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

regional trade agreements: BACKGROUND OBJECTIVES

14 November 2003
Seminar on Regional Trade Agreements and the WTO

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programme and presentations

An increasing number of WTO Members are embracing a trade policy strategy based on the promotion of free trade by targeting multiple fronts, working concurrently towards improving the regulatory framework of global trade through multilateral negotiations, and pursuing an ardent, albeit more conspicuous, agenda of negotiations of regional trade agreements (RTAs). By doing so, a patchwork of less-than-global trading agreements builds up.

RTAs can potentially hinder the objective of a coherent and transparent multilateral trading system (MTS) by discriminating against third parties, distorting trade flows, and by detracting limited resources from multilateral to regional and bilateral trade negotiations. As their number and scope expand to include complex regulatory trade provisions, trade in services and investment-based activity, the importance of improving the formal and substantive links between RTAs and the multilateral trading system (MTS) is becoming apparent. Even more so as no effective multilateral surveillance mechanism is in place to address those cases where RTAs may not be in line with the spirit of WTO fundamental principles; this may result in unbalances between the liberalization efforts being pursued regionally and multilaterally and increasingly generate tensions.

Ministers at Doha acknowledged this urgency and agreed that the promotion of trade liberalization and of economic development, in line with the MTS, should inform the current negotiations on RTA rules. Progress has been made towards enhancing the transparency of RTAs, which if endorsed would result in increased knowledge of the inter-relation between RTAs and the MTS. Meeting the challenges posed by the proliferation of RTAs, however, calls for Members to explore further the negotiating mandate and address longstanding systemic issues whose controversy has dominated much of the debate and impasse on RTAs in the GATT and WTO.

The Seminar was designed to assist Members in furthering discussion and thinking about how to best converge RTAs with the objectives of the multilateral trading system. It addressed four major questions:

  • To what extent do RTAs complement the MTS?

  • How effective are RTAs in promoting economic development and integration of developing countries into the global economy?

  • What are the effects of RTAs' trade regulatory functions on international trade relations?

  • How can RTAs convergence with the MTS be maximised and any distortive effects minimised?

The event was open to WTO Members and Observers and it included as guest speakers senior academics and representatives from institutions.