WTO Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations — a push to complete negotiations by July



Terrence P. Stewart | Current Thoughts on Trade

Following a series of “informal” Heads of Delegation meetings over the last two weeks on the fisheries subsidies negotiations, the Chair of Negotiating Group on Rules, Amb. Santiago Wills of Colombia, and the WTO’s Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala are pushing WTO Members to conclude the negotiations by July with an anticipated virtual Ministerial meeting in July to hopefully resolve remaining issues. See WTO press release, Ministerial meeting eyed for July as fisheries subsidies negotiations enter final phase, 21 April 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/fish_21apr21_e.htm; Speeches — DG Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Negotiating Group on Rules — fisheries subsidies: Informal open-ended meeting at heads of delegation level, 21 April 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/spno_e/spno8_e.htm; Negotiations on Fisheries Subsidies, Summary of statement of Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, Negotiating Group on Rules chair, at meeting on fisheries subsidies, 21 April 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/fish_21apr21a_e.htm.

The Fisheries Subsidies negotiations have dragged on for twenty years and typify the breakdown in the WTO’s negotiating function. The Director-General and many commentators have emphasized the critical need to conclude a fisheries subsidies agreement to show the WTO can still perform and address important trade issues. Stopping the overfishing that is threatening the sustainability of fishing around the globe is also an important UN Sustainable Development Goal (14.6).

The challenge for the WTO Members is actually achieving a meaningful agreement. While there is “progress” identified by the Chair’s summary statement on April 21st, his description of open issues in just three areas suggests the talks remain mired in division among those wanting meaningful reform and those seeking to largely escape modification to existing practices. The summary of Amb. WIlls statement is copied below.

“As you know, at the start of last week’s meetings at the level of heads of delegations, Dr Ngozi had called on members to engage intensively with a view to close the fisheries subsidies negotiations by July. I found the week-long meetings, which amounted to nine sessions totalling 27 hours, to be constructive overall. At this high level of discussions, we saw flexibility and genuine attempts to compromise. And as we enter the final phase of the negotiations, we will need members’ political will to make tough calls, first at the heads of delegation level here in Geneva, and then at a Ministerial engagement which we envisage for some point before the summer break, in virtual format.

“Turning first to the meetings that we held last week: I organized the discussions at the level of heads of delegations on three key issues where we seem to have exhausted the technical discussions and needed higher-level attention to make progress on finding convergence. These issues were:

“- A possible exemption for subsidies to subsistence, artisanal, or small-scale fishing;

“- Due process requirements for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing determinations; and

“- The approach to the overcapacity and overfishing prohibition.

“In many ways, the approach to the overcapacity and overfishing disciplines — the third issue I mentioned — is at the heart of our negotiations. I think last week’s discussions brought us a step closer to reaching convergence on this pillar.

“Let me be more specific. The discussions on overfishing and overcapacity focused on the structure that is now found in the draft consolidated document, what we call the ‘hybrid’ approach. In doing so, views were exchanged on the list of subsidies that would be presumptively prohibited under this pillar.

“In addition, members discussed a paragraph that provides for a sustainability-based flexibility, so a member may grant or maintain subsidies under the overfishing pillar if it demonstrates implementation of measures for the sustainability of fish stocks. Some members suggested notification procedures to deal with this required demonstration. There were additional suggestions to make this article more acceptable such as limiting this provision to a geographical area, for a particular period and/or  designing a technical assistance and capacity building mechanism to help developing members build enough data to apply the sustainability standards proposed in the draft text.

“Delegations’ views on how to advance our textual work on this key element of the disciplines still differ in certain respects. However, some members showed flexibility to consider outcomes they could live with, not necessarily the one they prefer. Most importantly, I am very happy that instead of only pointing to perceived shortfalls in the current text or in the views of other members, some constructive suggestions for bridging the gaps were made.

“As for discussions on a possible exemption for subsidies to subsistence, artisanal, or small-scale fishing: I detected a genuine step forward in the willingness of some members to consider a formulation different to that of their own preference. However, there are still some difficult and interlinked issues under the topic of subsistence, artisanal or small-scale fishing; and all of them have to be weighed carefully as we further explore possibilities for an outcome on this issue that could be agreed by members.

“On due process requirements for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing determinations: My own take-away from these exchanges was that members seem to have common concerns but with different views on how we approach them, and in fact ultimately there were some new suggestions made in the room that attracted a certain amount of interest. So that was a positive dynamic.

“In addition, an April 8 meeting on the prohibition of subsidies to overfished stocks made it clear that we will all need to reflect more on how to coherently address the issue of overfished stocks in the overall context of the disciplines.

“Turning now to the process going forward: I have briefed Dr Ngozi on the outcome of last week’s cluster and we have been brainstorming on next steps to achieve a conclusion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations by July.

“For one, reaching an outcome this summer means that we will need higher-level, capital-based decision-making soon. In particular, we envisage Ministerial engagement at some point before the summer break, which starts three months from now. Dr Ngozi, in her statement to members this morning, elaborated that this means that we will be asking Ministers to meet virtually in July with a focus on fisheries subsidies and possibly one or two other topics. The aim of that meeting will be for Ministers to review a very advanced, hopefully final, text.

