MEMBERS AND ACCESSION Becoming a member of the WTO

Any state or customs territory having full autonomy in the conduct of its trade policies may join (“accede to”) the WTO, but WTO members must agree on the terms.

How to join the WTO: the accession process back to top

The process starts with the applying country submitting a formal written request to accede (under Article 12 of the WTO Agreement). The request is considered by the General Council, which sets up a working party to examine the application — each application has a separate working party. The working party eventually makes recommendations to the General Council, including a “protocol of accession” at the end of the negotiations. The working party is open to all WTO members.

Broadly speaking the application goes through four stages:

  • First, “tell us about yourself” The government applying for membership has to describe all aspects of its trade and economic policies that have a bearing on WTO agreements. This is submitted to working party members in a memorandum covering all aspects of its trade and legal regime, that forms the basis of the working party’s fact-finding exercise.
  • Second, “work out with us individually what you have to offer”. When the working party has made sufficient progress on principles and policies, parallel bilateral talks begin between the prospective new member and individual countries. They are bilateral because different countries have different trading interests. These talks cover tariff rates and specific market access commitments, and other policies in goods and services. The new member’s commitments are to apply equally to all WTO members under normal non-discrimination rules, even though they are negotiated bilaterally. In other words, the talks determine the benefits (in the form of export opportunities and guarantees) other WTO members can expect when the new member joins. (The talks can be highly complicated. It has been said that in some cases the negotiations are almost as large as an entire round of multilateral trade negotiations.)
  • Third, “let’s draft membership terms”. This is the substantive part of the multilateral membership negotiations. Once the working party has completed its examination of the applicant’s trade regime, and the parallel bilateral market access negotiations are complete, the working party finalizes the terms of accession. These consist of commitments to observe WTO rules and disciplines as soon as the new member joins, or in some cases with transitional periods. They appear in a draft working party report, a draft membership treaty (“protocol of accession”) and lists (“schedules”) of the member-to-be’s commitments.
  • Finally, “the decision”. The final package, consisting of the report, protocol and lists of commitments, is presented to the WTO General Council or the Ministerial Conference. If a two-thirds majority of WTO members vote in favour, the applicant is free to sign the protocol and to accede to the organization. In many cases, the country’s own parliament or legislature has to ratify the agreement before membership is complete. The applicant becomes a member of the WTO 30 days after it has notified the WTO Secretariat that it has completed ratification.


Readiness and development level back to top

Questions are often raised as to when a country can become a member of the WTO and whether it joins the WTO as a developing or a developed country. These questions are an inherent part of each membership negotiation.

Basically, the questions of a country’s readiness, and its level of development, involve it being given certain flexibilities when it implements the WTO’s rules and disciplines — a matter determined in the membership negotiations. The accession process can vary in length and can take several years to complete. Much depends on the speed with which the applicant government is able to adjust its trade and legal regime to the requirements of the WTO’s rules and disciplines.

Because each working party takes decisions by consensus, WTO members must agree that their individual concerns have been met and that all outstanding issues have been resolved in the course of their deliberations.


Least-developed countries back to top

On 10 December 2002, the General Council agreed a new range of measures enabling the world’s poorest countries, the least-developed countries (LDCs), to join more quickly and easily.

Member governments agreed to be restrained in seeking concessions and commitments on goods and services from least-developed countries negotiating membership. They agreed to apply “special and differential treatment” to those countries as soon as they become members, and to grant transitional periods in specific WTO agreements, taking into account individual development, financial and trade needs. The purpose is to enable them to implement and comply with the rules. (Many WTO agreements allowed transition periods for developing and least-developed countries that were already members when the agreements took effect and the WTO came into being in 1995. Since then, new members have often agreed to implement the provisions as soon as they joined, without a transition period.) In the General Council decision, WTO members also agreed to provide technical assistance.


