6 December 2021
EUI Event Explores “Geneva Effect” on WTO Reform
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Member state representatives frequently accord different priorities to policy issues and to WTO reform areas than officials based in capitals – a phenomenon known as the “Geneva effect”.

Panelists discussed its impacts on reaching multilateral solutions at the WTO on policy issues and the Organization’s reform.

The European University Institute (EUI) organized an online session that sought to shed light on the question, ‘Why is WTO reform still a work in progress?’ The event convened as part of the virtual Trade and Sustainability Hub, hosted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

The 1 December discussion centered around a paper whose authors surveyed trade policy officials in an effort to determine, in the context of the World Trade Organization (WTO), “the extent to which representatives of member states and officials based in capitals agree on priorities for cooperation.”

Bernard Hoekman, EUI, – one of the co-authors of the paper – moderated the event.

The other co-author, Robert Wolfe, Queen’s University, introduced the study, explaining that member state representatives frequently accord different priorities to policy issues such as climate change and the SDGs and to WTO reform areas than officials based in capitals. This, he said, leads to the so-called “Geneva effect,” which they found to be less serious for officials representing Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries than those representing non-OECD countries. Some of the findings Wolfe highlighted include that: fisheries and agriculture are a bigger priority for Geneva-based delegated of OECD countries; and OECD officials attach higher priority to reforming industrial subsidies than non-OECD officials. Wolfe flagged that the Geneva effect may lead to fragmented negotiating effort where feasible compromises may be left on the table.

Alice Tipping, IISD, offered comments on the key findings, highlighting that:

  • Fisheries and agriculture are closer to domestic interests than other issues;
  • Geneva-based officials are often disconnected from national policy;
  • While capitals are increasingly using video links to participate in negotiations, there are things “you just can’t communicate if you’re not in person”; and
  • The Geneva effect is greater for Geneva-based delegates from non-OECD countries due to lesser capacity, resulting greater autonomy, as well as longer postings.

Tipping posed the question whether the Geneva effect leads to a narrowing or widening of gaps on desired outcomes. She said that while positions in Geneva have become entrenched, developed as well as developing countries feel their prioritization of issues has been “warped by WTO politics.” She warned, however, that extreme attachment to issues may make it more difficult to reach multilateral solutions, and said coalitions are key.

Mercedes Araoz Fernandez, Universidad del Pacifico, noted that conversations between Geneva-based officials and their capitals do not always occur as fast as they should, and agreed that relations in Geneva are important. She further noted that non-OECD delegates frequently represent their countries in all Geneva institutions, not just the WTO, and have to balance priorities. At the same time, Araoz Fernandez cautioned that coalitions have to be managed carefully as they may be used to advanced political interests when no alignment on substantive issues is found.

Hoekman expressed hope that the study might incentivize the WTO Secretariat to do similar work in a more systematic and consistent way over time. He said improved survey design could help determine the extent of impact non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have on members’ priorities, and address the role of coalitions in achieving compromise, among other issues.

In ensuing discussion, panelists highlighted, inter alia:

  • contending narratives of what trade policy should be about;
  • the importance of in-person meetings;
  • the need to support the Secretariat in building consensus;
  • the need “to burst the Geneva bubble” to understand what is happening in other fora; and
  • the importance of engaging with academics and the knowledge base.

The Trade and Sustainability Hub took place from 1-3 December 2021. It was timed to coincide with the WTO Twelfth Ministerial Conference, which has been postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions. [IISD Trade and Sustainability Hub] [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]

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