“It will be important, in the near future, to capture in a new, or revised text the progress that we have made since our current text was issued (that we should recall was December last year), and aiming at possible middle-ground points on outstanding issues. I have been hearing this call from many members. This next text will be important, as it will cover five months of our work and as it will form the basis of our work toward the cleaner text for Ministers to consider.

“I also plan to engage with heads of delegations in various configurations and groupings soon and non-stop until the finish line.

“Dr Ngozi told members that final hurdles now need to be dealt with at the political level, including by heads of delegations in Geneva. ‘Our job is to protect the fish and to protect the many millions of fisher men and women who directly depend on the fish,’ she said.

“I could not agree more that time is running out and we must make our work count and make concrete progress.”

During the first twenty-five years of the WTO’s existence, a lesson repeatedly learned is that bringing ministers together prematurely does not advance resolution of negotiations. Amb. Wills statement and the statement of the Director-General understand the need to get to a near final text with a minimum of brackets before the virtual meeting of Ministers. The understood risk is that the snail’s pace of progress in the negotiations will leave ministers with too many issues to resolve. While DG Okonjo-Iweala is doing outreach to ministers and hearing support for concluding the talks, the limited progress in Geneva to date suggests major challenges in the coming months. Should there be a failure to make sufficient progress, it would be better to postpone the virtual meeting. The Director-General’s statement is copied below.

“Thank you, Santiago, and good morning excellencies and colleagues. That was a very informative report and I am glad to hear that there was constructive engagement by all of you Heads of Delegation at last week’s meetings. I had promised last week that you would see me again soon, and now that you have finished your cluster of meetings, I thought it would be a good idea to join you today and share some further reflections on how I see this process unfolding over the next months. For now, I would like to emphasize three key points.

“1. First, when Santiago says “Ministerial engagement” this means that we will be asking Ministers to meet virtually in July with a focus on fisheries subsidies and possibly one or two other topics. The aim of that meeting will be for Ministers to review a very advanced, hopefully final, text.

‘2. This brings me to my second point, the text. We have to present to Ministers a text that is complete and clean enough for them to constructively engage and take decisions. Thus, options and brackets will need to be very few. We must have closure in July.

“That means that our work here in Geneva over the next three months is truly critical. While clusters of meetings have served their purpose at the technical level, now we really need to pick up the pace, and engage in text-based negotiations that get us to compromise landing zones on all of the outstanding issues. To achieve this result, consultations will be convened frequently and in whatever configuration is necessary depending on the topic. I have told Santiago that I’ve rolled up my sleeves and I am ready to work any time whenever he thinks he needs my involvement. So I will be joining some of these meetings and possibly convening some of my own. The aim of such meetings and consultations will be to deepen the clarity on key issues and views, as we continue to work through issues and seek to identify possible landing zones. Please be assured that the principles of transparency and inclusiveness will be respected, and that no decisions will be taken behind closed doors, as Santiago has said, and I want to repeat it again because this is how we’ll build that trust that we need to get us through the finish line. While no delegation would be invited to every meeting, all voices will be consulted and heard, and Santiago will continue to report on all of these activities. My message here is that to succeed, we must all remain flexible, and continue to support the Chair as he guides the work toward an outcome. I also want to use this opportunity to thank Clarisse and the team from the Secretariat for their continued and able support to the Chair. We must also prioritize these negotiations over these few months, including late nights and weekends if needed. As you know, this is what it usually takes in the final stage of negotiations and I’m really strongly appealing that we prepare to roll up our sleeves to get there.

“3. And that brings me to my final point — your engagement as heads of delegations. It’s really time for you to take the reins. Last week showed that you are ready to take the lead in the negotiations. Your delegates have been working hard on these negotiations for many years, and collectively have brought us to this final phase. This is really a major achievement that needs to be recognized and we are very very grateful and thankful to your delegates for the way that they have brought us so far. It is, however, only natural that the final hurdles now need to be dealt with at the political level, and that’s by you. Therefore, all Heads of Delegation — I can’t say it often enough — should be ready to roll up your sleeves to work. If your delegates have not yet fully briefed you on all of the issues, please make sure that they do so. I can tell you that Santiago and I meet constantly to see how we can advance this. And please also maintain contact with your capitals to continually refresh your instructions as we move toward what all Members can live with. So many Ministers that I have talked with, literally two or three ministers practically every week either in person physically with proper social distancing or by Zoom, and all of them are really keen. I noticed a new spirit and I’m really happy they are keen to get this done. Yesterday, I was with the Trade Minister of Spain and we spent a lot of time on fisheries and I think it was a very good conversation. So that’s why I want to say reiterating well-known positions in lengthy statements will not serve. Please just leave your scripts outside the room and come in with open ears to listen to each other and then to exchange concrete ideas about how you could bridge your differences. This is the only way we can have an outcome by July.