The new members back to top

Since the WTO was established on 1 January 1995, 19 new members have joined the WTO through working party negotiations. These are: Albania, Armenia, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Ecuador, Estonia, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Georgia, Jordan, Latvia, Lithuania, Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova, Mongolia, Oman, Panama, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Chinese Taipei. (A number of others were originally GATT members who formally joined the WTO after 1 January 1995 because of delayed ratification and other formalities.)

Since the last Ministerial Conference in November 2001, the WTO has received four new members: China and Chinese Taipei, whose membership was approved by the Ministerial Conference itself; and Armenia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, whose membership was approved by the General Council.


The applicants back to top

With 27 governments still in the queue for membership of the WTO, accession will remain a major challenge for WTO members in the years ahead. These are the 27. Their applications are currently being considered by WTO accession working parties. An exception is Vanuatu, whose membership awaits a final decision by its government and then by the General Council. Each of these applicant governments is an observer in the WTO.

Bosnia Herzegovina
Cape Verde
Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Lebanese Republic
Russian Federation
Saudi Arabia
Serbia and Montenegro
Viet Nam


Some current accessions negotiations back to top

Of the countries applying to join the WTO, these have been more active in their negotiations in the last few months, are close to an agreement, or have aroused more public interest:


Algeria’s working party was established on 17 June 1987 and met for the first time in April 1998. Topics under discussion in the working party include: agriculture, the customs system, state trading, transparency and legal reform, and intellectual property. Algeria has made its initial offers on market access in goods and the discussion on terms of entry is underway. The fifth meeting of the working party took place in May 2003. At that meeting, the working party chairperson, Ambassador Carlos Pérez del Castillo of Uruguay, said that efforts will be made to try to finish the negotiation so that Algeria would become a member of the WTO in 2004.


On 22 July 2003, Cambodia’s working party completed its work (although some of the documentation still needed tidying up). Cambodia is now set to meet its ambition of having its membership approved in Cancún, making it the first least-developed country to join the WTO through a working party negotiation since the WTO came into being in 1995. Cambodia has also benefited from the 10 December 2002 General Council decision setting guidelines to help least-developed countries joint the WTO more quickly and easily.

A tight schedule was agreed at the working party’s 16 April 2003 meeting, aiming for Cambodia’s WTO membership negotiation to end in July, and allowing the possibility for all the formalities to be completed by the Ministerial Conference. The April meeting saw substantive discussion on a first version of the working party’s draft report.

Earlier this year, Cambodia had revised its market access offers, further reducing proposed tariff ceilings and adding more service sectors. In return, Cambodia asked for more technical assistance to help it adjust, although it agreed not to make this a condition for opening its markets. In the meantime, several members still had to complete their bilateral negotiations with Cambodia on particular market access issues that concern them, but many said they were close to agreement.

The Cambodian working party was established on 21 December 1994. Cambodia submitted a memorandum on its foreign trade regime in June 1999. Replies to questions concerning the memorandum were circulated in January 2001. Bilateral negotiations on market access in goods and services continued in 2002 and 2003.


Nepal is now set to be the second least-developed country to join the WTO through a working party negotiation, following hard on the heels of Cambodia. The working party completed its work, marking the end of the membership negotiations, including those on market access for goods and services, on 15 August 2003, less than a month before Cancún.

Nepal’s working party was established on 21 June 1999 and held its first meeting in May 2000. Nepal made the latest offer on market access for goods and services in May 2003. The draft working party report was circulated in mid-June 2003.

Russian Federation

Russia’s working party was established on 16 June 1993. Bilateral market access negotiations on goods and services have started. In the working party, topics under discussion include: agriculture, the customs system (and customs union and other trade arrangements with CIS states), excise taxation and national treatment, import licensing, industrial subsidies, national treatment, sanitary/phytosanitary measures and technical barriers to trade, trade-related investment measures, intellectual property, and services. Discussion has started on a second draft of the working party’s report.

