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ECONOMY | 16-12-2017 12:17

Downbeat end to high-profile WTO summit

Traffic gridlock amid high security, controversial deportations and no EU-Mercosur trade deal reached.

This week’s high-profile World Trade Organisation conference in Buenos Aires ended on a downbeat note this week, with nations seemingly locked in bickering, no final EU-Mercosur free-trade agreement and focus drawn toward the government’s decision to deny grant credentials to civil society experts and journalists.

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo said he was disappointed by the lack of results. “We are disappointed. Despite our efforts, members failed to reach any significant agreements,” he said. “There is life after Buenos Aires,” said the president of the conference, former foreign minister Susana Malcorra. 

The ministerial-level meeting that wrapped up Wednesday in the capital addressed trade issues involving food and agriculture, e-commerce and fisheries subsidies. Yet it immediately got off to a sour note when US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer – a relatively low-level official considering the other high-profile figures in attendance – claimed Monday that the WTO is losing its focus on trade negotiations. The United States was long a top WTO advocate, but US President Donald Trump has scaled back US leadership in the trade body. 

On the sidelines, however, representatives from the European Union and the Mercosur did however announce they were close to concluding the long-awaited free-trade accord they’ve been negotiating onand- off for over two decades. It might be ready early next year, they said, despite the Argentine government having said the deal would be secured before the year’s end. 

The lack of a breakthrough denied President Mauricio Macri what some anticipated would be his major political achievement from the event. 


In his opening remarks Sunday at the first ever Ministerial Conference held in South America, Macri said Argentina looked to become “trustworthy, productive, sustainable and [to be] part of the world.” “We live in a time of profound global change. Argentina wants to contribute to dynamic (global) growth,” he said, declaring that the “the path forward is an open world.”

That rhetoric, however, wasn’t seen in the government’s approach to dozens of civil society representatives who were barred from attending the highprofile event despite having accreditation from the WTO. Some like Norwegian Petter Titland and British-Ecuadorean journalist Sally Burch were deported, sparking diplomatic rows and condemnations. 

A WTO spokesperson responded tersely that their organisation and the Argentine government have different perspectives on the matter and referred all questions to the Argentine government. Titland was eventually able to return to Buenos Aires after his deportation to Brazil, thanks to the intervention of the Norwegian Embassy. 

In total, some 60-plus experts were denied credentials by the government, one network of civil society organisations said. Argentina’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday it was assessing ‘case-by-case’ the entry of journalists and civil society representatives so long as they were able to provide a guarantor for good conduct, yet the disagreement cast a shadow over the event.

Anti-WTO protesters had vowed to demonstrate and protest against the event, but the government’s tight security operation – which saw many streets closed, sparking traffic gridlock in the capital, and the heavy deployment of security forces – managed to prevent problems. 


Some experts speculated that shift in the United States’ position had caused a kind of ‘aftershock’ at the meeting in BA, although Azevedo said no single reason could be attributed to the meeting’s lack of a major breakthrough. 

“There wasn’t a sole element. There were several situations. In most negotiations you can’t attribute success or failure in negotiations to one side,” he told reporters. However, the failure to strike any big deals in Buenos Aires and the lack of US leadership, which has left a power vacuum, highlighted uncertainty. 

“There’s an enormous diversity of interests. That’s where the WTO is under great risk of losing that leadership role in trade negotiations and being relegated to an organism with symbolic but no real power.,” said Mauricio Claveri, a Buenos Aires-based economic analyst who specialises in foreign trade.

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