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


Key stages in the negotiations

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From Doha to Cancun   back to top

In view of the relatively detailed Negotiating Guidelines of March 2001, the Doha Ministerial Declaration essentially confined itself to endorsing the Guidelines and bringing services under the wider framework of the Doha Development Agenda. The Doha Declaration introduced target dates for the circulation of initial requests (30 June 2002) and initial offers (31 March 2003) of specific commitments and envisaged all negotiations, which form part of a single undertaking, to be concluded not later than 1 January 2005.

The Cancun Ministerial Meeting in early September 2003, however, failed to make progress. The concluding statement reaffirmed the Doha Declaration and Decisions and recommitted members “to working to implement them fully and faithfully". Reflecting the lack of political impetus, the request-and-offer process in services virtually ground to a halt in the wake of Cancun.


“July 2004 Package” in the aftermath of Cancun   back to top

It was not until mid-2004 that the so-called July 2004 Package (Doha Work Programme — Decision adopted by the General Council on 1 August 2004) injected new momentum into the negotiations. With regard to services, the July Package contained a target date of May 2005 for the submission of revised offers and adopted a set of recommendations that had been agreed before by the Council for Trade in Services (Special Session). These included recommendations for:

  • members that had not yet submitted initial offers to do so as soon as possible
  • ensuring a high quality of offers, in particular in sectors and modes of export interest to developing countries, with special attention being given to least-developed countries (LDCs)
  • intensifying efforts to conclude the rule-making negotiations under Articles VI.4, X, XIII and XV in accordance with their mandates and deadlines
  • providing “targeted” technical assistance to developing countries with a view to enabling them to participate effectively.>


Annex C and the Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration   back to top

The Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration of December 2005 reaffirmed key principles and objectives of the services negotiations and called on members to intensify the negotiations in accordance with the objectives, approaches and timelines set out in Annex C to the Declaration with a view to expanding sectoral and modal coverage of commitments and improving their quality, with particular attention to export interests of developing countries. The Ministerial Declaration also established that LDCs are not expected to undertake new commitments in this Round.

Annex C contained a more detailed and ambitious set of negotiating objectives to guide members than any previous such document. While ensuring appropriate flexibility for individual developing country members, it established a framework for:

  • offering new or improved commitments under each mode of supply
  • treating most-favoured nation (MFN) exemptions
  • the scheduling and classification of commitments.

Among other things, the Annex also urged members to intensify their efforts to conclude the rule-making negotiations, develop text for adoption on disciplines on domestic regulation, and devise methods for the full and effective implementation of the Modalities for the Special Treatment of Least-Developed Country Members. With respect to negotiating approaches, Annex C envisaged that the request-offer negotiations also be pursued on a plurilateral basis and provides guidelines for the conduct of these negotiations.


Plurilateral negotiations   back to top

Under plurilateral negotiations, a group of members with a common interest make a joint request to individual members to improve specific commitments in a particular sector or mode of supply. Subsequently, they meet collectively with the countries that have received this request. It is up to each member to respond individually to the collective request.

Two rounds of plurilateral negotiations were conducted in early 2006, based on 21 collective requests that were formulated mostly along sector lines. The feedback from the informal negotiating groups dealing with these requests was positive.

Each group was initiated by a dozen or more members with common negotiating interests. The groups invited other members to discuss and consider these interests which were normally couched in the form of a common request.

The results of the plurilateral negotiations, as well as additional bilateral meetings, were expected to be reflected in a second round of revised offers. While Annex C provided a timeline of 31 July 2006 for the submission of these offers, all negotiations under the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) were suspended just one week earlier, due mostly to a stalemate over agricultural and non-agricultural market access (NAMA).

It was not until February 2007 that the time seemed ripe for a full resumption of the negotiations. As before, meetings in services were organized mostly in the form of clusters so as to afford experts from capitals an opportunity, every three or four months, not only to attend relevant Council and Committee meetings but to organize bilateral and plurilateral encounters in order to explore the scope for and content of improved offers. After several such clusters, there was a prevailing sentiment that the ‘plurilaterals’ had served their purpose for the time being.


Signalling Conference and elements for the conclusion of the negotiations  back to top

While continuing with bilateral encounters, members have also been discussing the elements that will guide the services negotiations to completion within the overall context of the Doha Development Agenda. In this connection, the Chair of the services negotiations (Council for Trade in Services in Special Session) issued on 26 May 2008 a report with a draft services text that WTO members, after further discussion, could adopt. The draft, which was based on consultations conducted by the Chair, addressed issues such as participants' level of ambition, their willingness to bind existing and improved levels of market access and national treatment, as well as specific reference to Modes 1 and 4 with respect to the treatment of sectors and modes of supply of export interest to developing countries.

On a parallel track, the Chair of the Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC), at the request of WTO members, convened a “signalling conference” for interested ministers as part of the “July 2008” package. At the signalling conference, participating ministers indicated how their governments' current services offers might be improved in response to the requests they had received. The signals were not intended to represent the final outcome of the services negotiations but enabled members to assess the progress made in the request-offer negotiations while preparing new draft schedules for submission. Subsequently, the TNC Chair reported on the conference.


March 2010 stocktaking exercise  back to top

Progress was limited following the failure to conclude agriculture and non-agricultural market access (NAMA) modalities in the July 2008 package.  The remaining gaps were reflected in the stocktaking report by the Chairman of the Council for Trade in Services in Special Session to the Trade Negotiations Committee.


Intensification of negotiations in 2011   back to top

As with other areas under the Doha Development Agenda, the services negotiations entered into an intensified phase at the beginning of 2011. 

In April 2011, the Chairman of the Council for Trade in Services submitted a report to the Trade Negotiations Committee on the achievements and remaining gaps in all four areas of the services negotiations: market access; domestic regulation; GATS rules; and the implementation of LDC modalities


Adoption of an LDC waiver by the 2011 Ministerial Conference back to top

In December 2011, the WTO Ministerial Conference adopted a waiver which allows WTO members to deviate from their most-favoured nation obligation of non-discrimination in order to provide preferential treatment to services and service suppliers from least-developed countries (LDCs). Of the 155 WTO members, 32 are LDCs who stand to benefit from preferential treatment designed to promote their trade in those sectors and modes of supply that are of particular export interest to them.