Russia is the biggest economy outside the WTO and the accession negotiations are intense and detailed. One of the most important aspects of this negotiation is a wide ranging programme of legislative reforms, which the Russian Parliament plans to complete this year. This set of new or amended laws includes a Customs Code, intellectual property protection, regulation of foreign trade activity, foreign currency regulations and many more. The aim is to create a modern, market oriented and predictable legal environment in tune with WTO agreements and principles and Russia’s own plans for economic reform.

A well-defined programme of bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral meetings for 2003 is underway. Many of these bilateral meetings involve Russia negotiating market access agreements for goods and services with its trading partners. Other meetings have focused on dealing in more detail with some contentious issues in the negotiation such as agriculture, import quotas, and energy, in particular natural gas. At this stage it is very difficult to forecast when the negotiations will end and when Russia will join the WTO.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s working party was established on 21 July 1993. Its last meeting was in October 2000. Bilateral market access negotiations on goods and services are continuing on the basis of revised offers. Topics discussed in the working party include: agriculture, preshipment inspection, sanitary­/phytosanitary measures and technical barriers to trade, intellectual property, and services. The working party is also focusing on a draft report and protocol of accession.


Ukraine’s working party was established on 17 December 1994. Topics under discussion include: agriculture, the customs system, excise and value added tax, import licensing and other non-tariff measures, industrial subsidies, national treatment, services, state trading, transparency and legal reform, and intellectual property. Bilateral market access negotiations are continuing on the basis of revised offers in goods and services. Work has started on a “check-list of issues”, i.e. specific concerns that members have raised, and Ukraine’s replies to the individual questions or request for clarification. The working party’s last meeting was on 25 February 2003.

Viet Nam

Viet Nam reported progress in its membership negotiations, when its working party met last on 12 May 2003, but several delegations said much more needs to be done. The working party chairperson told members that “success will depend on a quantum jump” in efforts if Viet Nam is to meet its goal of joining by 2005.

The working party was established on 31 January 1995. Bilateral market access contacts are generally in early stages. Several members say they need Viet Nam to circulate lists of the import duties it currently charges (the “applied tariff schedule”) before they can negotiate market access properly.

Topics under discussion in the working party include: trading rights for foreigners and foreign companies, technical barriers to trade, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, quantitative restrictions on imports, customs valuation and the customs system, import licensing, agricultural subsidies, intellectual property, investment policies and subsidies, state trading and the broader economic regime.


Current WTO members back to top

146 governments, as on 4 April 2003, with date of membership (“g” = the 51 original GATT members who joined after 1 January 1995; “n” = new members joining the WTO through a working party negotiation):

Albania 8 September 2000 (n)
Angola 1 December 1996 (g)
Antigua and Barbuda 1 January 1995
Argentina 1 January 1995
Armenia 5 February 2003 (n)
Australia 1 January 1995
Austria 1 January 1995
Bahrain 1 January 1995
Bangladesh 1 January 1995
Barbados 1 January 1995
Belgium 1 January 1995
Belize 1 January 1995
Benin 22 February 1996 (g)
Bolivia 13 September 1995 (g)
Botswana 31 May 1995 (g)
Brazil 1 January 1995
Brunei Darussalam 1 January 1995
Bulgaria 1 December 1996 (n)
Burkina Faso 3 June 1995 (g)
Burundi 23 July 1995 (g)
Cameroon 13 December 1995 (g)
Canada 1 January 1995
Central African Republic 31 May 1995 (g)
Chad 19 October 1996 (g)
Chile 1 January 1995
China 11 December 2001 (n)
Colombia 30 April 1995 (g)
Congo 27 March 1997 (g)
Costa Rica 1 January 1995
Côte d'Ivoire 1 January 1995
Croatia 30 November 2000 (n)
Cuba 20 April 1995 (g)
Cyprus 30 July 1995 (g)
Czech Republic 1 January 1995
Democratic Republic of the Congo 1 January 1997 (g)
Denmark 1 January 1995
Djibouti 31 May 1995 (g)
Dominica 1 January 1995
Dominican Republic 9 March 1995 (g)
Ecuador 21 January 1996 (n)
Egypt 30 June 1995 (g)
El Salvador 7 May 1995 (g)
Estonia 13 November 1999 (n)
European Union 1 January 1995
Fiji 14 January 1996 (g)
Finland 1 January 1995
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia 4 April 2003 (n)
France 1 January 1995
Gabon 1 January 1995
Gambia 23 October 1996 (g)
Georgia 14 June 2000 (n)
Germany 1 January 1995
Ghana 1 January 1995
Greece 1 January 1995
Grenada 22 February 1996 (g)
Guatemala 21 July 1995 (g)
Guinea Bissau 31 May 1995 (g)
Guinea 25 October 1995 (g)
Guyana 1 January 1995
Haiti 30 January 1996 (g)
Honduras 1 January 1995
Hong Kong, China 1 January 1995
Hungary 1 January 1995
Iceland 1 January 1995
India 1 January 1995
Indonesia 1January 1995
Ireland 1 January 1995
Israel 21 April 1995 (g)
Italy 1 January 1995
Jamaica 9 March 1995 (g)
Jordan 11 April 2000 (n)
Japan 1 January 1995

