The fundamental provision governing accession to the WTO is Article XII of the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization.
1. Any State or separate customs territory possessing full autonomy in the conduct of its external commercial relations and of the other matters provided for in this Agreement and the Multilateral Trade Agreements may accede to this Agreement, on terms to be agreed between it and the WTO. Such accession shall apply to this Agreement and the Multilateral Trade Agreements annexed thereto.
2. Decisions on accession shall be taken by the Ministerial Conference. The Ministerial Conference shall approve the agreement on the terms of accession by a two-thirds majority of the Members of the WTO.
3. Accession to a Plurilateral Trade Agreement shall be governed by the provisions of that Agreement.
Article XII was modelled on the corresponding clause in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT 1947), the forerunner of the WTO, which governed accessions to the GATT for more than 40 years, from 1947 to 1995.10 One striking feature of this provision is its brevity. Anyone coming new to the subject might ask why applicants cannot become Members of the organization simply by notifying their acceptance of the obligations of membership and, if negotiations are necessary, why this basic provision does not provide them with more information about what “terms to be agreed” with WTO Members will determine their accession. The primary reason why the drafters did not attempt to prescribe universally applicable terms of accession was that the terms are to a large extent decided in negotiations on a case-by-case basis, in relation to each applicant’s national measures. In each negotiation, the challenge is to arrive at an appropriate balance between preserving and applying the rules and disciplines of the organization and accommodating them, to the extent possible, to the individual circumstances of the acceding government.
Although Article XII itself does not prescribe procedural rules to be followed in the course of the accession process, a fairly well-defined set of procedures based on those used in GATT 1947 has been developed by the WTO Secretariat in consultation with Members and through customary practice.
10. Article XXXIII of GATT 1947. The text of the General Agreement is now incorporated into the WTO Agreement as one of its multilateral trade agreements. It is known as “GATT 1994” to make clear that it is legally distinct from the GATT set up in 1947 (“GATT 1947”) which ceased to have effect after the WTO came into force on 1 January 1995. While the text of GATT 1994 still contains Article XXXIII, it is no longer operative as it is not possible to accede to GATT 1994 without acceding to the WTO as a whole. back to text