The World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference is annually attended by trade ministers from the organization’s 164 member states, and is the highest decision-making body under the WTO. Signed under the Marrakesh Agreement which established the WTO, the Ministerial Conference is due to meet at least once every two years. This year, the WTO hosted its 11th Ministerial Conference from December 10-13 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The topics up for discussion at MC11 included agriculture, fisheries subsidies, electronic commerce and micro, small and medium sized enterprises (MSMEs).
Commerce Minister Bradley Felix at the 11th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization.
In his capacity as Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister with responsibility for Commerce, Industry, Investment, Enterprise Development and Consumer Affairs, Bradley Felix represented Saint Lucia at MC11. Speaking at one of the sessions on December 11, the minister’s address focused on the importance of multilateralism to Saint Lucia and other Caribbean islands, and urged for impending negotiations to come to a definite consensus.
Given the unsteady economic environment the world over, many developed countries with stronger economies tend to want to pull out of multilateral trade agreements that afford some benefits to countries of weaker economies. According to the minister: “The multilateral trading system is confronted with rising sentiments especially among citizens of some advanced economies against economic globalization and integration.” He continued: “These sentiments, which some interpret as a backlash against multilateralism, are being amplified in the political arena, leading to a resurgence of nationalism.”
Such sentiments to leave multi-country trade agreements were the case when US President Donald Trump threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, as signed by Canada, Mexico and the USA.
For Saint Lucia, as a small island state, the creation and continuity of multilateral trade agreements is imperative. In relation to this, Minister Felix stated,“What is needed is not despair or retreat but to re-affirm and strengthen our commitment to multilateralism and the pivotal role of the WTO in our global governance framework and architecture.”
To illustrate the fragile and fickle nature of the Caribbean economy, take the example of the immense damage caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The entire island of Barbuda needed to be evacuated and was deemed unfit for living. In the case of Dominica being pummelled by Hurricane Maria, a hurricane impact assessment placed the loss to be over 200% of its GDP. According to the Commerce minister, “I believe the time has come for a systemic response from the WTO to assist members affected with such shocks . . . through a special dispensation and accommodation in the rules, to allow them policy space and the full flexibility of the multilateral trading system to reconstruct and to recover without contravention of their existing obligations.”
The minister made it abundantly clear that Saint Lucia is poised to support multilateralism as it is “the best option for small states” and helps to create a multilateral trading system that is responsive, inclusive and addresses the development imperatives and challenges of small, vulnerable economies such as our own.