Kenya 1 January 1995
Korea 1 January 1995
Kuwait 1 January 1995
Kyrgyz Republic 20 December 1998 (n)
Latvia 10 February 1999 (n)
Lesotho 31 May 1995 (g)
Liechtenstein 1 September 1995 (g)
Lithuania 31 May 2001 (n)
Luxembourg 1 January 1995
Macao, China 1 January 1995
Madagascar 17 November 1995 (g)
Malawi 31 May 1995 (g)
Malaysia 1 January 1995
Maldives 31 May 1995 (g)
Mali 31 May 1995 (g)
Malta 1 January 1995
Mauritania 31 May 1995 (g)
Mauritius 1 January 1995
Mexico 1 January 1995
Moldova 26 July 2001 (n)
Mongolia 29 January 1997 (n)
Morocco 1 January 1995
Mozambique 26 August 1995 (g)
Myanmar 1 January 1995
Namibia 1 January 1995
Netherlands — including Netherlands Antilles 1 January 1995
New Zealand 1 January 1995
Nicaragua 3 September 1995 (g)
Niger 13 December 1996 (g)
Nigeria 1 January 1995
Norway 1 January 1995
Oman 9 November 2000 (n)
Pakistan 1 January 1995
Panama 6 September 1997 (n)
Papua New Guinea 9 June 1996 (g)
Paraguay 1 January 1995
Peru 1 January 1995
Philippines 1 January 1995
Poland 1 July 1995 (g)
Portugal 1 January 1995
Qatar 13 January 1996 (g)
Romania 1 January 1995
Rwanda 22 May 1996 (g)
Saint Kitts and Nevis 21 February 1996 (n)
Saint Lucia 1 January 1995
Saint Vincent & the Grenadines 1 January 1995
Senegal 1 January 1995
Sierra Leone 23 July 1995 (g)
Singapore 1 January 1995
Slovak Republic 1 January 1995
Slovenia 30 July 1995 (g)
Solomon Islands 26 July 1996 (g)
South Africa 1 January 1995
Spain 1 January 1995
Sri Lanka 1 January 1995
Suriname 1 January 1995
Swaziland 1 January 1995
Sweden 1 January 1995
Switzerland 1 July 1995 (g)
Chinese Taipei 1 January 2002 (n)
Tanzania 1 January 1995
Thailand 1 January 1995
Togo 31 May 1995 (g)
Trinidad and Tobago 1 March 1995 (g)
Tunisia 29 March 1995 (g)
Turkey 26 March 1995 (g)
Uganda 1 January 1995
United Arab Emirates 10 April 1996 (g)
United Kingdom 1 January 1995
United States 1 January 1995
Uruguay 1 January 1995
Venezuela 1 January 1995
Zambia 1 January 1995
Zimbabwe 3 March 1995 (g)

Other material:
> Accessions