ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Politics and Perils of Plurilaterals

This article explores the current turn within the World Trade Organisation and the broader trade system away from multilateralism and towards negotiating plurilateral agreements. Plurilateralism is being pushed in many quarters as a potential means of overcoming the impasse that has emerged in the Doha Round of talks. Using insights from history, the article argues that the shift to plurilateralism is nothing new. Indeed the trade system has been built nearly continuously on such agreements. But the current push holds great danger for developing countries, particularly the least developed among them.

Though it is often spoken of privately and occasionally in hushed tones publicly, not one government official has yet gone on record and said that the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Doha Development Agenda (DDA) is dead. Without wanting to stretch a metaphor too far, it is clear that the Doha Round has certainly been emptied of its development content and in this respect it is dead. But the round ­itself is far from over. Indeed, recent suggestions have emerged that a resuscitation of the round might be possible if a few like-minded countries with a sufficient share of world trade to make an agreement worthwhile were to get toge­ther and open up trade. This “plurilateral” approach to trade is far from new; what is new is the gusto with which the idea is being driven forward in certain quarters and being presented as a potential panacea for infusing new momentum to the Doha Round. Indeed, such is the energy behind the drive to plurilaterals that in some quarters it is being suggested that, should the broader membership agree to allow this form of “mini-lateralism”1 to play a major role, it might be one way that development gains could be smuggled back onto the agenda.

One of the most interesting aspects of the emerging debate is the volte-face that has occurred in the way that some in the trade community have come to view plurilaterals. Prior to the December 2011 conclusion of the Government ­Procurement Agreement and the moves by the “Real Good Friends of Services” to negotiate an International Services Agreement, plurilateralism was widely held up as undesirable. Its role in shaping the Tokyo Round (1973-79) accords of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and in distributing trade gains to a small and selective group of countries in an otherwise multilateral setting led many commentators to ­criticise this à la carte approach to trade, preferring ­instead a broad-based single undertaking in which all members are represented even if they are unlikely to gain equitably. Yet, what is now occurring is a conscious effort to rehabilitate plurilateralism and to present it as a normal part of a trade round. Plurilateralism is currently being defined as any form of mini-­lateralism that covers agreements in specific sectors and/or any group of members. Thus, bilateral and regional agreements are all now being recast in some quarters as plurilaterals – a much broader definition than previously seen. In turn, plurilaterals are being depicted as building blocks of the multilateral system – much in the same way we are encouraged to think about regional trade agreements. And while many are aware that Least Developed Countries (LDCs) stand to gain almost nothing from plurilaterals – even if they are multi­lateralised (that is, if the agreed concessions are extended to all members of the WTO regardless of whether they participated in the plurilateral agreement or not) – such is the desire to get the Doha Round moving that any approach will be countenanced.

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