Information about the organization

UNDERSTANDING THE WTO: CROSS-CUTTING AND NEW ISSUES
Regionalism: friends or rivals?

The European Union, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR), the Australia-New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Agreement, and so on.

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More introductory information
The WTO in Brief
10 benefits
10 misunderstandings

By July 2005, only one WTO member — Mongolia,  — was not party to a regional trade agreement. The surge in these agreements has continued unabated since the early 1990s. By July 2005, a total of 330 had been notified to the WTO (and its predecessor, GATT). Of these: 206 were notified after the WTO was created in January 1995; 180 are currently in force; several others are believed to be operational although not yet notified.

One of the most frequently asked questions is whether these regional groups help or hinder the WTO’s multilateral trading system. A committee is keeping an eye on developments.

 

Regional trading arrangements back to top

They seem to be contraditory, but often regional trade agreements can actually support the WTO’s multilateral trading system. Regional agreements have allowed groups of countries to negotiate rules and commitments that go beyond what was possible at the time multilaterally. In turn, some of these rules have paved the way for agreement in the WTO. Services, intellectual property, environmental standards, investment and competition policies are all issues that were raised in regional negotiations and later developed into agreements or topics of discussion in the WTO.

The groupings that are important for the WTO are those that abolish or reduce barriers on trade within the group. The WTO agreements recognize that regional arrangements and closer economic integration can benefit countries. It also recognizes that under some circumstances regional trading arrangements could hurt the trade interests of other countries. Normally, setting up a customs union or free trade area would violate the WTO’s principle of equal treatment for all trading partners (“most-favoured-nation”). But GATT’s Article 24 allows regional trading arrangements to be set up as a special exception, provided certain strict criteria are met.

In particular, the arrangements should help trade flow more freely among the countries in the group without barriers being raised on trade with the outside world. In other words, regional integration should complement the multilateral trading system and not threaten it.

Article 24 says if a free trade area or customs union is created, duties and other trade barriers should be reduced or removed on substantially all sectors of trade in the group. Non-members should not find trade with the group any more restrictive than before the group was set up.

Similarly, Article 5 of the General Agreement on Trade in Services provides for economic integration agreements in services. Other provisions in the WTO agreements allow developing countries to enter into regional or global agreements that include the reduction or elimination of tariffs and non-tariff barriers on trade among themselves.

On 6 February 1996, the WTO General Council created the Regional Trade Agreements Committee. Its purpose is to examine regional groups and to assess whether they are consistent with WTO rules. The committee is also examining how regional arrangements might affect the multilateral trading system, and what the relationship between regional and multilateral arrangements might be.

more on regional trade agreements

> See also Doha Agenda negotiations


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