The World Trade Organization extended its negotiations by a day on Wednesday amid growing doubts it could find consensus on any change to global trade rules and India adamant it would not yield on food, fisheries and vaccines.
During the WTO’s ministerial conference this week, its first major meeting in over four years, the 164-member body is seeking to agree on a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a reduction of fishing subsidies, pledges on food security and the launch of internal reform.
The WTO said negotiations had made significant progress and that it was not far from agreements on many topics. A spokesperson described it as “hopeful” of successful outcomes by Thursday.
Pakistan Commerce Minister Syed Naveed Qamar was less upbeat.
“We think we are going towards a no-ministerial ministry,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of the meeting on Wednesday, when the meeting had been due to end.
The WTO takes decisions by consensus, so just one objection can sink a deal.
WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told the more than 100 ministers present that time was running out and that they should “go the extra mile”.
Delegates said India, which has a history of blocking multilateral trade deals, appeared far from ready to compromise. That view was supported by comments Indian Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal made in closed sessions and which New Delhi chose to publish.
India and South Africa and other developing countries have sought a waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccines, treatments and diagnostics for over a year, but faced opposition from several developed nations with major pharmaceutical producers.
A provisional deal between major parties – India, South Africa, the United States and the European Union – emerged in May, but drew criticism from campaign groups that it fell short of what is needed.
Activists staged a “die-in” protest at the WTO building on Wednesday, pretending to drop dead to the floor to highlight the deaths they say is caused by the absence of an intellectual property waiver.
Goyal echoed that view.
“My own sense is that what we are getting is completely half baked and it will not allow us to make any vaccines,” he said.
The WTO has also pushed hard for a global deal to cut fishing subsidies, which would be only the second multilateral agreement since its creation 27 years ago and a demonstration of its relevance in an era of growing trade tensions.
Goyal, in comments to delegates, said India was a strong advocate for sustainability, but its fishing industry did not operate huge fleets and relied on small-scale and often poor fishers.
The minister said India and similar countries should be granted a 25-year transition period to phase out fishing subsidies, far longer than what most other WTO members have suggested.
“It’s not yet clear though that there is a deal to be had…. with the Indians throwing in even more objections to texts, ”one diplomat close to the talks said.
However, civil society groups said it was rich nations, with inflexibility towards the needs of the developing world, that were responsible for the impasse.