Topics handled by WTO committees and agreements
Issues covered by the WTO’s committees and agreements

regional trade agreements: BACKGROUND OBJECTIVES

26 April 2002
Seminar on regionalism and the WTO

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The Fourth Ministerial Conference in Doha marked a further step in promoting the objective of a multilateral trading system based on non-discrimination and rejection of protectionist practices, with emphasis on its development dimension. Members committed themselves to achieve these principles and objectives through global trade rule-making and liberalization in the WTO framework.

At Doha, WTO Members also recognized that regional trade agreements (RTAs) can play an important role in promoting trade liberalization and in fostering economic development. In initiating negotiations to clarify and improve RTA-related disciplines and procedures, taking into account developmental aspects, Ministers highlighted the need for a harmonious relationship between the multilateral and regional processes.

The time is ripe for the WTO Membership to review such relationship afresh. WTO provisions entitle Members to conclude RTAs under certain conditions, of both a substantive and procedural nature. Though many of the issues at stake have been inherited from the GATT years, controversy nurtured by the language of the existing legal yardsticks has been a central element in the work of the Committee on Regional Trade Agreements (CRTA), since its establishment in 1996. As a result, the CRTA has been unable to deliver any assessment on the consistency of individual RTAs notified to the WTO with the corresponding provisions and has only partially fulfilled its transparency role.

This represents an important challenge for the WTO, in particular at a time when nearly all Members are engaged in RTAs or actively pursuing the regional road. Clearer and more coherent principles and guidelines are required to channel the growing level of Members' involvement in RTAs, and to harmonize trade policy-making at the multilateral and regional level.

The Seminar was designed to assist Members in shaping the conceptual framework for the Doha negotiations in this area. In particular, it aimed at raising awareness on the meaning and significance of RTAs for world trade; and on the impact of RTAsĺ market access provisions and trade regulatory functions. It also provided for an exchange of views about how better to ensure the coherence of regional and multilateral trade initiatives so as to minimize any distorting effects on international trade relations; and about how better to use the WTO institutional framework, in particular the CRTA, to achieve that aim.