The Uruguay Round

It took seven and a half years, almost twice the original schedule. By the end, 125 countries were taking part. It covered almost all trade, from toothbrushes to pleasure boats, from banking to telecommunications, from the genes of wild rice to AIDS treatments. It was quite simply the largest trade negotiation ever, and most probably the largest negotiation of any kind in history.

At times it seemed doomed to fail. But in the end, the Uruguay Round brought about the biggest reform of the world's trading system since GATT was created at the end of the Second World War. And yet, despite its troubled progress, the Uruguay Round did see some early results. Within only two years, participants had agreed on a package of cuts in import duties on tropical products - which are mainly exported by developing countries. They had also revised the rules for settling disputes, with some measures implemented on the spot. And they called for regular reports on GATT members' trade policies, a move considered important for making trade regimes transparent around the world.

A round to end all rounds?

The seeds of the Uruguay Round were sown in November 1982 at a ministerial meeting of GATT members in Geneva. Although the ministers intended to launch a major new negotiation, the conference stalled on the issue of agriculture and was widely regarded as a failure. In fact, the work programme that the ministers agreed formed the basis for what was to become the Uruguay Round negotiating agenda.

The agenda

The 15 original Uruguay Round subjects

Tariffs
Non-tariff barriers
Natural resource products
Textiles and clothing
Agriculture
Tropical products
GATT articles
Tokyo Round codes
Anti-dumping
Subsidies
Intellectual property
Investment measures
Dispute settlement
The GATT system
Services

Nevertheless, it took four more years of exploring, clarifying issues and painstaking consensus-building, before ministers agreed to launch the new round. They did so in September 1986, in Punta del Este, Uruguay. They eventually accepted a negotiating agenda which covered virtually every outstanding trade policy issue. The talks were going to extend the trading system into several new areas, notably trade in services and intellectual property, and to reform trade in the sensitive sectors of agriculture and textiles. All the original GATT articles were up for review. It was the biggest negotiating mandate on trade ever agreed, and the ministers gave themselves four years to complete it.

Two years later, in December 1988, ministers met again in Montreal, Canada for what was supposed to be an assessment of progress at the round's half-way point. The purpose was to clarify the agenda for the remaining two years, but the talks ended in a deadlock that was not resolved until officials met more quietly in Geneva the following April.

Despite the difficulty, during the Montreal meeting, ministers did agree a package of early results. These included some concessions on market access for tropical products - aimed at assisting developing countries - as well as a streamlined dispute settlement system, and the Trade Policy Review Mechanism which provided for the first comprehensive, systematic and regular reviews of national trade policies and practices of GATT members. The round was supposed to end when ministers met once more in Brussels, in December 1990. But they disagreed on how to reform agricultural trade and decided to extend the talks. The Uruguay Round entered its bleakest period.

Key dates

Sep 86 Punta del Este: launch
Dec 88 Montreal: ministerial mid-term review
Apr 89 Geneva: mid-term review completed
Dec 90 Brussels: "closing" ministerial meeting ends in deadlock
Dec 91 Geneva: first draft of Final Act completed
Nov 92 Washington: US and EC achieve "Blair House" breakthrough on agriculture
Jul 93 Tokyo: Quad achieve market access breakthrough at G7 summit
Dec 93 Geneva: most negotiations end (some market access talks remain)
Apr 94 Marrakesh: agreements signed
Jan 95 Geneva: WTO created, agreements take effect


Despite the poor political outlook, a considerable amount of technical work continued, leading to the first draft of a final legal agreement. This draft "Final Act" was compiled by the then GATT director general, Mr Arthur Dunkel, who chaired the negotiations at officials' level. It was put on the table in Geneva in December 1991. The text fulfilled every part of the Punta del Este mandate, with one exception - it did not contain the participating countries' lists of commitments for cutting import duties and opening their services markets. The draft became the basis for the final agreement.

For the following two years, the negotiations lurched between impending failure, to predictions of imminent success. Several deadlines came and went. New points of major conflict emerged to join agriculture: services, market access, anti-dumping rules, and the proposed creation of a new institution. Differences between the United States and European Communities (EU) became central to hopes for a final, successful conclusion.

In November 1992, the US and EU settled most of their differences on agriculture in a deal known informally as the "Blair House accord". By July 1993 the "Quad" (US, EU, Japan and Canada) announced significant progress in negotiations on tariffs and related subjects ("market access"). It took until 15 December 1993 for every issue to be finally resolved and for negotiations on market access for goods and services to be concluded (although some final touches were completed in talks on market access a few weeks later). On 15 April 1994, the deal was signed by ministers from most of the 125 participating governments at a meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco.

The delay had some merits. It allowed some negotiations to progress further than would have been possible in 1990: for example some aspects of services and intellectual property, and the creation of the WTO itself. But the task had been immense, and negotiation-fatigue was felt in trade bureaucracies around the world. The difficulty of reaching agreement on a complete package containing almost the entire range of current trade issues led some to conclude that a negotiation on this scale would never again be possible. Yet, the Uruguay Round agreements contain timetables for new negotiations on a number of topics. And by 1996, some countries were openly calling for a new round early in the next century. The response was mixed; but the Marrakesh agreement does already include commitments to reopen negotiations on a range of subjects at the turn of the century.

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