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WTO talks run deep into overtime with no breakthrough in sight

So far, no new deals have been agreed and even the formal acceptance of completed negotiations on improving investment was blocked at an organisation where all 164 members must agree by consensus

World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiators released new draft deals on Friday (1 March) after all-night talks in Abu Dhabi showing that several key issues remained unresolved, while a deadline to reach agreement was delayed for a third time.

The biennial conference is seeking to revise global commerce rules on a range of topics including curbing fishing subsidies and extending a moratorium on digital trade tariffs – a move that has overwhelming government and business support but that India and South Africa oppose.

So far, no new deals have been agreed and even the formal acceptance of completed negotiations on improving investment was blocked at an organisation where all 164 members must agree by consensus. However, all of the issues are seen as linked and one breakthrough could lead countries to drop opposition to other deals, as happened at the Geneva conference in 2022.

“Not great,” said one WTO ambassador, summarising the current state of negotiations. A document circulated by the WTO said that “time is running out” and announced the closing ceremony at 5pm local time (1300 GMT). “It is everyone’s hope that this postponement allows reaching agreement,” it said.

Spokesperson Ismaila Dieng said discussions were “intensive and difficult”.

A successful deal is seen as important to the United Arab Emirates which hosted the COP28 climate summit last year and would like to come away with a win.

Its foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi ruling family, announced a US$10 million grant to support WTO initiatives ahead of the meeting.

Delegates were seen scuttling with coffee cups into meetings rooms where media access is restricted, while others were heads down poring over documents or typing urgently on mobile phones. One mimed pulling the pin out of a hand grenade.

A draft agriculture agreement showed that a key reform sought by India on permitted government support levels for farmers was still not agreed, with two alternative solutions sitting side by side.

A fisheries text showed that forced labour issues – an important topic for the United States – and the duration of phase-in periods for developing countries seen as key for many African countries were not yet decided.

It remained unclear if concerns voiced by Pacific islands seeking a more ambitious deal had been addressed.
One trade delegate involved in the fisheries talks said the remaining issues could be surmounted while another described them as “huge”.

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