difficulties to finish the accession process.
4. There is a need for more technical assistance from the WTO and donor countries in strategic and important areas (WTO, bilateral assistance, donor countries). This technical assistance should be better tailored to the needs of the candidates.
5. There is a need for transition periods which would include an action plan containing intermediary steps which are easy to control. The action plans would include information on technical assistance as in the trade facilitation negotiations. The technical assistance would be used to ensure that the commitments from the action plan are implemented
6. For future membership, it could be useful to participate in the discussions of RAMs to try to make an impact on their proposals because acceding countries will eventually become RAMs.
Coordination / raising awareness:
1. Acceding members should gather support from members, starting with countries who understand acceding countries' situation and the WTO secretariat. Also, the attempt should be made to get support from other members including RAMs.
2. Acceding countries could learn from “success stories” in the accessions, in particular from neighbouring countries, or countries on an equivalent level of development These consultations could help get over some of the difficulties.
3. Participants appreciated the opportunity to exchange views and ideas and coordinate among each other. These types of meetings could be organized on a regular basis. They could suggest to the secretariat to convene meetings of acceding countries. This would be a way to elaborate common positions or proposals avoiding the pitfall of confronting the whole membership as a single acceding country.