Home / News / World /  WTO strikes deal after negotiations go down to the wire

After negotiations spilled over to the sixth day, 164 countries of the World Trade Organisation finally sealed a package deal in the wee hours on Friday in Geneva with India leading the course.

In a first major agreement in nine years, the deal includes six major issues of importance for developing countries including food security, balanced outcome fisheries subsidies, response to pandemic, and patents waiver on Covid-19 vaccines.

The deal survived last minute hiccups on Thursday night that threatened to derail an outcome on fisheries and TRIPS waiver.

“At last, we delivered! A successful WTO MC12 with 6 plus solid deliverables…" WTO director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tweeted on Friday after the MC12 outcome in the form of a Geneva package.

The deal that tested commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal’s negotiation skills saw several trade-offs between developed and developing countries during the two nights of marathon talks, going well past the Thursday afternoon deadline.

“There is a good outcome on the issues that were long pending," Goyal said, adding that India completely protected the interests of fishermen and farmers. “All in all, it is a good package. Today there is no issue on which we have to be concerned, whether it is related to agriculture such as MSP (minimum support price), reinforcing the relevance of the public stockholding programme towards fulfilling the national food safety programme or PM Garib Kalyan Scheme, TRIPS waiver, e-commerce moratorium, response to covid and fisheries," Goyal said after the deal. “

India defended its right to extend subsidies to Indian fishermen, with contentious clauses removed from the text at the last minute. In turn, India agreed to an 18-month extension of the moratorium on customs duty on electronic imports that it argues favours rich nations. However, subsides on overfishing, deep sea fishing; and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing has been addressed through the proposed pact.

“On India’s insistence, sovereign sights on EEZ (exclusive economic zones) have been firmly established. It is a really big achievement," said Goyal, adding that principal stakeholders who have benefited from these “historic decisions" taken by the 12th Ministerial Conference of the WTO are fishermen, farmers, food security, multilateralism, and trade and business, particularly digital economy and MSMEs.

The patents waiver and fisheries deal nearly fell through due to last minute hurdles and objections by a group of countries. While the UK kept the patents waiver deal on hold for five hours, waiting for an approval from its capital, the US and China took a few more hours to resolve the eligibility condition language under the pact. The fisheries agreement nearly slipped through after the African, Caribbean, and Pacific states (ACP) demanded a stronger deal, seeking re-inclusion of the removed portions that mandated curbs on subsidies contributing to overfishing and overcapcacity.

India’s key demand for a permanent solution on public stockholding of foodgrains will now be taken up only in the next ministerial meeting.

The deal on patent waiver on covid-19 vaccines will allow India and other eligible developing countries to manufacture and export vaccines without the

requirement of a seeking permission from the original maker and also export that to other needy countries for a period of five years. New Delhi believes it will help its companies set up more manufacturing plants in several countries.

According to people aware of the developments, as talks broke down on Wednesday, India took up the facilitator’s role and reached out to several countries, including the US and South Africa, to work out deliverables. Goyal held a slew of bilateral and small group meetings to try and get all countries on board just when the talks looked deadlocked.

According to the fisheries text the two contentious clauses that proposed a ban on overfishing subsidies within seven years have been struck off. India was seeking a transition period of 25 years instead of seven years to withdraw such support.

The current deal will only cover the elimination of harmful subsidies to stop illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities.

In the final leg, India clearly outlined that it would agree to extend the moratorium on customs duty on digital imports if the “ultimate package of MC12" favoured the interest of India and developing nations.

The agreement says that the current moratorium on customs duty on digital imports will continue till 31 December 2023. So far, the moratorium has been extended every two years since 1998, preventing countries from imposing any tariffs on digital or electronic imports or transmissions.

However, India has limited the extension to only one-and-a-half years this time. “Should the ministerial conference 13 be delayed beyond 31 March 2024, the moratorium will expire on that date unless ministers or the general council take a decision to extend," read the text.

In agriculture, India has agreed to place no export restrictions on procurement by the UN World Food Programme on the condition that it will have the flexibility to restrict it if there’s a domestic food security need. India’s other demand for allowing exports from its public stockholdings to countries in need on a government-to-government basis will be discussed along with other agriculture issues in the next ministerial conference.

The last time the WTO took a major trade decision was back in 2013, when it agreed to a trade facilitation agreement.


Dilasha Seth

" Dilasha Seth is a journalist reporting on macroeconomic policy for the last 11 years. She writes extensively on issues including international trade, macroeconomic data, fiscal policy, and taxation. At Mint, she reports on trade deals that India is signing besides key policy decisions of the Ministry of Finance. She closely tracked and covered the transition to the goods and services tax (GST) regime in 2017 and also writes on direct tax-related issues. In the past, she has worked with Business Standard and The Economic Times. She is based in Bangalore."
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