“So those are the three specific points I wanted to make. Before I hand the floor back to Santiago, I would like to emphasize one more thing. Wherever I go and whoever I interact with, I recall the preamble to the WTO Agreement, and the mandate of these negotiations. People, jobs, sustainability, livelihoods — these are the words that jump out at me from the preamble every time. To me, our job is to protect the fish and to protect the many millions of fisher men and women who directly depend on the fish. These two are not mutually exclusive — protecting one does not necessarily compete with protecting the other. In fact, fishing sustainably makes socio-economic sense. If there are no more fish in the sea, then the source of food security and livelihood, that was so talked about in the Marrakesh preamble, of those who depend on the fish also will be gone. I say all of this to remind us, as we engage over these next few months, of why we are here, doing this particular work. If we present to Ministers a text that meets that overall objective, then we will have done our job. On the other hand, if the focus over the next few months is to find ways to exclude ourselves from these responsibilities, then we will not be able to deliver on our mandate. And that is not really an option. Ladies and gentlemen, it is not.

“With that, I would like to thank Santiago for inviting me to join you today. I would like to thank you and your delegates for the wonderful work that you are doing and for listening. I remain committed to reaching a meaningful outcome soon and I am sure that if we all put in the hard work needed, we will get there in July. I really want to end on this optimistic note. I believe we can do it. I just see light at the end of this tunnel. So let’s just push a little bit more. Thank you.

“I will leave you now and come back to you, and I wish you continued progress in the coming days. We’ll talk soon.”

Extraordinary lack of transparency for the public in the fisheries negotiations

In prior posts I have reviewed progress in the fisheries negotiations and the extraordinary lack of transparency in terms of proposals from parties and in the draft text and various revisions. See, e.g., December 16, 2020, The fisheries subsidies negotiations – U.S. comments from December 2 meeting add clarity to the inability to achieve an agreement and the lack of “like-mindedness” among Members, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/12/16/the-fisheries-subsidies-negotiations-u-s-comments-from-december-2-meeting-add-clarity-to-the-inability-to-achieve-an-agreement-and-the-lack-of-like-mindedness-among-members/; December 15, 2020, The fisheries subsidies negotiations – failure by WTO Members to deliver an agreement by the end of 2020, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/12/15/the-fisheries-subsidies-negotiations-failure-by-wto-members-to-deliver-an-agreement-by-the-end-of-2020/; November 5, 2020, Revision to draft fisheries subsidies text presented by Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules at November 2 informal open-ended meeting, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/05/revision-to-draft-fisheries-subsidies-text-presented-by-chair-of-the-negotiating-group-on-rules-at-november-2-informal-open-ended-meeting/; June 29, 2020, Update on fisheries subsidies draft consolidated text from June 25, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/29/update-on-fisheries-subsidies-draft-consolidated-text-from-june-25/; June 27, 2020, Chair of Rules Negotiating Group releases draft consolidated fisheries subsidies text at informal meeting on June 25, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/06/27/chair-of-rules-negotiating-group-releases-draft-consolidated-fisheries-subsidies-text-at-informal-meeting-on-june-25/. While the draft texts have been circulated as room documents (and hence not released publicly), to date the drafts have been leaked by various sources, so over time one can find the draft texts if one spends the effort. However, my analysis of the retreat from transparency is troubling and is being replicated in many other areas at the WTO. Here is what I wrote in June 2020 in the June 27 post relevant to the lack of transparency:

“However, with the restrictions on travel in many parts of the world and with restrictions on in-person meetings at the WTO beginning in March of this year because of the efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19, there has been a lack of forward movement on the fisheries subsidies negotiations. Specifically, the 12th WTO Ministerial was postponed from June 2020 to an unspecified time in 2021, and WTO Members could not agree to conduct negotiations without face-to-face meetings. While this inability to negotiate affected all areas of WTO work and negotiations, it called into question whether the WTO Members would be able to deliver the one aspect of the UN Sustainable Development Goals that was in the WTO’s area of competence and expertise.

“Now that face-to-face meetings can occur at the WTO and as Members are gaining experience with virtual meetings, the Chair of the Negotiating Group on Rules (fisheries subsidies), Amb. Santiago Wills of Colombia, held an informal meeting of the heads of delegations and presented both a draft consolidated text and provided extensive introductory remarks. While there is a short press release from the WTO on the meeting, the two documents shared with Members are not publicly available as they were labeled as room documents, despite similar statements and draft text having routinely been released publicly both in the fisheries subsidies negotiations previously but also generally in all multilateral negotiations at the WTO over the last 25 years The press release is titled “Fisheries subsidies negotiations chair introduces draft consolidated text to WTO members,” is dated June 25 (date of the meeting) and can be found here, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/fish_25jun20_e.htm. The draft consolidated text is apparently six pages in length and is in a document coded RD/TN/RL126. The lengthy introductory remarks by the Chair are supposedly twelve pages in length and are in a document coded RD/TN/RL/126/Add.1 (Chair’s Introductory Remarks at HoD Meeting on June 25, 2020). The listing of some of the room documents in the Rules negotiating area that include the two documents from June 25, 2020 is embedded below.